Mitchell’s questions may matter more than his past answers

Mitchell’s questions may matter more than his past answers

WASHINGTON — There’s been a rush of speculation about the answers George Mitchell, President Obama’s newly named special envoy, may bring to Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking.
It’s natural to wonder: Mitchell, 75, a former governor and U.S. 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 U.S. administration is heading.
Mitchell’s itinerary, as well as Obama’s 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.
Obama made it clear that Mitchell’s past was less important than his new status as his proxy when he met Monday — hours before Mitchell left for the region — with the new envoy and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.
“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 I’m 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 we’re 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 he’s on a “listening tour” of the kind made famous during Clinton’s own first 2000 run for the New York Senate.
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 U.S. Jewish community.
The Zionist Organization of America and Abraham Foxman, the Anti-Defamation League’s national director, have fretted about Mitchell’s “evenhandedness” in the 2001 report, which faulted the Palestinian Authority for hardly attempting to rein in terrorists and Israel for not freezing settlements.