Laura Rozen
May 25, 2010 - 12:00am

With Israeli-Palestinian indirect proximity talks having finally gotten underway after more than a year of his shuttle diplomacy, Middle East peace envoy George Mitchell took to two stages Monday evening to talk about his peacemaking efforts in the Middle East and Northern Ireland in the role of diplomatic dean.

It was a rare Washington showing for Mitchell, 75, the soft-spoken former Senate majority leader from Maine, who has mostly ducked the American press, perhaps because until recently he has had little progress to report in his exhaustive efforts to bring the Palestinians and Israelis back to the peace table.

But if his demeanor Monday was any sign, Mitchell is feeling more confident about his efforts after he has completed his second round of Israeli-Palestinian proximity talks that he said he hopes turn into direct negotiations as soon as possible. He also indicated he plans to basically be spending the foreseeable future going back and forth between the Middle East and the U.S. to pursue the talks pretty much every other week.

Relaxed, modest, and funny, Mitchell described that as the child of an immigrant mother who couldn’t read or write who was able to become Senate Majority leader, when the president of the United States asked him to take on the task of Middle East peace envoy, he felt that he had an obligation as a citizen of the United States to take on the job.

“We are all very fortunate to be citizens of this country,” Mitchell told the audience gathered at Washington's historic 6th and I synagogue at a benefit for the city's Jewish Primary Day School, attended by the children of his shuttle diplomacy aide, National Security Council Middle East advisor Dan Shapiro. “When the president of the United States asks me to do something, how can I say no? With citizenship, comes responsibility. If life hands you an important task, then I feel you have an obligation to do it.”

“The Secretary of State called me, then I talked with the president,” Mitchell said of being offered the envoy job. “So I made up a list of ten friends to call” about whether he should take it, Mitchell explained. “And the first six I called said, ‘Are you crazy?’ So I stopped calling.”

“My wife made me give her only one commitment,” Mitchell continued in the JPDS forum, which was moderated by David Brooks, the New York Times columnist and another JPDS parent. “When I worked on Northern Ireland, I chaired three sets of discussions. For five years. And my wife said, ‘Not five years.’ So I told all the leaders of the Middle East, this cannot take five years.”

“Was that Jewish or Protestant years?” Brooks quipped, going on to ask Mitchell “what are you doing this for?” in taking on a task that so many other past envoys and veteran diplomats -- most recently diplomat Aaron David Miller in a Foreign Policy article, "The False Religion of Middle East peace" -- describe as potentially hopeless.

“I am asked that question more than any other,” Mitchell said. “If you believe in something, the fact that you have not yet obtained it cannot deter you. There have been several previous efforts that failed. And the media every day [I was negotiating what became the Good Friday northern Ireland peace accords] would basically say ‘you are a failure.’ And in a sense, they were right. If the purpose is to get peace, every day you don’t get it is a failure.” Until you do.

“But to me,” Mitchell continued, “The criteria is, is it a just cause? Is it a worthy cause? And as an American, I believe [Middle East peace] is very important.”

Describing his reputation for having legendary patience, which he said he honed in his years in the Senate where his colleagues could endlessly debate any issue for as long as they wished, Mitchell admitted that he needs “endless patience” and “a lot of perseverance” in his current job of trying to get the Israelis and the Palestinians to a peace agreement. And he learned in the five years he spent negotiating the 1996 Good Friday peace accords “not to take the first ‘no’” for the final answer.

“You can’t take the first ‘no.’ I had 700 days of ‘no’ in Northern Ireland, and one ‘yes,’” Mitchell said. “You have to be willing to go back, prodding, cajoling, listening …. You have to make clear you respect the people involved, and whatever the circumstance involved, to allow the parties to express their views.”

Mitchell also spoke to a more professional diplomatic audience Monday, giving the Dean Acheson lecture hosted by the U.S. Institute of Peace.

Drawing on his experience negotiating the Good Friday peace accords, Mitchell said, “I became convinced that the absence of a deadline guaranteed failure,” he said. Having a deadline he conceded didn’t guarantee success, however. “As the deadline neared, we were in non-stop negotiations. Finally an agreement was reached.” When the last party had agreed, Mitchell called for a vote right then – something he said he also learned as a Senate Majority leader: when you have the votes, don't wait.

Mitchell also said that creating hope "is the responsibility for political leaders, from which people take their cues. Create an attitude of success, a belief that problems can be solved, that things can be better."

One member of the JPDS audience said Mitchell had offered several of the observations in the past -- "the stuff about 700 days, the stuff about how not all parties were at the table at the start of Ireland talks," she said on condition of anonymity. "I went mainly because I was curious how he would talk to a Jewish audience, and I think from that perspective it showed that he has the same message regardless of his audience, which I respect."


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