Anyone hoping for a Leon Panetta-style “get to the damn table” moment last night, when former Middle East peace envoy George Mitchell spoke at a forum hosted by The Atlantic (video below), came away sorely disappointed. Mitchell, a judge, diplomat, and former Senate majority leader, is too cool for that kind of outburst, and moreover seems more sad than angry about his failure to move the Israelis and the Palestinians toward peace for President Obama as he had resolved Northern Ireland for President Clinton.
The closest Mitchell came to making news was on the subject of Iran, about which he told moderator Jeffrey Goldberg, a Tablet Magazine contributing editor who has reported extensively on this question, that there is not yet a sufficient case to be made for bombing. “One thing we’ve found in recent years that is true historically is that it’s awfully easy to get into wars, and very hard to get out of them,” Mitchell said. “If you think that they are unstable enough to launch a possible first nuclear strike on Israel, you certainly have to believe that they would launch a massive missile attack, if they themselves were attacked, in retaliation.”
Fair enough. But Mitchell now speaks as a private citizen, not on behalf of his former employers—a fact that gave the entire proceeding a certain weightlessness common to the endless, earnest caravan of Middle East seminars and fora hosted week in and week out in Washington. This one, held at the Atlantic’s headquarters at the Watergate, was distinguished by the presence of Danny Abraham, the billionaire inventor of Slim-Fast who has put the proceeds of America’s diet craze into a center devoted to Middle East peace headed by former Florida Democratic Rep. Robert Wexler, a key Obama Middle East/Jewish surrogate. (The S. Daniel Abraham Center has published a Special Report on the Atlantic‘s Website titled, “Is Peace Possible?”) Organizers said representatives from the State Department, the Israeli embassy, and the Palestinian Authority were also present, but they were indistinguishable amid the regulars—journalists, analysts, former diplomats, Hill staffers—who came and solemnly listened as Mitchell explained that however dim the prospects for peace seem, it’s worth our efforts to keep at it for the sake of everyone involved.
What Mitchell did not do was take any real responsibility for failure. That he rather laid on the shoulders of the parties—and perhaps more the Palestinians than the Israelis, for their histrionics on the question of the settlement freeze. “The real mistake that we made, and for which we bear responsibility, is that we did not make clear that the proposal was one in isolation to the Israelis, as opposed to in the context of requests made to all three parties,” Mitchell said of Israel’s 10-month freeze of settlements in the West Bank toward the beginning of the Obama Administration. “We did not make clear as we should have that none of those were preconditions to negotiations, but were, in fact, an effort to establish a context in which negotiations could occur and have a reasonable expectation for success.”
In the question-and-answer period, someone asked Mitchell why he left the region last spring instead of sticking it out longer, as he had in Northern Ireland. Mitchell laughed and said he gave the Levant less time precisely because he had spent so long in the Emerald Isle. “I said to the president, ‘I can’t do five years here, and I can’t commit to you even a full presidential term,’ ” Mitchell said. “He said to me, ‘What would you do?’ I said, ‘Two years, and we’ll see what happens.’ And I stayed two and a half years.” And, he didn’t add, we’re still waiting to see what happens.