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Letter to a President With a Problem

A top-secret missive from George Mitchell, the just-resigned special Middle East envoy, explaining why he quit.


Illustration by Andy Friedman  

Dear Mr. President: Let me be among the first to offer congratulations for your speech yesterday at the State Department. As you already know, on the central question of the Israelis and the Palestinians, the final draft did not go as far toward outlining the proper framework for a two-state solution as I would have liked—about which more in a moment. But your words, I thought, were inspirational, measured, idealistic, and tough-minded in the right proportions. That you are now getting so much grief for them from our friends in the region is not a result of any misjudgment on your part. Instead, the blowback is a sign of just how maddeningly, depressingly intractable the situation there has become.

I am sorry that we didn’t have a chance to talk before I tendered my resignation. Between killing bin Laden, rustling up your birth certificate, and gearing up for your reelection campaign, you have been quite busy—and at my age, I take a lot more naps, so scheduling has been a bitch. But I did want to take the opportunity to explain why I am departing now, especially in light of all the errant speculation. I also wanted to give you a final, candid assessment of where things stand some 850 days after you appointed me as U.S. special envoy for the Middle East, along with a few words of parting advice.

I write this before your meeting on May 20 with Prime Minister Netanyahu. By the time you read it, you and he will both have spoken at the annual AIPAC policy conference in Washington, and he will have delivered his address to a joint session of Congress. With all due respect to both of you, however, my guess is that nothing that either of you says, publicly or privately, in the next few days will alter the underlying political and diplomatic dynamics governing the situation.

Before turning to that, let me quickly dispense with the theories being spouted about why I chose to quit. In the main, there are two. The first revolves around bureaucratic infighting: that I was piqued about being frozen out of internal deliberations, and even in my relationship to you, by your national-security adviser, Tom Donilon, and your special assistant on the Middle East, Dennis Ross. And the second, not unrelated to the first, revolves around policy: that I was on the losing end of our team’s (recently highly intense) debate about modifying U.S. policy in light of the breakdown between the two sides, the dawning of the Arab Spring, and the wave of instability engulfing the region.

On the question of interpersonal relations, it is true that Tom and Dennis have been—how to put this gently?—a royal pain in my ass. But I am a big boy, and if that were the only issue in play, I would have stayed on. More to the point, I have never felt that anything interfered with the communication and trust between us, Mr. President, despite the best efforts of smaller men.

On the question of policy, the answer is somewhat more complex and leads directly to the broader themes of this letter. In the internal debate leading up to your State Department speech, as you know, there were deep disagreements among the players in your foreign-policy operation about just how far to go. Elliott Abrams, among others, has contended that I advocated that you lay out an “American detailed plan for Middle East peace,” and that when you rejected that approach, it was the final straw for me. But that wasn’t my position. Any detailed peace plan would have included not just U.S. principles on borders, security, Jerusalem, and refugees, but a proposed map as the basis for negotiating a final settlement—the last of which I did not favor and have never argued for.

What I did advocate, as did Secretary Clinton, was including principles on all four of the above areas; Donilon and Ross, among others, wished to include none, and until the final days before the speech, it appeared that they would have their way. So, in truth, I was more than satisfied with where you came down. Those who claimed in advance that there would be no “Mitchell DNA” in the speech were proven wrong; the night before, I was on the line with Tom’s deputy, Denis McDonough, offering my input, which your speech incorporated—and for which I am most grateful.

The inclusion of a principle on borders—that they “should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed [land] swaps,” as you put it—has kicked up a hell of a commotion, as we fully knew it would. Not that, in substance, endorsing the use of the boundaries that existed before the 1967 war is in any way controversial. Everyone has long known that this would be the basis of any deal. It was the template that Bill Clinton, Ehud Barak, and Yasser Arafat employed in their peace efforts, as it was for George W. Bush, Ariel Sharon, and Ehud Olmert. And it was extremely close to what Secretary Clinton said in 2009: “We believe ... the parties can mutually agree on an outcome … based on the 1967 lines, with agreed swaps.”


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