With a mixture of charm, skill, seemingly inexhaustible patience, determined neutrality and immense capacity for hard work, he won round almost all the participants in the Northern talks.
Only the DUP could not be persuaded that this part Maronite Christian — and, therefore, Papist, Dr Paisley assured everyone — approached the ancient conflict with an open mind.
Can lightning strike twice? Can Mitchell do a Belfast in Jerusalem? The chances are slim, verging on the non-existent. No one in their right mind thinks Israel/Palestine is as “easy” as Northern Ireland — and most of us think the latter deal bordered on the miraculous.
Hamas’s electoral victory, its subsequent rout of the more moderate Fatah forces from Gaza and its recent war with Israel all make you wonder how much real support there is for a Palestinian state.
It’s not at all clear what there is to talk about. Hamas remains strategically committed to violent resistance.
As their Damascus-based political chief, Khaled Meshaal, explained in January: “We will not accept a permanent truce because it will take [away] the right of resistance from the Palestinian people.”
This isn’t the language of an organisation that knows the war is over and just needs help ending it. For Hamas, ceasefires are not there to be built upon: they are just opportunities to rearm.
Nor, as far as Hamas is concerned, is the issue about politics as such. A deal in the North was possible because, while religion was certainly a factor, the IRA never sought to convert Britain to Catholicism. Hamas’s stated goal is an Islamic state throughout the whole of the West Bank and Gaza — and Israel proper. The Hamas charter is an integrated Islamist vision: no one, including Arab Muslim leaders, is entitled to concede any part of the land. They would not even regard a referendum as binding.
What’s more, few doubt that if any element from Hamas in Gaza were to follow Sinn Féin’s lead and agree to “democratic and exclusively peaceful means” — and there is no sign of such “doves” — the Damascus leadership would simply declare itself the “Real Hamas” — and, crucially, would have the support of Iran and probably Syria for doing so. That is roughly analogous to the Irish Government declaring itself in favour of the Omagh bombers. As if all that weren’t depressing enough, Mitchell approaches the situation without much goodwill towards him from the Israeli side either. This isn’t based on prejudice, as in the North, either. His first Middle East report, commissioned by President Clinton, gave Yasser Arafat an escape clause: as long as he was making a “100% effort” to prevent terror, all the pressure came on the Israelis to end all settlement building.
Needless to say, Arafat just denied responsibility for his forces’ actions. Most Israelis would scoff at Mitchell’s finding back in 2001 that Palestinian violence was unplanned.
Add into the mix the likelihood that Benjamin Netanyahu will probably win next week’s Israeli elections and Mitchell might be tempted to give up now.
There is an alternative and more optimistic thesis, however. Often Israelis have a tendency to make the outcomes of a talks process into preconditions for one. Sinn Féin recognition of Northern Ireland’s legitimacy is never quite explicit but they are working the system and accept things won’t change by force or indeed any time soon. At the same time, a ceasefire was an essential part of the jigsaw.
Nor indeed will Israelis thank the Palestinian side for mere recognition: they have been there before. For them, and for the international community, the state of Israel is non-negotiable: anything that suggests a Northern Ireland-style process for getting rid of it — ever — is completely anathema.
But following the recent conflict there are signs that Gazans are war-weary. That’s not to say they will ditch Hamas, but if the Palestinian movement were to reunite there would at least be someone to talk to.
If the people of Gaza were to see an improvement in their economic position in their daily lives, in return for Hamas moderating its position, isn’t it at least conceivable that a measure of trust could be nurtured and a constituency for live-and-let-live could emerge, as it did in west Belfast and Derry?
Even if that weren’t Pollyanna-ish, given that it took 10 years in Northern Ireland, how much longer would it take in a region where emotions are so much rawer? But as Mitchell himself put it before his appointment, “the alternative is unacceptable and should be unthinkable”. As he has also argued while “each situation and negotiation is unique, successful diplomatic interventions have much in common”.
That means even if a process can be put together in the Middle East — and we are, ironically, in a better position now than we were two months ago — some of the same issues will arise. The temptation for the Palestinian side will be to engage only tactically at first, and not to commit themselves. Those with long memories will recall that a week after Mitchell’s first Northern Ireland report, which concluded that republicans were prepared to decommission, the IRA blew up Canary Wharf. In Mitchell’s memoirs, he implies he expected as much – but the pressure to say something positive was immense.
Even when the ceasefire was reinstated and Sinn Féin were allowed into talks, the IRA made it clear it did not consider itself bound by the Mitchell Principles of non-violence, even if SF did. Bertie Ahern memorably described SF and the IRA as “two sides of the same coin”. Hamas seems more like a pebble than a coin with no sides as such.
WHILE it was convenient at the time to overlook that particular IRA statement — for fear of a substantial split — it came back to haunt the Northern peace process. Parallel decommissioning — guns given up as talks proceeded — never happened. As we all know, manipulation of that issue resulted in the polarisation of Northern society. The political beneficiaries were those elements most responsible for the Troubles in the first place.
None of which is to suggest George Mitchell is anyone’s stooge. When the two governments came up with their first draft of what became the Good Friday Agreement, Mitchell had the sense to realise it was a non-runner and told them so. The North’s best chance of political agreement could have been lost without his acute insight and a substantial renegotiation.
His third and final intervention in Belfast was less successful. He cobbled together a private deal setting up the Assembly to be followed by decommissioning soon afterwards. When republicans defaulted, it was left to Seamus Mallon of the SDLP to point the finger of blame: Mitchell had had enough of Irish squabbling and, not unreasonably, just wanted out of the place.
Which rather makes you wonder why a man aged 75 allowed his name to go forward for another marathon round of “whataboutery”, the term John Hume coined to describe the inability to see the other side’s point of view.
Wish George Mitchell well — but don’t hold your breath.