George Mitchell, President Obama's special envoy to the Middle East, is back in the region. What is the broad strategy underlying this renewed effort at achieving a peaceful settlement?
Clues are provided by what he and others close to him have said - nothing earth-shatteringly new, though it is useful to have it spelled out. Early in January the US Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs, Jeff Feltman, said it in seven words: "a comprehensive peace in the Middle East". That this was no mere mechanical reiteration of a cliché is clear from the fact that Mitchell used the self-same phrase during his visit to Syria last Wednesday – and then went on to elaborate what was meant by "comprehensive". Acting on behalf of President Obama, he is seeking peace agreements not only between Israel and the Palestinians (we all know that), but also between Israel and Syria, and between Israel and Lebanon. A tall order indeed, but even so not quite tall enough for the White House. "And it also includes," added Mitchell, "the full normalization of relations between Israel and the Arab states."
It is, perhaps, no surprise that the USA regards the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute as the key to solving the whole puzzle. Get that up and running, is the theory, and the rest will fall into place. The theory is certainly debatable – but let it stand for the moment.
What does US strategy postulate as the essential conditions for achieving that first, major step? It proposes a three-track approach:
1. Negotiation. To get the two parties to the negotiating table is vital, no matter how long it may take, or how convoluted the diplomatic manoeuvres that may be required. Moving towards that essential goal has been difficult. Much of 2009 was lost because of internal political problems on both sides. The Israeli general election in February was followed by a long period of adjustment, and it was not till May that Netanyahu was in a position to start talking to Washington. On the Palestinian side, Mahmoud Abbas had to wait till after the stormy Fatah party congress in August, the first held for twenty years. Nevertheless, before the end of 2009 both sides had at least signed up to the concept of a two-state solution.
2. Security. Both Israel and the Palestinians need the assurance of security: Israel in respect of its overall integrity, the Palestinians to ensure that their own police and military forces can effectively control the West Bank.
3. Institutional development. The USA is viewing with favour the efforts of Palestinian Authority prime minister, Salaam Fayyad, to develop the economy of the West Bank in order to provide a solid foundation for eventual statehood. And not only the USA, for Tony Blair, the Quartet's Middle East Envoy, is actively supportive, and even Benjamin Netanyahu approves the idea of economic development in the West Bank.
In his first week back in the Middle East, George Mitchell has indeed – in conformity with US perceived strategy – visited Lebanon, Syria and Israel.
In Lebanon, which has some 367,000 Palestinian refugees living in 12 camps across the country, Mitchell told Prime Minister Saad Hariri that the country would play a key role in building a comprehensive peace in the region. Moving on to Damascus, Mitchell met with President Bashar Al Asad – their third encounter – and said the same thing with regard to Syria. Mitchell then made his way back to Israel, and this very morning had a two-hour session with Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. Afterwards, opening the normal Sunday Cabinet meeting, Netanyahu said: "I heard a number of ideas on how to jump-start the political process, and expressed my hope that these ideas will enable the renewal of the peace process – if the Palestinians express a similar interest in these ideas – for the sake of all those who seek reconciliation in our region."
Mitchell is reportedly heading for Jordan and then for Egypt in this latest phase of his shuttle-cock diplomatic effort. And we will keep a watchful eye on how things pan out.