Former Sen. George J. Mitchell is resigning as the Obama administration’s special envoy for Middle East peace after a two-year effort failed to advance Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, White House officials said.
Mitchell, acclaimed for his success in sealing a peace deal in Northern Ireland, began this mission optimistically but recently came to the conclusion that serious negotiations were a distant prospect and there was no need for him to continue, associates said. He had not visited the region since December.
The former Senate majority leader, one of President Obama’s first appointments, was directed to shepherd the administration’s aggressive peacemaking initiative, which began with U.S. pressure for Israel to freeze the expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank. But the freeze proposal led to new disputes and a breakdown of negotiations within three months last fall.
The resignation comes at an awkward time for the White House, which is preparing for a visit next week by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and a presidential speech Thursday on this year’s political upheaval in the region.
In the speech at the State Department, Obama is expected to explain his administration’s approach to the changes in the Middle East and lay out the stakes for the United States.
Obama will also argue that the grassroots democratic movement, which has been dubbed the “Arab Spring,” amounts to a repudiation of the violent methods espoused by extremists, a White House spokesman said. That message may have special resonance now that U.S. forces have killed Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, who had been hiding in Pakistan.
One government official familiar with the speech said Obama would also call for more financial aid to Arab states moving toward democratic government. Such a request could prove unpopular at home, with budget deficits reaching record levels.
White House officials emphasized their gratitude to Mitchell and their recognition that any attempt to make peace in the region faces long odds.
In a statement, Obama thanked Mitchell, 77, for his work as a “tireless advocate for peace,” and praised him as “one of the finest public servants our nation has ever had.” He said Mitchell’s deputy, veteran Foreign Service officer David Hale, would serve as acting envoy.
The announcement appeared to signal the end of the public career of the Maine Democrat, who served six years as Senate majority leader. Mitchell was also a prosecutor, federal judge and chairman of Walt Disney Co. from 2002 to 2004.
Robert Danin, a former U.S. official now at the Council on Foreign Relations, said Mitchell spent most of the last two years trying to coax Israelis and Palestinians to the negotiating table, and to keep them there.
“He never got a chance to advance the negotiations he wanted so much to broker,” Danin said. “He never got the shot he wanted.”
Mitchell’s resignation “is a sign that negotiations are not around the corner,” he said.