Thursday, January 22, 2009

Reconciling the Irreconcilable

I for one am waiting for the proposed appointment of George Mitchell as US special envoy for the Middle East to escalate from leaks from supposedly reliable sources to official announcement. Mitchell's achievement of the Good Friday agreement over Northern Ireland demonstrated just what an honest broker can do when it comes to reconciling the irreconcilable. Needless to say, the Middle East is not the British Isles; and the honest-broker reputation of his potential boss may well be tainted by her past close associations with AIPAC. Furthermore, as a recent Al Jazeera English story reported, Mitchell's own track record in the Middle East has not been as successful as his work in Northern Ireland:

In 2000, he also presided over a committee investigating the ongoing violence of the Middle East conflict and recommended Palestinians do more to stop attacks on Israel and an end to Israeli settlement building on occupied land.

Almost a decade has elapsed since that investigation. The problem of new Israeli settlements is still with us; and, even if there is currently a cease fire agreement over Gaza, the word from "media reports" is out that the tunnels that have been supplying Hamas with their weapons are back in business again.

According to a recent New York Times report, Mitchell may also have Dennis Ross as an advisor. Like Mitchell, Ross has experienced his own setbacks in Middle East negotiations; and his book, Statecraft: And How to Restore America's Standing in the World, is, in many respects, an attempt to theorize about those setbacks. However, much of Ross' theory has to do with navigating the discussions that take place between opposing parties; and, in the Middle East, getting those opposing parties to communicate at all, let alone over the sorts of issues that Ross investigates, continues to be an unsolved problem. (If ever there were a counterexample to Jürgen Habermas' "ideal speech situation," the Middle East would be it!) Consider the current "state of play" in the White House as reported by Al Jazeera English:

Obama, who was inaugurated as US president on Tuesday, made phone calls to several key leaders in the Middle East on Wedneday as the region continued to deal with the aftershocks of Israel's offensive in Gaza.

These included Hosni Mubarak, Egyptian president, Ehud Olmert, the Israeli prime minister, Jordan's King Abdullah and Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, said.

While that makes for an impressive "roll call," as I observed yesterday, it is hard to imagine that productive communication can begin before Hamas no longer "passes unnoticed" and becomes a full-fledged participant. Hopefully, in trying to bring about such communications, Mitchell will be better informed by his success in Northern Ireland than by his (and Ross') frustrations in the Middle East. At the very least his honest-broker reputation is intact, which is more than can be said about those diplomats who represented the previous Administration.

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