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Fresh Air

President Obama has started off his term strongly. From freezing the pay of people working for him, to issuing strong ethical guidelines for the behavior of those who serve with him, to declaring that accountability in government will best be served by adhering to the principles embodied in the Freedom of Information Act, Obama has made it clear that he intends to preside over an entirely different approach to government than the Bush Administration. The latest evidence of his pragmatic, no-nonsense approach is the appointment of former Senator George Mitchell as the special envoy for Middle East peace. The following speech was given by Sen. Mitchell at the Institute of National Security Studies in Tel Aviv on December 18, 2008. I wonder if the Israelis, when they realized the implications of what he said, decided that they only had one more chance to kill Palestinians – that one result of Sen. Mitchell’s appointment could be a sharp reduction in the amount of weapons that the United States supplies to Israel every year. Another result could be that the United States would no longer support the idea that peace could be reached through violence and death. Read the speech and come to your own conclusions. I think the appointment of George Mitchell is brilliant and could lead to progress towards a lasting peace, after so much violence and death inflicted by Israel over the last 40 years.

The American Perspective

by George Mitchell

Thank you, Professor. Mr. Lowy, distinguished guests, members of the Institute, it is an honor for me to be with you today to discuss the subject of this conference, the US-Israeli Alliance Under New Administrations. As we all know, on January 20th the United States will have a new president. Three weeks later Israel will elect a new Knesset and begin the process of forming a government. Whatever the administrations, the US-Israeli relationship will remain strong. As President Elect Obama said recently, “Our alliance is based on share interests and shared values. Those who threaten Israel threaten us. I will bring to the White House an unshakable commitment to Israel’s security”. This of course reaffirmed many similar statements by his predecessors. A strong relationship has always been America’s objective and policy.

As he takes office Obama confronts very serious problems at home. The United States currently faces its worst economic crisis since the great depression. Unemployment is surging, home prices have fallen sharply, and the federal budget deficit this fiscal year will be the largest ever by far. But even as he deals with these problems he will have to confront several difficult foreign policy issues. In this region, as he has made clear, he will give high priority to a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian issue. He also will have to manage the withdrawal of US forces from Iraq and an increase in our focus on Afghanistan, including higher force levels there. Iran’s continuing ambitions in this region, including its drive to acquire nuclear weapons. Continuing tensions between India and Pakistan. And the ongoing threat of terrorism against the United States, its citizens and its allies. Of course, Israel has its own concerns. Among them are that the president of Iran continues to threaten Israel’s existence. Hamas controls Gaza and continues both its rocket attacks and its refusal to recognize Israel’s right to exist. Hizbullah has rearmed with weapons supplied by Iran and Syria. And there is growing pessimism among Israelis and Palestinians that a peace agreement can be reached in the near future.

As our two countries confront these challenges in a region filled with both peril and opportunity, it is essential that our president and your prime minister have a relationship of trust and confidence. Matters of tactics and timing are often subjects of disagreement, debate, of give and take between sovereign countries. This is inevitable, understandable and should trouble no one. But on the major issues, including a comprehensive and sustainable peace between Israel and its neighbors, and turning Iran away from nuclear weapons, it is important that our leaders work together and agree on objectives and strategy.

Much has happened in this region since I chaired the Sharm e-Sheikh fact finding committee in 2001. Seven years, or even sixty years, is a long time. But consider Northern Ireland, where last year the ancient conflict known as the troubles ended, when long time enemies came together to form a power-sharing government. This was almost eight hundred years after Britain began its domination of Ireland, eighty-six years after the partition of Ireland, thirty-eight years after the British Army formally began its most recent mission in Ireland, eleven years after the peace talks began and nine years after the peace agreement was signed. In the negations which led up to that agreement we had seven hundred days of failure and one day of success. I spent five years going to, coming from and working in Northern Ireland during which I chaired three separate sets of negotiations. For almost all of that time progress was very slow or mostly non-existent. So, for those of you in the Middle East who are discouraged, I understand your feelings. But from my experience in Northern Ireland I formed the conviction that there is no such thing as a conflict that can’t be ended. Conflicts are created and conducted by human beings. They can be ended by human beings. I saw it happen in Northern Ireland although admittedly it took a very long time. I believe deeply that with committed, persevering and active diplomacy it can happen in the Middle East.

It has been nearly a decade since the effective end of the Oslo Process. Thousands have died. Israel’s economy, despite impressive growth, is nevertheless not as strong as it would be without this conflict. The Palestinian economy has been very severely damaged. There are of course many many reasons to be doubtful, even skeptical, about the possibilities of an agreement here. But the pursuit of peace is so important that it demands our continued effort, no matter what the difficulties or the setbacks.

One key is the mutual commitment of the parties and the active participation of the United States Government, and the many other governments and institutions who want to help. Much is required of leaders who wish to achieve the goal of two democratic independent states living in peace. They must first reconcile the fact that the circumstances and the objectives of the two sides are different. Israel has a state but its people live in unbearable anxiety, so security for the people is an overriding objective. The Palestinians don’t have a state and they want one, an independent, economically viable and geographically integral state; that is their overriding objective. I believe that neither can attain its objective by denying to the other side its objectives. Israelis are not likely to have sustainable security if the Palestinians don’t have a state and Palestinians will never achieve a state until the people of Israel have some security. So with each launched missile or suicide bomb attack the prospect of a Palestinian state is delayed, not advanced. But there must be available to Palestinians the clear alternative, an alternative which they must seize of a non-violent path to a Palestinian state living in peace alongside a Jewish state. Palestinians in turn must accept that the Israeli demand for security is as real and as necessary as is their demand for a state.

Of course this has been and remains American policy. President Bush reiterated that earlier this year in Jerusalem when he said, and I quote: “The point of departure for permanent status negotiation to realize this vision seems clear. There should be an end to the occupation that began in 1967. The agreement must establish Palestine as a homeland for the Palestinian people, just as Israel is a homeland for the Jewish people. These negotiations must ensure that Israel has secure, recognized and defensible borders, and they must ensure that the state of Palestine is viable, continuous, sovereign and independent. It is vital that each side understand that satisfying the other’s fundamental objective is key to a successful agreement. Security for Israel and viability for the Palestinian state are the mutual interests of both parties”.

Unfortunately the positive attitude so carefully nurtured during the previous decade appear to have largely dissipated, replaced by a growing sense of futility, of despair, of the inevitability of conflict. Hamas’ electoral victory and its takeover of Gaza create political instability and increasing anxiety. Here in Israel there is political uncertainty as you look toward elections and a new government.

President Elect Obama also said recently that he intends to make progress on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict a key diplomatic priority. He went on to say that his administration will make a sustained push, working with Israelis and Palestinians, to achieve the goal of two states, a Jewish state in Israel and a Palestinian state living side by side in peace and security. I believe that this effort must be determined and persevering, backed up by political capital, economic resources and focused attention at the highest levels of government. This does not mean that it should be an American process or an American agreement. To the contrary, it must be firmly rooted in a shared vision of the people who live here for a peaceful future. But experience has shown that firm, constant and creative US diplomacy can be helpful. No two countries, no two conflicts are the same. So what happened in Northern Ireland cannot be precisely replicated here or anywhere else. But it does offer an example of what can happen when peace makes a better life possible.

I know that cynicism and fear are on the rise and that it will be very difficult to overcome the obstacles that are many and large. There is much history here to overcome. But there also was a lot of history in Northern Ireland. There decades of bitter, brutal sectarian warfare had created public attitudes that were deeply negative and filled with despair. Just four days before the agreement was reached, a public opinion poll reported that 83% of the public believed that no agreement was possible. Only 7% thought it possible; 10% had no opinion. But four days later we did get an agreement and it has held.

Competing claims, religious differences and many other factors have led to a grinding, demoralizing and destructive conflict here. The two sides can continue in conflict indefinitely, or they find a way to live side by side in peace and with stability. I believe with all my heart and soul that it can be done and it must be done, for the alternative is unacceptable and should be unthinkable.

Thanks for inviting me here to join with you. I look forward to your questions and comments. Thank you very much.

4 Comments on “Fresh Air”

  1. #1 Debi Kelly Van Cleave
    on Jan 23rd, 2009 at 9:17 pm

    Short on time so I was only able to quickly scan that piece, but I have to say that I think President Obama is picking some great people.

    http://www.GreenerPastures–ACityGirlGoesCountry.blogspot.com

  2. #2 colleen
    on Jan 24th, 2009 at 1:04 pm

    I feel like the White House is inhabited again. It feels good to breathe freely again.

  3. #3 June
    on Jan 24th, 2009 at 9:23 pm

    He’s not wasting any time…which is good since there’s not a moment to waste! Good to have intelligence, energy, and committment back!! Why he even worked this weekend. I can’t help but recall how much time W spent in Crawford TX.

  4. #4 Beth
    on Jan 25th, 2009 at 11:17 am

    I’m very encouraged so far by the changes President Obama has made. He is showing himself to be just as intelligent and thoughtful as I perceived him to be. And it appears that he is surrounding himself with intelligent and thoughtful people—a welcome contrast to the previous administration.

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