This is not Northern Ireland

As US special envoy to Northern Ireland, George Mitchell, the former US senator, was successful in closing the chapter on sectarian violence. The Good Friday peace treaty, as it became known, still holds after more than ten years. Mitchell’s obvious skills should have been more than enough to mediate a similar conflict and were the reason he was sent here. But it is not at all clear that the Israeli occupation resembles any other colonial project in modern human history.

This is not about Mitchell’s credentials or goodwill. This is about international and regional power structures that continue to permit Israel to function mostly outside international law, dragging everyone into a political black hole.

Mitchell is no stranger to the Middle East. Toward the end of President Bill Clinton’s term in office, Mitchell led an American fact-finding commission to recommend solutions to what is usually described as the Arab-Israel conflict (equating occupier and occupied). One of Mitchell’s recommendations was a total freeze on settlement activities, including settlement expansion to accommodate "natural growth" among Jewish settlers.

When President Barack Obama appointed Mitchell as a special envoy to the Middle East, he adopted Mitchell’s recommendation and asked Israel to commit itself to a one-year freeze. Binyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, at first talked about nine months. Then he exempted settlement construction to accommodate "natural growth". Then he exempted plans to expand settlements that were signed before he committed himself to any "freeze".

After focusing intensely for a few months on the settlements issue, Obama has now dropped his demand for a "freeze" and the new policy is now about there being no preconditions. This sudden change of direction was accompanied by an invitation to a trilateral meeting in New York. For Netanyahu that was a win-win situation. For Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas it created a serious problem, because he had unequivocally insisted that there could be no re-launching of negotiations or meetings with Israelis without a total freeze on settlement activities. Yet in order to accommodate Obama, Abbas also dropped his demand for a "freeze", at least temporarily. To explain the new position, the Palestinian Authority said that talking about the framework for a peace-process was not negotiating (i.e., it is ok to meet with Netanyahu).

Netanyahu’s government coalition, which includes the fascist ultra-right-wing party Yisrael Beitenu, would have collapsed had he accepted the suggested "freeze". For the same reason, Netanyahu will not engage in serious final status negotiations. The Goldstone report, which accuses Israel of committing war crimes during its atrocious war on the Gaza Strip, provided Netanyahu with an opportunity to evade final status issues by threatening to derail the entire peace process if the report was discussed in the appropriate UN bodies.

Mitchell is in a precarious position. He knows that his boss, President Obama, will not put enough pressure on Israel, that Netanyahu will run the show as a public relations campaign without committing himself to real peace with the Palestinians and that Abbas, who faces a geographically and politically divided Palestinian scene, cannot move forward without internal Palestinian reconciliation, which is ultimately in the best interests of all parties.

Mitchell is known for his mantra about resolving conflicts: "I believe there’s no such thing as a conflict that can’t be ended. They’re created and sustained by human beings. They can be ended by human beings. No matter how ancient the conflict, no matter how hateful, no matter how hurtful, peace can prevail."

This mantra is true. But, unfortunately, this does not necessarily mean that solving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict will or can happen now. As a colonial occupying power, Israel will go on appropriating Palestinian land and expanding settlements ad nauseum. Without adequate international pressure, Israel will continue to be permitted to pull the strings for another thousand and one nights of farcical diplomacy.