President Obama Sets the Right Tone with George Mitchell as Mideast Envoy

By appointing Senator George Mitchell as his Middle East envoy, President Barack Obama signaled that his administration will attempt to take an even-handed approach as mediator and is serious about achieving a peace deal which addresses the needs of all sidesa notably different tone than that set by the appointments of previous Middle East envoys such as Dennis Ross.

The appointment shows a break from a foreign policy based on the concept that political disputes can be bombed into submission and a subtle refutation of the view that populations can suffer a humanitarian crisis because of their choice at the ballot box. Much has been said about Mitchells negotiating skills; he negotiated an end to the thorny Irish-British dispute (which has significant similarities with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict) and led the Sharm el-Sheikh Fact Finding Committee appointed by former U.S. President Bill Clinton. He completed his work in the first five months of President George W. Bush’s presidency, presenting him early on with the need to address the underlying fundamental issues of the conflict.

The appointment is certainly a positive first step toward a better foreign policy. President Obamas and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clintons remarks that Mitchell will be fully empowered by them shows a sense of urgency and determination by the Obama administration for early engagement in the region. But Mitchells ability to remain true to his untainted approach to conflicts is yet to be seen.

While Mitchells vast experience and past successes give those who appointed him and those who will be working with him confidence in his ability, the situation in the Middle East is, as Mitchell said on Thursday, volatile, complex and dangerous. Yet, his determination indicates that he will not be deterred. "From my experience there, I formed the conviction that there is no such thing as a conflict that can’t be ended," Mitchell said. "Conflicts are created, conducted and sustained by human beings. They can be ended by human beings."

Forcing those human beings away from the strategy of a zero-sum game to a win-win situation can prove to be difficult. Each side is waiting to reap the rewards of their perceived military and political gains during the three-week war on Gaza. Compelling the sides to measure their perceived achievements of war by the long-term benefits, which are looked at in the political, diplomatic, moral and economic parameters, will not be easy.

Israel must realize that its method of shock and awe has not and will not work. Israel did not succeed in destroying Hamas military wing or removing Hamas as a political force in Palestinian politics. Israels gains came in the form of condemnation from several world leaders; the outrage of international aid agencies; and the possibility of war crimes investigations and prosecution of Israeli leaders. But the most threatening gain is that of a group of orphans, martyrs, disabled and traumatized people who will be more resentful than the leaders Israel sought to destroy.

Hamas too must reflect. The fact that they are still in control of a besieged territory, home to a 1.5 million deprived and endangered population, is a very limited and narrow gain. Yes, it survived, but at what cost to its constituents?

The Palestinian Authority has to regain lost ground. Calls for national unity should have come with the first airstrike on Gaza, if not when the first life-saving medical drug became unavailable to Gazas children.

Both sides used the war to change the rules of the game. It is now up to Mitchell to re-establish the rules, which must be based on international law. While Israel’s war on Gaza presents Mitchell with an immediate challenge, it also gives the Obama administration an opportunity. A stable ceasefire that addresses an end to the siege can serve as a pretext to lure Hamas into accepting the international terms for recognition. If the United States is ready to live with Hamas as part of a unity government with Fateh, so will Israel. Absent Palestinian unity, political and geographic, the Obama administrations stated vision of a two-state agreement is impossible.