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Letter to a President With a Problem

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But in the world of diplomacy, textual analysis is as fine-grained—and niggling, and loony—as what goes on in any postmodern literature department. The difference between your statement and Madame Secretary’s boils down to the difference between two words: “can” and “should.” And in that difference lies the source of the wailing and gnashing that the speech has provoked, especially from our pal Bibi.

Who knew that “Netanyahu” was Hebrew for “drama queen”? His reaction to the speech was predictable but still way over the top. (Don’t get me started about Mitt Romney and the rest of the Repbulicans, who have provided new definitions of shamelessness, pandering, and idiocy, all in one fell swoop.) On myriad issues that matter hugely to Bibi, your speech should have thrilled him no end, with its scornful rejection of the Palestinian attempt to gain recognition via the U.N.; its forceful criticism of Hamas and its gimlet-eyed questioning of its new alliance with Fatah; its condemnation of Iran; its strong language against Syria; and its reaffirmation of the rock-solid bond between the U.S. and Israel. But instead, because Bibi was not expecting it—because, I suspect, Ross was telling him it wouldn’t be there—the border issue sent him into a tizzy.

Why is he behaving this way? The answer is obvious: He is playing to the folks back home, as he has been all along. Which brings me to one of my central (and dispiriting) conclusions. All through the nearly two and a half years that I served as your envoy, Netanyahu’s behavior has been driven by domestic politics. And now that his coalition is secure, after Barak moved his Independence Party into it, he sees no upside in taking the risks required to achieve peace.

But Netanyahu is not the only one at fault for where we are. Troubling as the “reconciliation” between Fatah and Hamas surely is, it is wrong to say that it is the central reason a deal is now all but impossible under current conditions; in fact, the merger is a reaction to the unlikelihood of a deal, an attempt by Abu Mazen to salvage some domestic political legacy from the wreckage of the peace process. Yet Abbas himself deserves much of the blame for that wreckage. For if Bibi has never had the requisite desire to engineer a deal, his Palestinian counterpart, in my judgment, has never had the requisite stones—which is to say, the guts—to make painful compromises or even to come to the table.

A politically savvy friend of mine once observed that the Israelis are always happy to hold talks as long as they go nowhere, while the Palestinians are desperate to strike a deal as long as they have to do nothing to get there. I’m afraid this pretty much sums things up. In the absence of meaningful change in the domestic political situations on both sides, the peace process is, for now, dead—or, if a cheerier formulation would provide some small comfort, comatose. This, in reality, is why I have resigned: The assignment you tasked me with was to negotiate peace, and I have reached the conclusion that there is no realistic prospect of negotiations, let alone peace, in the foreseeable future.

Given all this, the point of your speech last week was not, as so much reporting and punditry maintained, to rejuvenate that process. It was to forestall a recognition of the reality that it is moribund, which might lead to an escalation in violence, and to lay down a marker for when the moment comes that negotiations can fruitfully resume (though it may be quite a while).

As for what you should do in the meantime, Mr. President, there is a train wreck that must be averted: the looming, Abbas-pushed vote on Palestinian statehood at the U.N. General Assembly in September. Were recognition to be granted in this way, it would turn an already grim situation into something absolutely bleak, emboldening the Palestinians and making the Israelis feel cornered and isolated—pushing both parties into the positions, in other words, in which they tend to behave worst. The appearance that you are carrying Bibi’s water, by not only vetoing the resolution in the Security Council but strong-arming Europe to reject it as well, will be unfortunate, especially in light of everything occurring in the Arab world. But you really have no choice.

For my part, I want again to thank you for the opportunity to serve as your special envoy. The experience was supremely frustrating, and no doubt I made errors that contributed to the awful stalemate that we now confront. I hate to leave you in this pickle. But it is, as they say, why you get paid the big bucks.

Yours Sincerely,

George John Mitchell Jr.

E-mail: jheilemann@gmail.com.


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