Analysis: George Mitchell worries Israelis

By Yaakov Katz, January 29, 2009

It is no secret that Israel is concerned at the appointment of George Mitchell, who arrived in the country this week as the new United States special envoy to the Middle East.

When he negotiated the Good Friday Agreement in Ireland in 1998, he said there was no conflict that could not be resolved, and speaking at a conference in Tel Aviv last month he reiterated this view, declaring: “It may take a long time but with committed, active and strong leadership it can [also] happen here.”

On Wednesday, the former US Senator, arrived in Israel for meetings with senior political leaders including Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Likud chairman Binyamin Netanyahu.

Meeting Mr Mitchell was so important for Defence Minister Ehud Barak that he postponed a trip to the Pentagon.

Mr Mitchell, the son of a Lebanese mother and Irish father, is no stranger to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In 2001 he produced the Mitchell Report which analysed ways to get the peace process — which broke down with the Second Intifada — back on track. It is the report’s conclusions that have given Israeli officials cause for concern now that Mr Mitchell is back as President Obama’s envoy.

The report called for the usual cessation of violence and a resumption of Israeli-Palestinian Authority security co-operation. Ultimately, the report argued, the Palestinians had to make efforts to prevent terrorist operations and Israel had to “freeze all settlement activity”, including the “natural growth” of existing settlements.

One Israeli government official expressed concern that Israel might come under pressure to begin dismantling outposts and settlements: “Mitchell is completely opposed to the settlements and sometimes gives the impression that the settlements are the greatest obstacle to peace”.

Coincidentally, on the day that Mr Mitchell arrived, Peace Now released a report claiming the settler population had grown from 270,000 in 2007 to 285,000 in 2008 and that the number of structures in the West Bank had also grown by 69 percent.

Fearing that Mr Mitchell will try to force a peace agreement on Israel, the settler leadership also held demonstrations opposing a Palestinian state.

But Professor Efriam Inbar, from Bar-Ilan’s Begin-Sadat Centre, said that Israel had nothing to fear from Mr Mitchell or the Obama administration: “Mitchell is not a great Zionist but the Americans say they will not impose an agreement on us. There is also the very complicated reality in the Palestinian Authority right now with Hamas in charge of Gaza. The US will not be able to change that since the Palestinians themselves are not in a position to establish a state.”

Security officials gave Mr Mitchell an assessment of the capability of Palestinian security forces in the West Bank and the Foreign Ministry prepared a file, including details of the recent Gaza operation.

Last updated: 2:26pm, November 8 2010