Appointed on Day 2 of the new Obama administration, former Sen. George Mitchell has finally met his match. The man who produced a peace agreement in Northern Ireland, investigated steroid use in the MLB for Bud Selig, and studied the causes of the second intifada, gave up the ghost in a letter of resignation dated April 6, not released to the public until May 13, a week before his resignation was set to kick in.
The man who was quoted as saying after his Northern Ireland experience: "I had 700 days of failure and one day of success" will walk away at age 77 without a similar sense of accomplishment. In the 850+ days he served as Special Envoy for Middle East Peace the Israelis and Palestinians were engaged in direct face-to-face negotiations for a little less than 40. It took Mitchell a year to get the Israelis to agree to a 9-month partial settlement freeze, and it took the Palestinians 8 of those 9 months before they agreed to sit down with the Israelis. Nothing really happened during those 40 days, and the rest was even more pointless squabbling, with Mitchell (when he was in theater) driving back and forth between West Jerusalem and Ramallah, a well-dressed lawyer shuttling between two awful clients.
The timing of the release of Mitchell's resignation letter may or may not be significant. Why the letter was held in pocket for nearly 5 weeks is certainly intriguing. But it would be unwise to draw too much from this strange detail. The truth is, George Mitchell had very little to work with. The Obama administration was hoping for a more pliable Israeli government back in early 2009, and instead got Binyamin Netanyahu and a cabinet of rightists. Mitchell started off with a supportive Egyptian ally to his task - now gone - and a fractured Palestinian leadership internally primed to accept virtually any suggestion, but unwilling to sit with the Israelis - that's now gone too.
With the US presidential election cycle about to begin, and with so many "known unknowns" still to be worked out in the wake of the Arab Spring of 2011, my bet is that Mitchell's resignation marks the beginning of an even more thorough pull-away from the endless pit of the Arab-Israeli conflict on the part of the Obama administration. In the weary debate between those who argue for American leadership and a proactive approach on the one hand, and those who argue that the "peace process' is nothing but trouble until the parties themselves truly want to negotiate, my bet that is that Obama has decided to step back, and Mitchell's resignation is the epitome of that new policy.
Leave it alone and let it fester. I think that is where the Obama administration has come down on this particular piece of the puzzle. No bold moves in the wake of getting Bin Laden - certainly no watershed moment in the Middle East, at least - but rather time to step back and let the parties see what the alternative to an American-led (and largely pointless) peace process might take them. For the moment, in the Middle East, there are bigger fish to fry.