Jewish Journal

At UCLA, Sen. George Mitchell lays out a peacemaker’s view of the Middle East

by Jonah Lowenfeld

March 1, 2012 | 11:15 pm

Sen. George Mitchell, left, spoke at UCLA on March 1. NPR host Renee Montagne, right, interviewed Mitchell on stage after his remarks. Photo by Jonah Lowenfeld

“We must be patient and realistic in our expectation regarding the Middle East,” Sen. George Mitchell told an audience at the University of California, Los Angeles, on March 1.

Mitchell delivered this year’s Bernard Brodie Distinguished Lecture on the Conditions of Peace, and he struck a tone that was appropriately—but not overwhelmingly—pessimistic about the dim prospects for a peaceful resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian problem.

The architect of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 that paved the way for an end to the conflict in Northern Ireland, Mitchell spent two and a half years as President Obama’s Special Envoy for Middle East Peace, starting in 2009, trying and ultimately failing to help the Israelis and Palestinians reach a similar breakthrough in their halted peace negotiations.

While he acknowledged on Thursday evening that there were “many reasons to be skeptical” about the possibility of peace between the Palestinians and Israelis—first and foremost among them, the uncertainty that has been brewing in the Arab world since the revolutions that deposed the dictatorial regimes in Tunisia and Egypt in 2011—Mitchell also presented an outline for what he believes has to happen in order to resolve the conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians.

It’s familiar stuff. What needs to happen in the Middle East, Mitchell said, is akin to what happened in Northern Ireland. There, courageous political leaders “made principled compromises that put at risk their careers, their lives and the safety of their families.”

In the case of the Israelis and Palestinians, compromises must be made in order to achieve what the Palestinians’ goal—“a viable, contiguous, sovereign, and independent state, based on the 1967 lines, with agreed swaps”—and the Israeli goal—“a Jewish state, with secure, recognized, and defensible borders.”

Those overarching goals, Mitchell said, are the very same ones mentioned by President George W. Bush in a 2009 speech he delivered in Jerusalem, just before leaving office. Mitchell quoted from the speech at length on Thursday:

The point of departure for permanent status negotiations to realize this vision seems clear: There should be an end to the occupation that began in 1967. The agreement must establish Palestine as a homeland for the Palestinian people, just as Israel is a homeland for the Jewish people. These negotiations must ensure that Israel has secure, recognized, and defensible borders. And they must ensure that the state of Palestine is viable, contiguous, sovereign, and independent. It is vital that each side understands that satisfying the other’s fundamental objectives is key to a successful agreement. Security for Israel and viability for the Palestinian state are in the mutual interests of both parties.

Mitchell’s speech was diplomatic—that’s to be expected—but it was also very clear-minded. After his talk, NPR host Renee Montagne asked Mitchell a few questions, including one about whether he had difficulty with Israelis who thought that he might be biased against them because he (a) called, in 2001, for an end to construction of Israeli settlements, and (b) is the son of a woman who emigrated to the United States from Lebanon.

Mitchell first politely dismissed the idea of hyphenate Americans (“I have never felt or been anything other than an American”) and then pointed out that when it came to Israeli settlement construction, “the position [he] took was actually consistent with the view of every American government that has ever expressed a position on the subject.”

Mitchell’s opening—a long description of how he came to be a senator and what happened when he first got there—was hilarious. And though the words on the page aren’t quite the same, through a bit of googling, I found the text of a similar speech by Mitchell that he delivered in January in Washington, D.C. It’s worth reading.

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