For the second time this week, Obama administration officials held a conference call to brief Jewish leaders.
After Monday’s call to talk about Durban II, Thursday’s briefing came from Middle East envoy George Mitchell, who is scheduled to leave this weekend for his second trip to the region since accepting the envoy slot.
According to participants in the on-the-record call, Mitchell said he knew the job was a challenge, but wouldn’t have accepted the position if he thought it was impossible. He recalled that four days before the Good Friday agreement was achieved in Northern Ireland, a poll found more than 70 percent believed an accord wasn’t possible.
"I cannot guarantee you a result, but I can guarantee you an effort," he said.
One participant on the call noted that Mitchell "pushed back" against questions from both the left and the right.
For example, pressed on the importance of the Israelis stopping settlements, he said that while Palestinian and other Arab leaders bring it up in every meeting, he would not pre-judge it. "It’s an important issue, but not the only issue," he said.
On the other hand, asked whether economic development of the West Bank should come before undertaking a political process — a position advocated by, among others, Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu, although his name was not mentioned by either the questioner or Mitchell — Mitchell said that the two must go hand-in-hand. In the same vein, final-status talks must be part of the thought process even while engaging in more preliminary discussions.
The former Maine senator used the analogy of building a house, explaining that while the first floor must be built before the second, one cannot ignore the overall master plan for the entire house.
Mitchell said he was struck, while reading the "Mitchell Report" on the region he wrote eight years ago, how much has changed in that time. For instance, he said, Iran was not mentioned in that document, but the country was brought up in the "first sentence" of his initial meetings with every leader in the region, said call participants.
Mitchell said that reports in the Israeli press about the U.S. government trying to influence the formation of the Israeli government were incorrect and that the Obama administration is not in any way trying to encourage any particular outcome of coalition talks. He emphasized that the U.S. was committed to maintaining Israel’s "qualitative" military edge in the region, and also said that he felt it was possible to have both a "firm and unshakable commitment to Israels’ security" and at the same time be committed to a two-state solution. The two stances are not irreconciliable, but consistent, he said.
He also noted that divisions among the Palestinians was an impediment to progress, recalling that a big problem during his time working on a peace agreement in Northern Ireland was finding credible, representative spokespeople from both sides. Mitchell said the U.S. backed Cairo’s attempt to bring national unity among the Palestinians, but would not negotiate with Hamas until it accepted the conditions previously laid down by the Quartet.
Mitchell also announced that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton would be attending the March 2 Gaza Donors Conference in Cairo, which would mark her first visit to the region as secretary.
William Daroff, vice president for public policy and director of United Jewish Communites’ Washington office, said the two calls in four days demonstrated that the White House recognizes "the importance of having open lines of communication with Jewish communal leadership."
"There are important issues going on, and it’s good for the admnistration to be keeping us in the loop," he said. (Daroff’s Twitter feeds about the call can be seen here.)
Orthodox Union public policy director Nathan Diament also found it encouraging that the White House was reaching out to the Jewish community. He said Mitchell conveyed a a strong sense of pragamatism rather than a particular ideological bent, and came across as bringing a "sober, deliberate and careful approach" to the job.