US choice of proven peace broker brings hope

THE choice of former US senator George Mitchell as special envoy to the Middle East shows that US President Barack Obama is serious about changing the direction of US policy there, experts say.

Mitchell will visit Israel on Wednesday for talks on keeping alive a fragile Gaza ceasefire and reviving negotiations there, an Israeli official said.

It is the new administration’s first direct move into Middle East peace efforts.

Mitchell will meet with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and senior Israeli officials, and also visit Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad at their headquarters in the West Bank.

The official said Mitchell will discuss restarting Israeli-Palestinian peace talks after Israel’s offensive in the Gaza Strip, and ways to impose an effective arms blockade against the Hamas militants who rule Gaza and have been firing rockets into Israel.

In Washington, the White House and state department declined to comment, but diplomats familiar with Mitchell’s travel plans said he would visit Israel and the West Bank with possible stops in Egypt and Jordan on a short tour.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton introduced Mitchell in his new role last Thursday. Several names were floated as possible special envoys to the region, including those of Dennis Ross, Bill Clinton’s envoy to the region, and former US ambassador to Cairo Daniel Kurtzer.

The choice of Mitchell “indicates to me that Obama did get the message that both of those names... were received with dismay in the Arab Middle East,” said Marina Ottaway, with the Carnegie Endowment for Peace.

Obama “has taken a very significant position by putting Mitchell in that position” instead of Ross or Kurtzer, Ottaway said, even though “there was clearly a lot of lobbying going on” from the powerful pro-Israel lobby in Washington to appoint either of them, she said.

The son of an Irish father and a Lebanese mother, Mitchell, 75, negotiated the 1998 Good Friday agreement that helped bring peace to Northern Ireland.

He already has experience in the Middle East: in 2000 he led a fact-finding mission seeking ways to end the violence in the region. The results, which appear in the 2001 Mitchell Commission Report, called for a freeze of Israeli settlements on Palestinian territory and the withdrawal of the Israeli army from West Bank towns.

“I don’t think Mitchell is going to be an extremist in any way,” Ottaway said, “but it is quite clear that the Israelis don’t expect him to give them the kind of free ride that the Bush administration has given them.”

“We are delighted” with the choice, said a high-ranking diplomat from an Arab nation.

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