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Brit Tzedek v'Shalom

Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace

Mitchell expresses support for Palestinian unity government

The Jerusalem Post

February 18, 2009

By Hilary Leila Krieger

US Middle East Envoy George Mitchell expressed support for Egyptian efforts to forge a Palestinian national unity government, indicating that America could take a new tack on Fatah-Hamas reconciliation, during a conference call Thursday with Jewish leaders.

In sharp contrast to the Bush administration, which opposed a Palestinian national unity government, Mitchell said that should Egypt bring the sides together it would be "a step forward," and that until now divisions among the Palestinians have been a major obstacle to bringing peace to the region, according to representatives of Jewish organizations who participated in the call. The 45-minute call was on the record but not open to the media.

Though Mitchell said that Hamas would still need to adhere to the Quartet's demands that it halt violence, recognize Israel and accept previous Palestinian-Israeli agreements in such a government, and that chances for that weren't good, the fact that the US would support a Palestinian structure aimed at incorporating and potentially co-opting Hamas rather than working to exclude it suggested the contours of a fresh approach by the Obama administration.

The State Department did not immediately respond to requests for clarification on its policy on a Palestinian unity government.

Mitchell did not take a position on the notion of an Israeli national unity government during the call, saying that decisions about the coalition make-up were ones to be made by Israelis alone.

He did, however, appear to take a position differing from that of Binyamin Netanyahu, the Likud leader likely to head Israel's next government, when he maintained that economic progress for the Palestinians had to be accompanied by political progress.

Where Netanyahu - who was not mentioned even implicitly in Mitchell's comments, according to those on the call - has focused on the importance of improving the socio-economic condition of Palestinians while prospects for peace appear dim, Mitchell said those improvements must be part of comprehensive peace efforts.

He compared it to an builder who might be starting with the foundation but still needed a master plan to create a house.

Despite the coalition wrangling which has yet to be resolved, Mitchell said he would still be departing for the region as planned this weekend, his second trip since he was appointed in the first week of US President Barack Obama's term. His first trip was a "listening" tour to hear from the different parties in the conflict, and he said that positions on all the issues were still being reviewed, including toward settlements.

He said that he would not "pre-judge" the settlement issue, surprising some listeners who had expected he would offer criticism, particularly since he co-authored a report in 2001 highly critical of settlement construction.

He did note, however, that it was one of many important issues, though not the only issue, and that it was one mentioned in every conversation he held with Arab representatives.

Though some of the call participants from left-leaning organizations seemed dismayed that Mitchell did not take a more aggressive line on settlements, others were reassured that he didn't feel beholden to his earlier report.

The call featured a variety of organizations, including the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, the United Jewish Communities and Orthodox Union, with about half the questions asked by progressive organizations, including Brit Tzedek v'Shalom and the New Israel Fund, that have not always been included in previous administrations' outreach.

Mitchell told the callers that he re-read his report while returning from his last trip to Israel and had been struck by how much had changed in the region since then. As an example, he cited Iran - which wasn't included at all in the 2001 study but now was in the first sentence he heard from all of the players.

He also warned against relying too much on history and historical comparisons, noting that his work brokering peace in North Ireland did not provide the best blueprint for resolving the Middle East conflict since the latter was not only different but tougher to solve.

Still, he said that one lesson he had learned from his experience was the importance of having representation from all the different factions in the conflict. His remarks about the positive impact Egypt's efforts at bringing Palestinians together were made in this context.

It is a comparison that others have made, and seen as a sign that this US administration might be more willing to talk to Hamas than the previous one.

Mitchell, however, did not suggest that that was possible, and reiterated that the Quartet's demands remain in place. However, a willingness to work with a unity government, as opposed to a policy of isolating Hamas in hopes that that would diminish its power and popularity, would still represent a dramatic change in America's approach.

As a starting point it was welcomed by Henry Siegman, director of the New York-based US Middle East Project, whose senior advisers and board members represent a bi-partisan group of former high-ranking US foreign policy officials primarily from the "realist" school of thought.

They recently sent a letter to the Obama administration urging a change in policy which would reach out to Hamas.

Siegman said that welcoming, instead of opposing, a Palestinian unity government was a positive sign. He argued that negotiations aimed at moderating Hamas would be most effective if the Americans were directly involved, but said European and other international intermediaries could also work. "The important thing is that such initiatives would have to be supported by the administration," he said.

He said that the administration had indicated it would like to meet with the authors of the letter, which has not been made public, but no date has yet been set.




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