George Mitchell: Good for the Jews?

By | Jan 23, 2009
History, Latest

By Jeremy Gillick

Yes, it’s true. Barack Obama has ordered Guantanamo closed. That’s big news, at least symbolically. But the bigger news, the decision that could really change things in the Middle East, is his selection of George Mitchell as special envoy for the Middle East.

Unlike the other candidates for the position-Dennis Ross and fellow Clintonites like Martin Indyk, Aaron David Miller, and Dan Kurtzer-Mitchell’s resume includes making peace in addition to policy.

And critics of the Mitchell appointment (lefties: the special envoy doesn’t matter anyway, righties: Mitchell is too “fair”) are not very convincing.

Perhaps the most fascinating tidbit I stumbled on while parsing through old magazine articles about Mitchell was a piece by Atlantic Editor Andrew Sullivan titled “Fighting Irish” from the New Republic’s August, 2001 issue. Sullivan argues that Mitchell, among others, was naive to think that militant groups–the IRA, in this case–would put down their arms and enter the political mainstream.

This is not some paradox or irony. It is a demonstration of the obvious: You cannot negotiate peace with people whose power is entirely dependent on the will to wage war. This is anathema to many Americans steeped in the banality that peace talks are always better than no talks, that ancient conflicts can always be solved by the right facilitator. But the IRA’s refusal to disarm is no mystery. War is its rationale. If power really were negotiated and shared, the IRA would be supplanted by moderate Republicans who would, by their very involvement in an Ulster government, legitimize continued British sovereignty. Why should a group that has gained everything it has through violence and murder, and whose raison d’etre is implacable hostility to any British presence, ever decide that politics is a useful alternative? It’s like asking turkeys to vote for Thanksgiving. They can’t. They won’t. And real peace won’t break out until they do.

The analysis makes sense, and many commentators on the Middle East speak in very similar language today about groups like Hamas and Hezbollah, and rogue countries like Syria. But by 2005, the IRA had put down its arms. According to Sullivan’s logic, turkeys were voting for Thanksgiving.

It’s not clear to what extent the lessons of Ireland are applicable to the Middle East. It’s possible, not unlikely, even, that Hamas will never put down its arms and accept Israel’s right to exist within its 1967 borders. But if there’s anyone who can convince it to do so, that person is George Mitchell. And he’s pretty confident: “There is no such thing as a conflict that can’t be ended,” he said yesterday after being appointed. Let’s hope that’s really true.

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