Exactly one year ago, on 22 January 2009, in a special ceremony in the White House, newly elected President Obama named George Mitchell his "special envoy to the Middle East". The event, attended also by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, was widely interpreted as a determination on Obama's part to involve himself and his new administration in working for, and in finally achieving, a settlement to the long-running Arab-Israel dispute.
At the ceremony Mitchell said that, along with Obama and Clinton, he believed the objective of a Jewish state and a Palestinian state living side by side was possible, and that the conflict, old as it was, could be resolved – a lesson, he said, he learned during his negotiations in Northern Ireland.
"From my experience there," said Mitchell, "I formed the conviction that there is no such thing as a conflict that can't be ended. Conflicts are created, conducted and sustained by human beings. They can be ended by human beings."
Yesterday Mitchell arrived in Jerusalem for a new round of shuttle diplomacy aimed at restarting Israeli-Palestinian talks. But he did so in an atmosphere rendered either sour or realistic – depending on how one views such things – by virtue of an interview given by President Obama to Time magazine, and published virtually as Mitchell stepped off the plane at Ben Gurion airport. The essence of Obama's message is that neither Israel nor the Palestinians have been willing to make the bold gestures necessary to move the peace process forward, and the President admits that his administration had "overestimated" (his own word) its ability to bring the two sides to the table.
No doubt Mitchell will, with the quiet determination and diplomatic skill which are his trade marks, pursue his goal of trying to persuade both sides to start meaningful talks, but there's more than one way of skinning a cat. For example, a resolution of Israel's dispute with Syria would bring in its train enormous positive consequences for the Palestinian-Israeli issue – and there are clear signs that minds are focusing on Syria.
Syria has long perceived itself as the last Arab confrontation state to share a border with Israel. Recovering the Golan Heights has been the specific aim of Syria's policy ever since the Six Day War, but it is only a part of a broader ambition to play the leading role in the region. Though allied with Iran for some years in its general policy towards Israel, Syria must now be looking askance at Iran's bid for domination of the Muslim world.
Through the good offices of Turkey, Syria and Israel have been speaking indirectly with each other since 2008, and the Syrians have wanted to open a new phase in negotiations with Israel in the same way. Israel has seemed to favour direct talks with the Syrians. Mitchell has announced that he will be going to Syria on his current visit to try to foster meaningful negotiations.
"And we are prepared to do it in any manner which is acceptable to the two sides," he said in an interview in the States on 7 January. "So far they have not found a formula that would enable them to get into it. We believe that an Israel-Syria track could operate in parallel with an Israeli-Palestinian track on discussions."