WASHINGTON – His two-year mission unfulfilled, former Sen. George Mitchell announced his resignation Friday as the Obama administration’s special envoy to the Mideast at a time of turmoil in the region and after fruitless attempts at rekindling Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
President Barack Obama, accepting the resignation, called Mitchell “a tireless advocate for peace.”
In a two-paragraph letter to Obama, Mitchell said that he took the diplomatic job intending to only serve two years.
Mitchell’s resignation comes at a critical time for the Middle East, which is embroiled in uprisings, and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, which has been moribund since last September and is now further complicated by an agreement between Palestinian factions to share power.
Mitchell’s resignation appears to have been timed to match Obama’s increased public focus on the region. The president will deliver a speech next Thursday at the State Department about his administration’s views of developments in the region, ahead of a visit to Washington by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Obama also will play host to Jordan’s King Abdullah II on Tuesday. Mitchell’s last day will be Friday – the same day Netanyahu visits the White House.
David Hale, Mitchell’s deputy, will serve as acting envoy, Obama said in a statement.
Obama appointed Mitchell to the special envoy’s post in January 2009 amid much fanfare. The former Democratic senator from Maine had established his credentials as an international mediator by helping broker peace in Northern Ireland.
Since his appointment, Mitchell, 77, has spent much of his time shuttling between the Israelis, Palestinians and friendly Arab states in a bid to restart peace talks that would create an independent Palestinian state. But in recent months, particularly after the upheaval that ousted longtime U.S. ally Hosni Mubarak from power in Egypt, his activity had slowed markedly.
Nimer Hamad, a senior adviser to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, said Mitchell’s job had been made more difficult by Israeli intransigence.
“Mitchell hasn’t been in the region in three months,” Hamad said. “Whether he resigns or not, it’s clear that Mitchell wasn’t in the region because he didn’t see the possibility of being a mediator between two sides where one of them is not responsive.”
Israel’s ambassador to the U.S., Michael Oren, praised Mitchell’s efforts. “Unfortunately, the Palestinians rejected his repeated invitations to resume direct negotiations and instead decided to achieve statehood unilaterally, without direct talks and without peace,” Oren said.