The Cable

Mitchell denies claim by former Bush official he plans to retire (UPDATED)

U.S. Middle East peace envoy George Mitchell is calling an "utter fabrication" a claim by a former Bush administration official that he "reportedly" plans to retire by the end of the year, according to a State Department official who spoke to Foreign Policy on Mitchell's behalf.

Former Bush administration deputy national security advisor Elliott Abrams writes in a National Review piece making headlines in Israel that it is "reported" that U.S. Middle East Envoy George Mitchell has said he wants to retire by the end of the year.

"Mitchell, who is reported to want to leave his negotiator position at the end of 2009, would be able to quit while this ‘freeze' is in place," Abrams writes. Foreign Policy has been unable to find any media reports to this effect.

"Mitchell says [the claim] is an utter fabrication," a State Department official told Foreign Policy on behalf of Mitchell Monday. "Mitchell said, ‘I have never experienced the thought, let alone expressed it.'"

"There is no truth to the rumor," State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said by e-mail.

Another Mitchell associate wrote to say he'd "never heard him speak of retirement."

Israeli daily Ha'aretz earlier today reported on its Hebrew website, according to a Hebrew-speaking associate, that Abrams also made the allegation in a private forum recently. Ha'aretz later amended the story and took out the private forum reference, the associate said.

"The only thing I have written was the NRO piece. Period," Abrams told Foreign Policy by e-mail Monday. "I said 'he is reported,' as I have been told this by people here in Washington. I could not go further than what I wrote, and could not say 'he wants to retire.'"

Asked about the Ha'aretz allegation that he said it in a private forum, Abrams said, "I don't recall saying that at a private session; what I assume I said (and I can't recall when or where) is exactly what I wrote. I don't know Mitchell well and am getting this second hand, so I would not have said he is going to leave as if I were sure of it. But people tend to forget modifiers."

Abrams' piece is critical of the Obama administration's push on the Israeli government to halt West Bank settlements.

Chatter that Mitchell may not be around in the job for long could be seen as a way to embolden those in Israel and abroad who think Israel should buck the Obama administration's call for a settlement freeze.

Mitchell has been expected to travel to the region this week, but his exact itinerary was said to be in flux. Israeli media are reporting that his plans to come to Israel at this time have been canceled for now. "I think the travel delay may be politics," Abrams, now with the Council on Foreign Relations, said. "I.e., that there's no agreement yet and he doesn't want a failed trip."

Mitchell's trip plans were not finalized yet and that's why they hadn't been yet announced, one administration hand said.

Mitchell deputy Frederic C. Hof is still abroad on official travel, having visited Syria and Israel.

UPDATE: Mitchell is expected to travel to the region later this week, spokesman P.J. Crowley said at the Monday press briefing. "His itinerary is still not completely set, but he will be traveling to talk to Israeli officials, Palestinian officials, others in the region.  I think he's got a speech scheduled in Bahrain later this week, where I think he'll have the opportunity to express once again our gratitude to Sheikh Salman for his message last week."

The Cable

Holbrooke heads to the subcontinent

U.S. Af-Pak envoy Richard Holbrooke has quietly headed to South Asia, where sources say he will be making a surreptitious stop in India following Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's meetings in that country. Holbrooke's team wouldn't confirm the planned travel or India visit when contacted Saturday (he also will visit Afghanistan, Pakistan and Brussels), and an administration official would only say the Holbrooke team would not overlap with Clinton, who is currently in New Delhi after three nights in Mumbai. But Holbrooke's itinerary was confirmed Monday after it was learned he had already departed for travel in the region.

A source explained the seeming secrecy as meant to avoid ruffling feathers in India, which is sensitive to being lumped in with the Af-Pak problem-child portfolio that Holbrooke spearheads. Clinton may have helped boost India's confidence in the Obama administration by inviting Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to Washington for the administration's first official red-carpet state visit of a foreign leader, scheduled to occur in November two days before the first anniversary of the Mumbai attacks.

Holbrooke, who along with a posse of some two dozen other envoys and senior State Department officials, attended Clinton's Wednesday foreign policy address at the Council on Foreign Relations, recently asked Dennis Ross when he would be clearing out his Foggy Bottom office space, according to one Washington foreign-policy hand.

Now that Ross is headed over to the National Security Council, Holbrooke has been sharing his architectural plans for knocking down a wall between the two envoys' spaces and taking over Ross's former offices on the building's first floor. The walls of Holbrooke's offices have been decorated with framed photos from his distinguished career (the Holbrooke "hall of fame," according to one observer). Holbrooke is said to have preferred expanding his first-floor "envoy avenue" offices -- on the well-traveled hall just a few shakes from the State Department cafeteria -- over getting extra VIP space on the secretary's seventh floor.