What’s Next: A Shift To Mideast Crisis Management

obama, may 1, 2011

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Senator George Mitchell’s resignation as the Obama administration’s Middle East envoy makes formal what was clear for some time–the president’s goal of an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement by September is unattainable and negotiations are not about to resume any time soon.President Barack Obama appointed Mitchell to be envoy two days after the January 20, 2009, inauguration to signal the new administration’s commitment to peacemaking.

At the time, Obama identified Middle East peace as a “national security priority” and negotiations as the path toward realising that objective. Mitchell was heralded as the perfect fit, due to his skill in facilitating Northern Ireland peace talks and his authorship of the high-profile 2001 international report  on the causes of the outbreak of the second Palestinian intifada.

Mitchell spent all but three weeks of his two-plus years in the job trying to cajole Israel and the Palestinians into negotiations, directly or by proxy. When Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu finally sat down together in Washington to launch talks last September, it looked like America’s lead negotiator could finally get to the task he sought–to broker a deal inside the negotiating room.

Yet the negotiations lasted only three weeks. Rather than build trust and chemistry, the talks only intensified mutual acrimony. Mitchell then spent the remainder of 2010 trying to get the parties back into the room, without success. Abbas insisted that only a renewed settlement moratorium would reopen talks, and Netanyahu refused to comply.

In December, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced that the administration would revert back to a form of proximity negotiations and abandon the effort to get the parties to the room. Yet in the period between the November congressional elections and today, Mitchell made but one trip to the region. Clearly, he saw no chance of a serious breakthrough. Today’s resignation formalises the special envoy’s disengagement throughout this year.

Hours before Mitchell’s resignation, the White House announced that Obama will next week deliver a speech on U.S. policy in the Middle East. The following week, Netanyahu will address the U.S. Congress.

The remarks will help outline the new strategy ahead. Whatever the president declares about Israeli-Palestinian peace, Middle Easterners will be paying particular attention to what the U.S. plans to do once it says what it says. After Obama’s high-profile Cairo and Istanbul speeches and a UN address calling for a settlements halt, results are now the priority for Middle Easterners.

With unrest and violence raging throughout the Middle East, Palestinians focused domestically on a Fatah-Hamas unity deal, and efforts afoot to gain full membership for Palestine as a state at the United Nations in September, the president’s stated goal of a peace treaty by September 2011 is well beyond the horizon. Now, Washington faces the looming challenges of a Palestinian government that it may not be able to talk to and a potential diplomatic crisis in September that could spark renewed violence on the ground.

This post originally appeared at Council on Foreign Relations.