Posted on February 09, 2009 in Washington Watch

George Mitchell has returned from his first foray to the Middle East. He will now study his initial findings, await the results of Israel’s election, and then revisit the region at month’s end.

I have deep respect for Mitchell’s work. And while he gives me hope, I still find it hard to be optimistic about prospects for Middle East peace. The accumulated failures of the past have taken a significant toll on all involved. Entrenched divisions, hardened attitudes, and bad behavior define the political landscape on both the Israeli and Arab sides. Internal Arab rifts are well-known, with the intra-Palestinian divide now spilling over and being reflected in competing camps that shape the politics of the broader region.

The problems in Israel are no less acute. As this week’s election will demonstrate, the center of Israeli politics has moved rightward. Pre-election polls show Likud and Kadima vying for the lead, followed by Yisrael Beiteinu and Labor (a mere shadow of its former self) competing for third place.

What a lineup!

Likud and its leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, are too well-known. In 1996 he telegraphed his intention to “make a clean break and end the Oslo process” – and he did just that. He left office in 1998 under a cloud of scandal only to return a decade later – older wine in an older bottle – still averse to ceding West Bank land and East Jerusalem to the Palestinians, but declaring his intention to make “economic peace” instead. In any other country, the Yisrael Beiteinu of Avigdor Lieberman would be seen as racist; but, with a strong base of support among Russian-immigrant voters, who have long complained of being marginalized, this party – with its agenda of “transferring” Arabs – will do well, and be able to secure significant cabinet posts in a new government.

Kadima and Labor, who together form the current government will, in all probability, not win enough seats to return. And while both are seen in the U.S. as the parties who agree to withdraw from Palestinian territories, their performance over the last several years has not reassured Palestinians of their peaceful intent.

While all this is playing out on the surface of Israeli politics, more insidious developments occur on a deeper level. Like an aggressive malignancy, settlements in the West Bank continue to grow, spreading out both within and beyond Israel’s intrusive wall/barrier. As a spectacular segment on “60 Minutes” (a popular U.S. television program) made clear a few weeks back, the size and location of the settlements, and the fierce intensity of the settler movement, have all but made a two-state solution impossible.

A full picture of this sad state of affairs was revealed recently in the Israeli press. An official military tally of West Bank settlements, established that 75% of all settlement developments are, even by Israeli law, “unauthorized,” having been built on Palestinian-owned land without government permits. On reviewing the report, an Israeli lawyer remarked that it only reinforced his view that an extra-governmental settler regime operates outside the law beyond the control of Israeli authorities, whether from the right or the left.

And so it is, with Israel moving to the right, confounded by a settler movement that is a law unto itself, and with Palestinians and the Arab world deeply divided, it is difficult to be optimistic. But I can be hopeful that, with the appointment of George Mitchell, the region is getting what may very well be its last chance at securing peace and two state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In his successful effort in achieving Irish peace, Mitchell confronted not only a deep divide between the nationalist and unionist groups in Northern Ireland; but also intense rivalries between militant and more moderate forces within each camp. In Ireland, Mitchell also had to deal with eight centuries of spilled blood and memories of ethnic cleansing and near-genocidal famine. There were also widely divergent views of what could constitute Irish peace, with neither side accepting the legitimacy of the other. Many thought it impossible to thread that needle.

But what Mitchell and other skilled negotiators knew, was that success required the absence of onerous preconditions, creative problem-solving, goodwill, and tremendous patience. In Ireland, it required fifteen years, from the Good Friday Accords to the capstone agreement that sealed the process.

Even with this record, success, or even progress, is not assured. That is why I cannot be optimistic. But I can be hopeful, because Mitchell’s skill combined with the full support of the U.S. President, provide the region with its last best chance.

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