WASHINGTON Theres been a rush of speculation about the answers George Mitchell, President Obamas newly named special envoy, may bring to Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking.
Its natural to wonder: Mitchell, 75, a former governor and US senator from Maine who became majority leader, has a long career paved with high-profile problem-solving bids some successful, others not.
He helped broker the successful accords in Northern Ireland; his 2001 report on Israel and the Palestinians, while accepted as a basis for further negotiations by both sides, instead disappeared into the welter of other proposals.
At this stage, however, more than the answers Mitchell arrived at in the past, it is the questions he asks during his tour of the region this week that may provide a better idea of where the new US administration is heading.
Mitchells itinerary, as well as Obamas comments to an Arab TV network, suggest that the new president is testing the waters of advancing a comprehensive Israeli-Arab peace as opposed to the discrete Israeli-Palestinian agreement that characterized his predecessors.
Now, understand that Senator Mitchell is going to be fully empowered by me and fully empowered by Secretary Clinton, Obama said.
So when he speaks, he will be speaking for us. And Im hopeful that during this initial trip, one of the earliest initiatives that we have taken diplomatically, that not only is he able to communicate effectively how urgent we consider the issue, but that were also going to be able to listen and to learn and to find out what various players in the region are thinking.
Mitchell, in other words, will be taking his cues from his bosses and right now, that means hes on a listening tour of the kind made famous during Clintons own first 2000 run for the New York Senate.
Obama emphasized that approach in his first TV interview as president, with the Al Arabiya network.
What I told him is start by listening because all too often the United States starts by dictating in the past on some of these issues and we dont always know all the factors that are involved, the US leader said.
So lets listen. Hes going to be speaking to all the major parties involved. And he will then report back to me. From there we will formulate a specific response.
Hawks and doves in the pro-Israel community have read into the Mitchell selection the wishes and fears that have characterized their approaches in the US Jewish community.
The Zionist Organization of America and Abraham Foxman, the ADLs national director, have fretted about Mitchells evenhandedness in the 2001 report, which faulted the PA for hardly attempting to rein in terrorists and Israel for not freezing settlements.
In his report, the ZOA said, Mitchell promotes the false anti-Israel belief that Jews living in communities in Judea and Samaria [West Bank] is the biggest obstacle to peace not Arab terrorism or Arab incitement.
On the other side, dovish groups emphasized Mitchells credentials in brokering Northern Ireland peace.
The statement from the Reform movements Religious Action Center, like those of J Street, Americans for Peace Now and the Israel Policy Forum, cited his work in that endeavor.
His success as special envoy to Northern Ireland, resulting in the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, gives us great hope that he will be able to facilitate a peaceful resolution for Israel and the Palestinians, the Religious Action Center said.
In that case, however, decades of British political and financial investment in the province and the resultant Catholic domestic pressures on the Irish Republican Army created a dot-the-is and cross-the ts opportunity for the Clinton administration.
Several lobbyists associated with centrist pro-Israel groups were sanguine about the pick, saying that Mitchells past did not raise concerns.
Hes a senior guy who had proven success on Northern Ireland, one pro-Israel lobbyist said. He demonstrated fairness and some creativity in the Mitchell Report on the second intifada issued in 2001.
He showed pretty serious concern for Israeli security requirements and made that a big part of his plan. Hes not pro-Israel, but hes not hostile either.
The key to understanding the Mitchell pick, the lobbyist said, was in seeing him as a good soldier for Obama.
So far, Obamas agenda has been less than clear. Except for committing to a more intensive involvement in the region, Obama and his aides have made clear that they are not ready to break new ground in the region.
His UN ambassador, Susan Rice, might have been echoing Condoleezza Rice, Bushs secretary of state, when she was asked after her Senate confirmation about immediate plans.
We will work diplomatically and through other means to try to support efforts to ensure that the cease-fire is lasting, she said about the relative calm in Gaza this week, and in that context for border crossings to open and be available for humanitarian as well as day-to-day economic development imperatives.
That echoed the Bush administration approach: end the rocket attacks, get the aid flowing and leave talk about comprehensive peace for later.
What changes may yet come were suggested in Mitchells itinerary: In addition to Israel and the West Bank, he also planned visits to Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan.
Those nations, especially Saudi Arabia, hope Obama will pay close attention to the comprehensive 2002 Arab League proposal that posits a comprehensive Israeli-Arab peace in exchange for Israels return to the 1967 borders, with minor adjustments.
Not on Mitchells agenda, however, is any meeting with Hamas or Syria.
In his al-Arabiya interview, Obama emphasized slotting Israeli-Palestinian peace into his outreach to Arabs and Muslims. He suggested the 2002 Arab League proposal would be one way in.
I might not agree with every aspect of the proposal, but it took great courage to put forward something that is as significant as that, he said. I think that there are ideas across the region of how we might pursue peace.
I do think that it is impossible for us to think only in terms of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and not think in terms of whats happening with Syria or Iran or Lebanon or Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Obama said the tensions were interrelated.
If we are looking at the region as a whole and communicating a message to the Arab world and the Muslim world that we are ready to initiate a new partnership based on mutual respect and mutual interest then I think that we can make significant progress, the president said.
Obama declined to offer a timeline for a Palestinian state, and he stressed that Israel is and would remain a strong ally of the US.
See also IJN editorial, “George Mitchell needs to listen to his own best wisdom of the last eight years”.