The headline on the home page of the New York Times -- "U.S. Mideast Envoy Resigns After 2 Years of Frustration" -- says it all. George Mitchell's departing note to the president is curt:
When I accepted your request to serve as U.S. Special Envoy for Middle East Peace my intention was to serve for two years. More than two years having passed I hereby resign, effective May 20, 2011. I trust this will provide sufficient time for an effective transition.
I strongly support your vision of comprehensive peace in the Middle East and thank you for giving me the opportunity to be part of your administration. It has been an honor for me to again serve our country.
What's amazing is not Mitchell resigned, but that he hung in there so long. As my colleague Josh Rogin reports, Mitchell has long been marginalized: The Israelis weren't interested in meeting him, and his own ostensible colleague in the White House, longtime peace-processor Dennis Ross, developed his back channel to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. (In typical fashion, Israel and Palestinian officials took the opportunity to blame each other for Mitchell's failure.)
This is usually the point in an article about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict where the author offers up an alternative strategy for advancing peace, but unfortunately I don't have one. The peace process has long been a charade -- a cowardly game of inches and incrementalism -- because none of the three parties to the dispute dares take any political risks. Most Israelis seem happy with the status quo, and the settlers' bloc has expanded to the point where its power may be impossible to check. Bibi Netanyahu has written an entire, tedious book explaining why he doesn't believe in a two-state solution, and takes every opportunity to exploit to the other side's obstructionism, divisions, and weakness. The Palestinian Authority is led by Mahmoud Abbas, a dumpy, charmless Fatah party functionary who has international support but close to zero street legitimacy; Hamas controls Gaza and has yet to admit the abject failure of its violent strategy. The Israeli and Palestinian publics still have vastly different expectations on sensitive issues like Jerusalem and the right of return, and the current political leadership on both sides has made no effort to prepare the ground for concessions. Peace seems as far away as ever.
The one bright spot is Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, who has put his head down and built functioning institutions to the point where one of the many arguments made in favor of the Israeli occupation -- that Palestinians just aren't ready to run their own country -- is no longer so credible. But Fayyad is not popular domestically, either, and he may become a casualty of the recent Fatah-Hamas unity deal, a move that would spook the international donors that would keep any nascent Palestinian state afloat. The U.S. Congress is already making rumblings about cutting off aid.
All of this comes months ahead of Abbas's September deadline for declaring independence, a move that will put him in direct disagreement with the United States just as the 2012 campaign begins to hit up. European countries have signaled quietly that they might break with Washington and recognize Palestine, and frankly at this point I think many Americans would welcome the idea, because nothing else seems to work. Barack Obama will likely give a speech in August signaling his "deep commitment" to Middle East peace, but there is no chance whatsover that he'll make any bold or creative moves in election season. According to Yahoo's Laura Rozen, he's not even planning to raise the Arab-Israeli issue during next Thursday's big speech on the Middle East.
So the floor will be clear for Netanyahu, who meets with Obama next week and is due to address Congress on Tuesday, May 24. If past is prologue, we can expect Bibi to bamboozle: offer just enough movement to seem reasonable but not enough to actually induce the Palestinians to return to the negotiating table. And why not? There's very little pressure on him domestically to cut a deal, and he knows that little pressure will be forthcoming from Washington, especially given the risk that one Hamas leader or another will pop off and say something crazy.
Perhaps the abject failure of U.S. peacemaking efforts to date will encourage other folks -- I'm looking at you, Nabil El-Araby -- to come forward with creative solutions. But I wouldn't bet more than a few sheckels on it.
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