Mitchell pick mostly draws early praise

WASHINGTON (JTA) — Barack Obama’s selection for Middle East envoy drew praise from Israel, as well as dovish groups and at least one centrist Jewish organization.

George Mitchell was introduced as the new special envoy for Middle East peace at a State Department news conference Thursday afternoon.

Mitchell said he believes deeply that "committed, persevering and patient diplomacy" can bring about peace in the Middle East and "demands our maximum effort, no matter the difficulties, no matter the setbacks."

"It will be the policy of my administration to actively and aggressively seek a lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians, as well as Israel and its Arab neighbors," Obama said at the news conference.

The president said he would be sending Mitchell to the region as "soon as possible to help the parties ensure that the cease-fire that has been achieved is made durable and sustainable."

Obama reiterated his statement during the campaign that Israel was justified in responding to Hamas rocket attacks on southern Israel.

"Let me be clear: America is committed to Israel’s security and we will always support Israel’s right to defend itself against legitimate threats," he said. "For years, Hamas has launched thousands of rockets at innocent Israeli citizens. No democracy can tolerate such danger to its people, nor should the international community, and neither should the Palestinian people themselves, whose interests are only set back by acts of terror.

Obama added that "just as the terror of rocket fire aimed at innocent Israelis is intolerable, so too is a future without hope for the Palestinians." He called for the openings of Gaza’s border crossings with an "appropriate monitoring regime" as part of a lasting cease-fire.

The president also said that the Arab Peace Initiative "contains constructive elements that could help advance these efforts" and called on Arab states to "act on the initiative’s promise" by supporting the Palestinian Authority government, taking steps toward normalizing relations with Israel and standing up to "extremism that threatens us all."

The Arab League intiative offers Israel normalization of relations with the Arab world in exchange for a return to Israel’s 1967 borders and a "just solution" to the Palestinian refugee issue that would be "agreed upon" by the parties. Israel in the past has complained that the refugee language is vague and leaves open the possiblity of a mass return.

Israel welcomed Mitchell’s appointment. Its U.S. ambassador, Sallai Meridor, congratulated Mitchell in a statement and said Israel holds him "in high regard and looks forward to working with him on taking the next steps towards realizing a future of peace and security for Israel and her neighbors."

Dovish groups J Street, Israel Policy Forum and Americans for Peace Now all lauded the choice.

J Street executive director Jeremy Ben-Ami called the appointment a signal that Obama intended to "inject new thinking and fresh perspectives into America’s efforts to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict."

Referring to the agreement Mitchell forged as President Clinton’s special envoy to Northern Ireland, Debra DeLee, Americans for Peace Now president and CEO, said that "Israelis and Palestinians deserve a Good Friday Agreement of their own. If anyone has the statesmanship and experience to broker such an agreement, it is a person of Senator Mitchell’s stature."

Israel Policy Forum executive director Nick Bunzl said his organization was "delighted" that Obama was devoting such early attention to the Arab-Israeli dispute and called Mitchell an envoy of "extremely high stature."

The leader of the more centrist American Jewish Committee praised the choice less effusively. Executive director David Harris told The Jewish Week before Mitchell’s announcement was official that the former U.S. senator from Maine could be a "good and logical choice" if he is given a mandate focusing mostly on crisis management.

"He has the respect of both sides, and he would have direct access to top administration officials, which is very important," Harris told the paper.

Anti-Defamation League national director Abraham Foxman was not as supportive in comments also made before Thursday’s news conference.

"Senator Mitchell is fair," he told The Jewish Week. "He’s been meticulously even-handed. But the fact is, American policy in the Middle East hasn’t been ‘even handed’ — it has been supportive of Israel when it felt Israel needed critical U.S. support. So I’m concerned. I’m not sure the situation requires that kind of approach in the Middle East." Foxman pushed the point further in an interview with Politico, in which he criticized Mitchell’s neutrality, noting that the "Swiss were neutral" in World War II.

The Zionist Organization, which has opposed Israeli deals with the Palestinians, criticized the choice of Mitchell, telling Politico that he had been “overly sympathetic to the Palestinian Arabs."

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