The U.S. Special Envoy to the Middle East George Mitchell begins his first tour, today, since being appointed to the new role of surveying the prospects for peace, meeting the respective sides in the region–the Palestinian and Israeli sides, in particular.
Mitchell is not unfamiliar with the region. He has visited it a number of times in the past, the last being in 2001, when he presented a report to the U.S. administration on stopping the Palestinian Intifada (uprising) and the associated violence in return for a freeze on expansion of Israeli settlements.
Israelis are somewhat suspicious of Mitchell because of that report, and also because he presents himself as an American with Arab roots when he indicates that his mother was Lebanese. Few U.S. envoys have demanded a freeze on settlement building based on considering it a major stumbling block to any peace process.
The new U.S. president, Barack Obama, wanted to give a clear indication of his interest in the Arab-Israeli conflict by sending Mitchell to the region without delay. He cemented this impression by speaking of the presence of positive forces in the peace process. This explains Mitchell’s stop at a number of important Arab destinations such as Riyadh, Cairo, the Jordanian capital Amman, in addition to a several other capitals.
It is difficult to prejudge the new U.S. envoy’s tour. The man has not made any indication, by way of press statements, of his plan in this context. On his survey of the region, Mitchell needs to be heard. Plus, the main party he will visit in the region, Israel, is just two weeks away from parliamentary elections, an outcome of which might see a radical right-wing government, according to opinion polls.
The respective Arab officials who will be meeting the U.S. envoy should remember that Mitchell represents the interests of the U.S. administration, and his Arabic roots might well force him to be tougher with the Arabs in order to prove his loyalty to the administration, his efforts to serve it and in demonstrating the greatest degree of neutrality. Those officials are compelled to deal with him, as U.S. Special Envoy, in a different way than they dealt with delegates of the previous administration, since they complied and acquiesced with its dictates, but were unable to criticize its blind bias towards Israel, despite the pressing need for their support and despite their hold on some influential playing cards.
There are indications from some countries, particularly Saudi Arabia, expressed by Prince Turki Faisal, the former ambassador to Washington, threatening an end to special relations with the new administration if it does not deal with the Arab peace plan with the necessary seriousness.
These forewarnings are important so long as they are not empty. Their aim is to pressure the Democratic administration to maintain good relations with the country, and to not proceed in criticizing its dictatorial rule, its documented violations of human rights, and its repression of reformist movements which demand the end to corruption and call for increased freedoms, transparency and a just and independent judiciary.
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