The White House is set to announce that Middle East Special Envoy George Mitchell will resign from his post, formally ending the strategy of incremental diplomacy that Mitchell hoped would produce progress in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
"The fact that this is an extraordinarily hard issue is not news to anyone in this room," White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said Friday."The president's commitment remains as firm as it was when he took office."
Mitchell, who told insiders when he took the job that he was planning to stay for about two years, had long been expected to step down. But the timing of the move is significant, as it comes one week before Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits to Washington and President Barack Obama makes a major speech on the uprisings that have occurred throughout the Arab world.
Mitchell was credited for leading the diplomatic effort that produced a peace agreement resolving the crisis in Northern Ireland, and he tried to apply the lessons learned from that conflict to the current Israeli-Palestinian dispute.
"I had 700 days of ‘no' in Northern Ireland, and one ‘yes,'" Mitchell said, when announcing the resumption of direct talks last year. "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."
But the push-and-pull diplomacy that was central to his strategy never led to a breakthrough in the Israeli-Palestinian. And now, with the prospect of a Fatah-Hamas unity government, negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority seem even less likely.
Some experts believed that Mitchell's strategy was at odds with other top administration officials, such as NSC senior director Dennis Ross, who serves as a key interlocutor with the Israeli government.
"Dennis Ross has finally taken over the portfolio. He's the one who has been doing the deal with Netanyahu," said Steve Clemons, foreign policy chief at the New America Foundation. "Mitchell was cast with trying to make [Palestinian Authority Prime Minister] Fayyad and [Palestinian Authority President] Abu Mazen overlook some of the hurdles they had to get back to negotiations while Ross was in direct communication with Netanyahu."
Clemons said that Israeli officials "studiously avoided dealing directly with Mitchell, so essentially the Obama team allowed Netanyahu to pick his interlocutors." This fact, Clemons said, hamstrung Mitchell considerably.
Mitchell had played a reduced role for the last few months. After traveling to the region frequently in 2010, he didn't travel there at all in 2011. His deputy David Hale was in the region often.
Mitchell was initially highly regarded by both the Israelis and the Palestinians. However, when the direct talks broke down last September due to Israel's resumption of settlement activity, the path forward for his strategy become unclear and the administration has yet to come up with another way forward.
"The status quo between Palestinians and Israelis is no more sustainable than the political systems that have crumbled in recent months," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said April 12 at the U.S.-Islamic World Forum. "Neither Israel's future as a Jewish democratic state nor the legitimate aspirations of Palestinians can be secured without a negotiated two-state solution. And while it is a truism that only the parties themselves can make the hard choices necessary for peace, there is no substitute for continued active American leadership."
There's no word yet he will be replaced, but one possible replacement, according to experts, would be his senior advisor and former Ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk.
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.