Next! George Mitchell coming to update his listening

George Mitchell has been here before. He wrote a report in 2001 on the causes of the Second Intifada (which broke out at the end of September 2000, following the failed Camp David talks, then a provocative visit by Ariel Sharon to what Jews call the Temple Mount (but what Muslims know as the Haram as-Sharif).

He is now the envoy of the new U.S. President Barak Obama, and he is now in the region. His mission: to listen. He will meet Egypt’s President Husni Mubarak on Wednesday, then travel to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. On Thursday he will meet Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the Muqata’a Presidential Palace — a former British governor’s building, and prison — in Ramallah. (After that, Mitchell will go to Jordan and Saudi Arabia, then to Paris and London).

Obama’s first phone call to a foreign leader — on Wednesday, the day after his inauguration — was to President Abbas in Ramallah. Obama told Abbas that he would be engaged in the search for a peaceful solution to the long-standing conflict here. Obama then called Israeli leaders, and the heads of state in neighboring Jordan and Egypt. Obama named Mitchell as special envoy a day later. At the time, obama said Mitchell’s mission would be “to engage vigorously and consistently in order for us to achieve genuine progress … progress that is concrete”.

Last Friday, three days after his inauguration, Obama urged Israel to open Gaza border crossings to aid and commerce. “Now we must extend a hand of opportunity to those who seek peace — as part of a lasting ceasefire, Gaza’s border crossings should be open to allow the flow of aid and commerce … [And] Relief efforts must be able to reach innocent Palestinians who depend on them”, Obama said. He also called for a border monitoring regime involving the Palestinian Authority and the international community. At the same time, he added, Hamas must however stop firing rockets into Israeli territory.

U.S. State Department spokesperson Robert Wood told journalists Monday that “Special envoy Mitchell will work to consolidate the cease-fire in Gaza, establish an effective anti-smuggling and interdiction regime to prevent the rearming of Hamas, facilitate the re-opening of border crossings, and development of an effective response to the immediate humanitarian needs of the Palestinians in Gaza and eventual reconstruction and re-invigorate the peace process”.

Wood indicated that Mitchell will be accompanied by an inter-agency team of Middle East specialists, and will start with an effort to shore up the current Gaza truce. But, Mitchell will not have contacts with Hamas, Wood said.

UPDATE: Ahmad Yousef, a top aide to Ismail Haniyah, received visiting journalists in Gaza in the garden of his house near the border with Egypt, said that “We would like him [Mitchell] to listen to us and to the Hamas vision, what Hamas expects from this American administration … We expect fairness and objectivity and even-handedness when they handle this conflict”, according to the Financial Times. The Christian Science Monitor, whose correspondent said that Yousef was a foreign policy adviser to Hamas leader in Gaza Ismail Haniyeh, reported that he said in the same briefing to visiting journalists: “The Americans and Europeans were mistaken to boycott Hamas from the start … I expected Obama to say that he will go and talk to everybody … We’d like to see America as impartial, not just seeing Hamas as a terrorist group … The people chose Hamas [in January 2006 elections for the Palestinian Legislative Council], and America and the rest of the world should respect that”.

Yousef was repeating a position staked out by Khalid Mash’al, head of Hamas’ political bureau, in a televised speech from Damascus last Wednesday, when he called the international community to deal with Hamas. “For three years they have been trying to get rid of us, including through a blockade. Now it is time to start talking to Hamas, a force whose legitimacy was reinforced in the recent war,” he said. This was reported by Ma’an News Agency here.

Gershon Baskin, co-chairman of IPCRI, the Israel-Palestinian Center for Research and Information, explained a bit about Mitchell’s previous involvement here in an opinion peace published in The Jerusalem Post on Monday (26 January): “Mitchell is not new to the region or to serving as an official mediator of conflicts for an American president. Mitchell’s last attempt at mediating between Israel and Palestine began in the end of October 2000 following the outbreak of the second intifada. The Mitchell report which investigated the reasons behind the intifada and what steps should be taken to revert back to a non-violent peace process was published in May 2001, some eight months after the violence erupted and three months after Ariel Sharon was sitting in the Prime Minister’s office. By that time (beginning in February 2001), Hamas and other terror groups had begun the barrage of suicide attacks inside of Israel and the mantra of ‘no partner for peace’ was heard on both sides of the green line. The Mitchell report concluded that: ‘we have no basis on which to conclude that there was a deliberate plan by the PA to initiate a campaign of violence at the first opportunity; or to conclude that there was a deliberate plan by the Government of Israel to respond with lethal force. However, there is also no evidence on which to conclude that the PA made a consistent effort to contain the demonstrations and control the violence once it began; or that the Government of Israel made a consistent effort to use non-lethal means to control demonstrations of unarmed Palestinians. Amid rising anger, fear, and mistrust, each side assumed the worst about the other and acted accordingly’.”

Baskin also wrote that “Much has happened since the time of Mitchell’s last assignment here. When Mitchell begins his new assignment he will be backed by a different approach in Washington . General Jim Jones as National Security Advisor has already developed his own plan (under President Bush) for a new security concept in the region. Reports have indicated that the heart of Jones’ plan is increased international involvement including the introduction of international forces on the ground in the West Bank and probably in Gaza as well. In his many military assignments Jones was never based in the Middle East, but Israel was within his command area as head of US European Command from 2003-06. It has been said that through that experience, Jones has come to think of NATO as a potential source of international troops for the region. The multilateral approach to resolving regional problems held by President Barack Obama will very likely bring about a closer working relationship between the US, Europe, the UN and even Russia [n.b., these are the members of the Quartet who developed the Road Map to carry out George Bush’s “vision”] . Although France no longer holds the presidency of the EU, President Sarkozy’s proactive (some day hyperactive) foreign policy advances have already indicated a willingness to send French troops to the regional within a wider international force. The negotiations taking place in Egypt between Israel and Egypt, Hamas and Egypt, and Fatah and Hamas with Egypt ‘s help, may very likely also produce its own plan for a wider international presence in the region. Phase I of this plan might be in Gaza along the Rafah border with the introduction of a Turkish role alongside of the renewed EU monitors who will return if Fatah personnel regain a foothold at the border. That model could be expanded to other parts of Gaza as well as to the West Bank. Israel’s traditional position, expressed by Barak on October 1, 2000 and many times since, then has been to avoid the internationalization of the conflict at all costs. The last thing that Israel wants is European troops in Gaza who would prevent the possibility of a new version of a Cast Lead mission if rocket fire resumes from Gaza. Nonetheless, the most likely outcome of the war in Gaza, just like the war in Lebanon, is an international presence, starting in Gaza, and maybe later on in the West Bank”… This analysis was published in the JPost here.

Here, for the record, and for those who are interested, is the transcript of the Monday briefing in Washington DC: “Special Envoy for Middle East Peace George Mitchell will travel to the Middle East and Europe from January 26 to February 3. On this trip, Special Envoy Mitchell will meet with senior officials to discuss the peace process and the situation in Gaza … As part of this trip, he will be visiting Egypt, Israel, the West Bank, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia. Special Envoy Mitchell will be accompanied by other State Department officials, including Deputy Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs David Hale, as well as representatives from the National Security Council and the Department of Defense. In addition, the traveling party will be joined in Jerusalem in Ramallah by Acting Assistant Secretary for Population, Refugees, and Migration Sam Witten, and USAID Special Assistant to the Administrator George Laudato.

The Administration will actively and aggressively seek a lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians, as well as Israel and its neighbors. And in furtherance to these goals – or of these goals on this trip, Special Envoy Mitchell will work to consolidate the ceasefire in Gaza, establish an effective and credible anti-smuggling and interdiction regime to prevent the rearming of Hamas, facilitate the reopening of border crossings, and develop an effective response to the immediate humanitarian needs of the Palestinians in Gaza and eventual reconstruction and reinvigorate the peace process…

QUESTION: Is that the sum total of the places that he will visit, or is there any possibility of his going to other places?

MR. WOOD: There are always possibilities that he may travel to other places. We’ll try and keep you posted if, indeed, there are any changes to the schedule…

QUESTION: And … Is there any possibility of his having any contact, even indirect, say via the Egyptians, with Hamas?

MR. WOOD: He will not have contact with Hamas.

QUESTION: Is he likely to meet UN officials in Gaza, since he talks about the humanitarian situation, on the ground?

MR. WOOD: Well, he’s going to meet with officials of the region and talk about the overall situation on the ground and, of course, longer-term steps for trying to get us back on the road to peace.

QUESTION: But he’s not going to Gaza?

MR. WOOD: Well, I’ve given you what I have here. And again, if we have any updates, I’ll certainly be happy to provide them.

QUESTION: But does he have permission to travel to Gaza? I mean, is that an option?

MR. WOOD: Again, like I said, this is what I have for you in terms of travel. We’ll see what else – if there are any updates, we’ll try and get them to you.

QUESTION: Robert, in more of a broader clarification of exactly what he’s going to do, is he in listening mode or is he in —

MR. WOOD: Absolutely. He is in a listening mode. He wants to talk to all of the – he wants to talk to regional leaders and try to get, as I said, back – get the peace process back on track. And he’ll obviously be discussing the humanitarian situation. And he’s eager to get out to the region and begin working.

QUESTION: On the long-term process, you’re talking about advancing the peace process in a broader sense … Would you take into consideration his recommendation in 2001 that already talk about stopping violence, stopping Israeli settlement? Or is that past the point and you’re looking for a fresh start?

MR. WOOD: Look, he’s going out to listen. He wants to hear what the leaders have to say. And he’s going to report back to the Secretary and the President on his trip, and we’ll begin to continue formulating policy from there. But let’s let him to get to the region and have discussions, and then we’ll go from there.

QUESTION: Does he plan to pick up on the Annapolis process and where those negotiations were? Are you going to continue what the Bush Administration did? Is that your goal? … r do you have a whole bag of new tricks?

MR. WOOD: Well, again, he’s going to go out to the region, do his own assessment, and then report back to, as I said, the Secretary and the President, and then go from there.

QUESTION: But how do you see the Annapolis process? Dead, alive, half-alive?

MR. WOOD: We have a new Administration. It’s taking a look at a number of different policies from the previous administration. It will be coming up with its own initiatives. And so why don’t we just give it a little time and let, you know, Senator Mitchell do this work.

QUESTION: Do you regard the program of helping to build up the PA’s defense and security forces that General Dayton worked on as continuing?

MR. WOOD: That was very good work that was being carried out. And again, what we’re about is trying to strengthen and build up these Palestinian institutions so that one day, the Palestinian Authority will be able to, you know, basically manage the affairs of a new state once we get to that two-state solution.

QUESTION: But in using the phrase “that was very good work,” it suggests that there has been a kind of finite end to that program.

MR. WOOD: No, I’m not suggesting that. I’m just saying that, you know, it’s been good work that has been done. It’s important for us to continue to try to strengthen these Palestinian institutions. And that kind of work will continue.

QUESTION: But what – but you didn’t say the same thing about the Annapolis process.

MR. WOOD: Well, like I said to you, the Annapolis process was something that the previous administration had been undertaking.

QUESTION: Well, but the previous administration also undertook all that stuff on the security (inaudible).

MR. WOOD: Yeah, I’m just – what I’m saying is that was good work. Certainly, Annapolis was good work. But again, there’s a new Administration and it’s taking a look at overall Middle East policy, and the beginnings of that is Senator Mitchell’s trip to the region.

QUESTION: Can I just ask you one other thing on Mitchell?

MR. WOOD: Yeah.

QUESTION: Is he going to also be discussing Iran and how the region should approach Iran and its nuclear program?

MR. WOOD: Well, he’s going to be talking about the overall situation in the Middle East, and that obviously will have some – will in some way touch on the question of Iran. But I’m not going to get into any further details until he’s had a chance to go out to the region and have those discussions.

QUESTION: Just if I could come back to Gaza for a moment, there were some reports of U.S. Naval ships that had been stopping ships that might be suspected of bringing arms to Hamas. I mean, first of all, can you give us any guidance on that? And secondly, do you see any evidence that some of the elements of that memorandum of understanding that was signed, you know, are starting to really be put into force now?

MR. WOOD: Well, with regard to the ship, I’ll have to refer you to the Pentagon. In terms of the MOU, I mean, obviously, that’s an issue that Senator Mitchell will be discussing with, you know, countries in the region, and we’ll have to see where it goes from there …

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