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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: January 23, 2009 @ 11:46 am

    George Mitchell: Blessed are the peacemakers

    Deaglán de Bréadún

    The appointment of  George Mitchell as President Obama’s new Middle East peace envoy has to be the first piece of good news about that troubled part of the world in a long, long time.

    As a journalist covering the Northern Ireland peace talks ten years ago for The Irish Times, I got to know the former Senator Mitchell quite well. He is an impressive personality. He speaks clearly and lucidly, which marks him out from many other politicians for a start.

    He also has a fairminded and balanced approach, partly arising from his personal outlook but also deriving from his experience as a judge. He was Senate Majority leader in the US for six years, so he knows a good deal about conciliation and keeping disparate elements “on side”.

    He was one of those outstanding individuals who, by happy historical coincidence, joined together in the difficult and frustrating but ultimately successful effort to bring peace to the troubled soil of Northern Ireland.

     In my book, The Far Side of Revenge: Making Peace in Northern Ireland (second edition published by Collins Press, 2008) I chronicle Mitchell’s role as chairman of the talks leading to the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. Whereas the critical players were people like Tony Blair, Bertie Ahern, Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness, David Trimble and Seamus Mallon, because they were the ones who had to take the risks and put themselves on the line, the part played by George Mitchell was pretty well indispensable.

    He was an ideal chairman. He calmed people down. He seemed actually to like the negotiators on all sides, or at least to understand the pressures they were under. He has a deep humanity and concern for others, especially the long-suffering folk of Northern Ireland and, no doubt, the Middle East as well.

    The US has (often rightly) come in for a lot of flak politically in recent decades. In many people’s eyes around the world it has, rightly or wrongly, become a synonym for warmongering and greed. But there is a better side to that country, there is a great deal of idealism there and it produces fine people as well as those who are regarded as reactionaries. I think of Bruce Morrison, for example, who also played an important role in the peace process, and of course Senator Mitchell himself.

    He showed that better side of America in his dealings with the politicians and people of Northern Ireland. The  ultimate test is that you would find it very, very difficult, if not impossible, to find anyone on either side in the North who would have a bad word to say about him.

    When I met him in Belfast last year, we compared notes on Prostate Cancer. I was able to tell him about my successful treatment for the disease. I trust that he, too, has  made a full recovery because he will sure as  hell need all his strength for the awesome task ahead.

    This is his second time entering the Middle East fray. Another veteran of the N. Ireland talks, Tony Blair, also became a peace envoy but he has not made much impact unfortunately. He did a very good job in Belfast but his credibility in the Arab world must have plummeted when he back the ill-advised Iraqi invasion. I couldn’t help noticing that, when Gaza was being bombed back to the Stone Age, Mr Blair was in Washington getting a medal from President Bush. Wrong time, wrong signal, Tony!

    Let’s wish George Mitchell the best of luck in his endeavours. He’s sure going to need it.

    • Joanna Tuffy T.D. says:


      Must have a read of your book! You are right what you say about America. There is also great political debate online that we could do with more of in Ireland. Thought you might be interested in the attached: http://tpmcafe.talkingpointsmemo.com/2009/01/23/mitchell_at_last_an_honest_broker/


    • Frank says:

      There is another viewpoint -good guy that he is and was in the North he may not make out in MIDDLE EAST where he has been before in 2001
      Mitchell, A Mideast Envoy With A Tendentious Legacy

      By David Bedein, Middle East Correspondent
      Published: Friday, January 23, 2009
      Jerusalem — Following President Obama’s appointment of former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell of Maine as his Middle East envoy, it may be instructive to remember the tendentiousness of George Mitchell’s 2001 report titled “The Mitchell Report on the al-Aqsa Intifadah” (www.mideastweb.


      This genesis of this report stemmed from President Bill Clinton’s Oct. 2000 appointment of an international investigation commission to determine the causes of the Palestinian insurrection, which was deemed the Second Intifada — the Arabic term for “shaking off” — in this instance, shaking off Israel. To this commission, President Clinton named Sen. Mitchell, who is of Arab descent through his mother, as its chairman, along with a Jewish-American, former U.S. Sen. Warren Rudman, to the panel, in addition to three prominent European diplomats.

      The initial Israeli response to the publication of the Mitchell Commission report in May 2001 was a sigh of relief when the Mitchell Commission did not blame Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon for instigating the riots in Sept. 2000 when he visited the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, which some said had sparked the Arab rioting.

      However, even with the Sharon Temple Mount accusation out of the way, the Mitchell Commission report accepted every Palestinian premise for the violence at the time.

      The Mitchell Commission accepted as a given that the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO)-led riots were based on a movement for “independence and genuine self-determination,” without giving any credence to the PLO goal, stated in all PLO publications, maps and media outlets, even during the current Oslo process, which consistently and clearly states that “liberation” of Palestine, all of Palestine — in stages — remained the goal.

      For some reason, the Mitchell Commission characterized the rioters armed with Molotov cocktails as “unarmed Palestinian demonstrators,” a term that they apparently borrowed from PLO information reports that were published at the time.

      The Mitchell Commission took the position that Israel’s security forces did not face a clear and present danger when faced with a mob trying to kill them with rocks and firebombs.

      It made no mention that the Palestinian Authority (PA) has amassed 50,000 more weapons than they were supposed to have, in clear violation of the written Oslo accords.

      The Mitchell Commission surprisingly accepted the notion that the PA security officials are simply “not in control” of their own tightly-controlled security services.

      The Mitchell Commission would not consider reliable intelligence reports that documented the PA had planned the uprising. It also failed to relate documentation showing the PA had spent past seven years preparing its media, school system and security services for a violent confrontation with Israel.

      Indeed, in late May 2000, a senior official of Israeli intelligence conducted a press briefing where he revealed intelligence information that the PLO was planning riots for late Sept. 2000.

      It said the notion the PA leadership had failed to prevent terrorist attacks against Israel as only an Israeli “view,” ignoring consistent incitement that Arafat had conveyed to his own media for the previous seven years.

      The Mitchell Commission also rejected Israel’s characterization of the conflict, as “armed conflict short of war”; (How else would you describe an army that fires mortar rounds into Israeli cities?)

      The Mitchell Commission also condemned the Israel Defense Force’s killing of PLO combat officers during a time of war, without giving an alternative.

      Instead of issuing a clear call to the PLO to stop sniper attacks on Israel’s roads and highways, the Mitchell Commission simply “condemned the positioning of gunmen within or near civilian dwellings,” leaving the observer to assume that PLO attacks from empty embankments would be acceptable.

      The Mitchell Commission suggested that “the IDF should consider withdrawing to positions held before Sept. 28, 2000, … to reduce the number of friction points,” ignoring the fact that this would leave entry points to many Israeli cities without appropriate protection during a time of war.

      The Mitchell Commission also demanded that Israel should transfer to the PA all tax revenues owed, and permit Palestinians who had been employed in Israel to return to their jobs, strangely recommending that Israel once again pay salaries of armed PLO personnel who were at war with Israel.

      Meanwhile, the Mitchell Commission took a page out of Arab propaganda when it called on Israeli “security forces and settlers to refrain from the destruction of homes and roads, as well as trees and other agricultural property in Palestinian areas,” and would not relate to the possibility that some of the trees and agricultural land had been razed may have provided cover to PA security forces during combat.

      The Mitchell Commission also accepted the notion that “settlers and settlements in their midst” remains a cause of the Palestinian uprising, because these Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria violate “the spirit of the Oslo process,” even though not one word appears in the actual Oslo accords would require the dismemberment of a single Israeli settlement.

      In conclusion, the Mitchell Commission drew a strange comparison between “settlement activities” and the Palestinian inability to resume negotiations, so long as “settlement activities” continue, providing an excuse for the PLO to continue its armed conflict.

      In short, the Mitchell Commission Report drove a nail into the coffin of any credibility that George Mitchell could ever have to serve as a potential Middle East envoy.

    • John says:

      Would like to know your thoughts on this article.

    • Deaglán says:

      Interesting article, John. Bush made a huge mistake with the invasion of Iraq and that will dominate consideration of this presidency in the wider world for some time to come. His supporters would point to the fact that there were no terrorist attacks on the US after 9/11. My worry would be that there might be an outrage now, which would serve to undermine the conciliatory gestures Obama is making.

    • Joanna Tuffy says:

      In relation to Deaglán’s and Anthony’s comments about Arafat in the previous post: My impression is that Yasser Arafat had made great progress for his people up until the Oslo Accords but that for the remainder of his life he did not show the necessary leadership to build on them. He stymied Mahmoud Abbas in his efforts to make further progress.

      I think Sharon’s withdrawal from the Gaza strip was a wrong move (and I do not know if it was done in good faith or not) because what he did was unilateral. For this move to have made progress in Israeli-Palestinian relations it needed to be part of a negotiated settlement (even if only a partial settlement) involving both sides.

      Abbas could still be the Palestinian figure that shows the leadership to bring about a long-term peaceful solution. I am not sure who could be the figure on the Israeli side that might emerge as a leader for progress in a peace process but it could turn out to be someone in the current Government. Sometimes in history the people that turn out to be the ones who show leadership and bring about change are not necessarily the people that were expected to do so.

      Barak Obama has provided the ‘honest broker’ and now, as Deaglán said, what is needed are courageous leaders on both sides that see that “the game is up” and want to do what’s best for the future. As regards the type of leadership that is needed to make a breakthrough it strikes me that often the people concerned end up not being the beneficiaries politically themselves of their own courageous actions: for example, David Trimble, John Hume, Mikhail Gorbachev. These were people who were prepared to put their own reputations and careers and even the fortunes of their party on the line to do what was right. In the case of Yitzhak Rabin it was his life that he put on the line to promote the Oslo Accords.

      I think that Ireland too should from here take an “honest broker” approach. That is not to say you do not condemn either side for a particular action. I tried to argue this in the European Affairs Committee the week before last but I was in the minority. The Fianna Fail approach in particular has been more partisan towards the Palestinian side and I do not think that is the right approach. I noticed a book the other day in a bookshop by a guy called Miller (I think) looking at Ireland’s approach on the Israeli-Palestinian issue. From my quick glance through the book he seemed to suggest that this partisan approach contributed to failures on the Palestinian side to make progress. I wouldn’t have necessarily thought we had so much influence. But if we have any influence on either side that makes it even more important that we bring our experience of what worked in the Northern Irish Peace Process and act as honest brokers with both sides.

    • Deaglán says:

      Joanna: That book you mentioned is by Rory Miller, a respected academic.

    • IrishWhiskey says:

      Rory Miller writes very much in favour of the current Israeli policies towards Gaza, Lebanon and Iran contrary to many Israeli academics. His Irish Times piece co-authored with Alan Shatter (15th August 2006) defending the assault on Lebanon was a typical example.

      As Norman Finkelstein so aptly puts it: “Israel is afraid of Hamas’ peace strategy”.

    • Deaglán says:

      Readers might like to make up their own minds. Herewith the Miller-Shatter piece from The Irish Times of Tuesday, August 15, 2006 (For an alternative view, check out http://www.normanfinkelstein.com/)

      HEADLINE: Arab crimes against Palestinians overlooked

      Conflicts in the Middle East frequently pose awkward questions. Rory Miller and Alan Shatter ask some more…

      Now that a ceasefire in Lebanon has been agreed there will, no doubt, be numerous inquests and questions asked about the month-long Lebanon war. So here’s some we would like to ask.

      Which country invaded its neighbour in mid-2006 in order to, as they put it, “crush” Islamists threatening regional stability?

      Which country killed an estimated 500 people in a week when its artillery began bombarding its long-time guerrilla enemy in late July 2006, causing mass displacement and suffering?

      If you think the answer is Israel, you guessed wrong.

      On July 19th Ethiopia sent 5,000 troops into Somalia to suppress Islamists who had not even fired one rocket at it, or kidnapped or killed any of its soldiers. The artillery barrage came from the Sri Lankan army, which continues to pound civilian areas held by the Tamil Tigers. Earlier this week, an estimated 50 children were killed when their orphanage was bombed by Sri Lankan warplanes.

      So how come our politicians completely ignore these crises and instead choose to focus solely on Israel’s campaign in Lebanon?

      Why have the same politicians hardly let out a whisper of criticism of those responsible for other such tragedies in Darfur, with its estimated 300,000 dead and at least 2.5 million refugees; or Chechnya, where an estimated 150,000-160,000 have died, where a third of the population has been displaced and the country has been left in rubble by the Russian army; or the war in the Congo, with over four million dead or driven from their homes?

      Why has the Lord Mayor of Dublin, for example, described the Israeli action as “probably one of the greatest scandals of the new millennium” but not seen it necessary to comment on any of these other conflicts?

      Why have supposedly apolitical cultural bodies – such as the Irish Film Institute and the Festival of World Cultures in Dún Laoghaire – decided to cancel sponsorship from the Israeli embassy because of Israel’s actions in Lebanon, but never seen the need to act similarly regarding countries involved in other conflicts around the world?

      The truth is that Israel’s use of military force, combined over the 60 years since its birth, has caused far fewer casualties and damage than war, conflict and oppression in Afghanistan, Algeria, Angola, Bangladesh, Bosnia, Burundi, Cambodia, Chad, Chechnya, China, Colombia, El Salvador, Eritrea and Ethiopia (and that’s only the beginning of the alphabet; if we go to countries beginning with “I”, there’s India, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq).

      So why is it that people have taken to the streets of Dublin, Cork, Galway and Dundalk to protest at the Israeli campaign in Lebanon but have never felt the need to do the same to express anger over any of these more bloody conflicts?

      Why is it that, over the last few decades, successive governments have made numerous statements condemning Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, while TDs and Senators have called for the economic boycott of Israel, but have felt no need to do the same in response to the mistreatment of Palestinians across the Arab world from Saudi Arabia to Lebanon, a country which was condemned in a June 2006 Amnesty International report for its “long-standing discrimination and abuses of fundamental economic and social rights of Palestinian refugees”?

      Or, for that matter, why has there never been any Irish outcry when Arab countries have killed Palestinians on a grand scale?

      In 1970, King Hussein of Jordan ordered the indiscriminate bombing of Palestinian refugee camps in the course of putting down the Palestinian uprising during “Black September”. This left between 3,000 and 5,000 Palestinian refugees dead. Why was the fact that King Hussein killed more Palestinians in the course of a single month than Israel managed to do in decades never held against him, or even raised, on his visits to this country?

      Again, more than two decades ago, Abu Iyad, the number two man in the PLO, publicly stated that the crimes of the Syrian government against the Palestinian people “surpassed those of the Israeli enemy”. Much of this took place in Lebanon, where Syria was responsible for approximately 100,000 deaths and for the flight of up to half a million civilians from their homes, as well as for mass executions, as occurred, according to one 1986 Amnesty International report, when Syrian troops entered the town of Tripoli and executed hundreds of civilians, including numerous women and children.

      How come in the 25 years that this was going on there was not one Dáil debate or public statement by a politician on these Syrian atrocities in Lebanon?

      Where were the calls for boycotts, or the condemnations of Kuwait, when in the wake of its liberation in 1991, it embarked on the widespread slaughter of Palestinians living in the kingdom?

      This revenge against innocent Palestinian workers was so severe that Yasser Arafat himself acknowledged: “What Kuwait did to the Palestinian people is worse than what has been done by Israel to Palestinians in the occupied territories.”

      Lastly, why, 60 years after its establishment, is Israel the only state in the world whose politicians are presented in Oireachtas debates as war criminals, whose economy faces relentless calls for sanctions and boycotts, and whose right to exist is constantly debated and challenged in the letters pages of our newspapers?

      Maybe one of those who has felt the need to write such letters, or to call for a boycott, or to take to the streets against Israel, or to speak out in the Seanad, but has not seen the need to do the same in regard to any other country or conflict, could let us know why – because we just can’t figure it out.

      Dr Rory Miller is a senior lecturer in Mediterranean Studies at King’s College, London. Alan Shatter is a former Fine Gael TD and a former head of the Oireachtas Foreign Affairs Committee.

      © 2006 The Irish Times

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