EDITORIAL - Peace in pieces: Envoy given hard time by Israel and Palestinians

Written by Susan Mannella on .

No one, starting with former Sen. George J. Mitchell, whom President Barack Obama made U.S. special envoy for the Middle East, thought that restarting the Israeli-Palestinian peace process would be easy.

The parties to it have resisted complete resolution of the problem since its inception, in 1948. Different U.S. presidents, notably Jimmy Carter, have made some limited progress. President George W. Bush put the "two states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace" proposal on the table, with a target date for realization at the end of his term. It didn't happen.

Mr. Mitchell has been to the Middle East three times since he was assigned the problem. The Israeli side in the form of new Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in effect handed him his head during his most recent trip. Mr. Netanyahu indicated the Palestinians would have to recognize Israel as a Jewish state before he would talk to them.

The Palestine Liberation Organization has already recognized Israel; adding the "Jewish state" part as a precondition to talks is to ask them to give up in advance a point that still needs to be negotiated, the status of Palestinian refugees who wish to return to the former Palestine. Israel's status as a Jewish state is also already called into question by the fact that some 20 percent of those living in it are Christian or Muslim, not Jewish.

Mr. Netanyahu's positions on this subject, on the future of Jerusalem, and on the concept of giving up land that Israel occupied in 1967 in return for peace are already well-known, clear barriers to potentially fruitful talks with the Palestinians.

The Palestinians themselves at the moment are in an equally unhelpful posture from Mr. Mitchell's and the United States' point of view. His visit included a stop in the West Bank, to meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, but the Palestinians remain severely divided between Fatah in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza, constituting another barrier to potentially fruitful talks.

Mr. Mitchell himself still needs to meet with Hamas, Syria and Iran, all players in the messy picture in the region, if he is to come nearer to success in his negotiating effort.

Mr. Obama himself launched into the fray directly Tuesday after his first meeting with a leader from the region, King Abdullah II of Jordan. Jordan has made peace with Israel while retaining decent relations with the other interested parties in the region. The president plans to invite Mr. Netanyahu, Mr. Abbas, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and perhaps other regional leaders to the White House in coming weeks for separate talks with each of them.

It will take that and more, and many more trips to the troubled region if Mr. Mitchell and the president are to have more success wrestling with the problem than previous administrations have had. However, given the centrality of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to U.S. foreign affairs, and particularly to sensitive Western-Muslim relations in general, the effort is very much worth making for the United States.


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