JTA: "Mitchell pick mostly draws early praise"
By Eric Fingerhut ú January 22, 2009
WASHINGTON (JTA) -- Barack Obama's selection for Middle East envoy drew praise from Israel, as well as dovish groups and at least one centrist Jewish organization.
George Mitchell was introduced as the new special envoy for Middle East peace at a State Department news conference Thursday afternoon.
Mitchell said he believes deeply that "committed, persevering and patient diplomacy" can bring about peace in the Middle East and "demands our maximum effort, no matter the difficulties, no matter the setbacks."
"It will be the policy of my administration to actively and aggressively seek a lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians, as well as Israel and its Arab neighbors," Obama said at the news conference.
The president said he would be sending Mitchell to the region as "soon as possible to help the parties ensure that the cease-fire that has been achieved is made durable and sustainable."
Obama reiterated his statement during the campaign that Israel was justified in responding to Hamas rocket attacks on southern Israel.
"Let me be clear: America is committed to Israel's security and we will always support Israel's right to defend itself against legitimate threats," he said. "For years, Hamas has launched thousands of rockets at innocent Israeli citizens. No democracy can tolerate such danger to its people, nor should the international community, and neither should the Palestinian people themselves, whose interests are only set back by acts of terror.
Obama added that "just as the terror of rocket fire aimed at innocent Israelis is intolerable, so too is a future without hope for the Palestinians." He called for the openings of Gaza's border crossings with an "appropriate monitoring regime" as part of a lasting cease-fire.
The president also said that the Arab Peace Initiative "contains constructive elements that could help advance these efforts" and called on Arab states to "act on the initiative's promise" by supporting the Palestinian Authority government, taking steps toward normalizing relations with Israel and standing up to "extremism that threatens us all."
The Arab League intiative offers Israel normalization of relations with the Arab world in exchange for a return to Israel's 1967 borders and a "just solution" to the Palestinian refugee issue that would be "agreed upon" by the parties. Israel in the past has complained that the refugee language is vague and leaves open the possiblity of a mass return.
Israel welcomed Mitchell's appointment. Its U.S. ambassador, Sallai Meridor, congratulated Mitchell in a statement and said Israel holds him "in high regard and looks forward to working with him on taking the next steps towards realizing a future of peace and security for Israel and her neighbors."
Dovish groups J Street, Israel Policy Forum and Americans for Peace Now all lauded the choice.
J Street executive director Jeremy Ben-Ami called the appointment a signal that Obama intended to "inject new thinking and fresh perspectives into America's efforts to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict."
Referring to the agreement Mitchell forged as President Clinton's special envoy to Northern Ireland, Debra DeLee, Americans for Peace Now president and CEO, said that "Israelis and Palestinians deserve a Good Friday Agreement of their own. If anyone has the statesmanship and experience to broker such an agreement, it is a person of Senator Mitchell's stature."
Israel Policy Forum executive director Nick Bunzl said his organization was "delighted" that Obama was devoting such early attention to the Arab-Israeli dispute and called Mitchell an envoy of "extremely high stature."
The leader of the more centrist American Jewish Committee praised the choice less effusively. Executive director David Harris told The Jewish Week before Mitchell's announcement was official that the former U.S. senator from Maine could be a "good and logical choice" if he is given a mandate focusing mostly on crisis management.
"He has the respect of both sides, and he would have direct access to top administration officials, which is very important," Harris told the paper.
Anti-Defamation League national director Abraham Foxman was not as supportive in comments also made before Thursday's news conference.
"Senator Mitchell is fair," he told The Jewish Week. "He's been meticulously even-handed. But the fact is, American policy in the Middle East hasn't been 'even handed' -- it has been supportive of Israel when it felt Israel needed critical U.S. support. So I'm concerned. I'm not sure the situation requires that kind of approach in the Middle East."
chicagotribune.com: "2 Democratic heavyweights tapped for high-profile envoy positions"
Diplomatic veterans Mitchell, Holbrooke being dispatched to Mideast, South Asia
By Paul Richter
January 23, 2009
WASHINGTON-President Barack Obama, underscoring a commitment to more aggressive U.S. diplomacy, named two Democratic heavyweights on Thursday as administration envoys to two of the world's most troubled regions.
Obama named former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell (D-Maine) as special envoy to the Middle East and former UN Ambassador Richard Holbrooke as special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Appearing before an audience of senior diplomats at the State Department, Obama said his administration would "actively and aggressively seek a lasting peace" in the Middle East, though "no one doubts the difficulty of the road ahead."
He added that Holbrooke will help seek a regionwide solution in South Asia, but warned that "the situation is perilous and progress will take time."
Holbrooke, 67, is credited with helping forge the Dayton Peace Accords of 1995 that ended the war in Bosnia, and is known as a hard-driving, sometimes abrasive diplomat.
Mitchell, 75, is credited with advancing peace in Northern Ireland as envoy there during the Clinton administration, and also led a commission in 2000-01 that looked for ways to end Israeli-Palestinian violence. He is considered a patient, even-handed negotiator.
Mitchell's is the more politically sensitive appointment. It won praise from many sides, but some conservatives in Israel and among Israel's American supporters voiced concerned that Mitchell could exert new pressure on the Israelis. A report by Mitchell's commission in 2001 reportedly irritated the government of then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
Former U.S. Ambassador Samuel Lewis, who recently visited the region, said there is "a lot of nervousness in Israel" about Mitchell. Some worry over how the Obama administration will view issues such as Israeli security needs and the expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank.
Some more dovish pro-Israel groups, including Americans for Peace Now and the Israel Policy Forum, praised the selection.
Obama, who has said little about the Middle East since winning the election, addressed diplomats and described goals for a Gaza Strip cease-fire that mirrored those of the world powers who have been trying to settle the conflict as well as those of the Bush administration.
Obama said a durable cease-fire would require an opening of Gaza's border crossings, an end to rocket fire from the militant group Hamas, a halt to Hamas' arms smuggling and an Israeli military withdrawal.
He said the United States "will always support Israel's right to defend itself against legitimate threats." But he said that "just as the terror of rocket fire aimed at innocent Israelis is intolerable, so too is a future without hope for the Palestinians."
Mitchell, who also addressed the State Department audience, said that his experience in Northern Ireland gave him hope for the Mideast.
"I formed a conviction that there is no such thing as a conflict that can't be ended," Mitchell said.
In the Middle East, he said, "the key is the mutual commitment of the parties and the active participation of the United States government, led by the president and the secretary of state, with the support and assistance of the many other governments and institutions that want to help."
Holbrooke said that "nobody can say that the war in Afghanistan has gone well." He said his goals will be to "help coordinate a clearly chaotic foreign assistance program" with help from military leaders.
"If our resources are mobilized and coordinated, we can multiply, tenfold, the effectiveness of our effort there," he said.
U.S. presidents frequently have resorted to using senior envoys in the belief that intractable conflicts need sustained, high-level effort that others in the diplomatic hierarchy can't afford to devote.
Senior political figures such as Mitchell are valuable in such roles because they have credibility with other leaders and speak for their presidents, Lewis said.
The appointments came on the day that Hillary Clinton arrived at the State Department headquarters to begin her job as secretary of state and was met with an exuberant welcome.
Some 1,000 department employees cheered when she arrived about 9:15 a.m. at the large entrance of the building in Washington's Foggy Bottom neighborhood.
"This is going to be an adventure," she told the group. But, she cautioned, "This is not going to be easy."