President Obama’s Middle East envoy, George Mitchell, is stepping down.
His departure comes at an awkward moment. The peace process in free fall. Mitchell’s Palestinian interlocutor, President Mahmoud Abbas, has just signed a unity deal with Hamas, which has as its declared aim the destruction of Israel. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will be addressing Congress in 11 days in what is expected to be a play to Republican sympathies aimed at blunting administration calls for concessions. And President Obama himself is supposedly going to try and reboot the near-dead peace process in coming weeks–apparently without his envoy of the last two years.
Mitchell’s departure also occurs against the backdrop of the Palestinians’ unilateral plan to seek statehood through a vote of the UN General Assembly in September, a move likely further to drive tension between the two sides.
It is very difficult not to read Mitchell’s exit as acceptance by him and the administration that two years’ efforts to bolster the peace process have done little to slow its deterioration. Alternative routes to peace, like the Syria track, are in even greater shambles.
Other explanations are no less bleak. Some in Israel see violence this summer or in the wake of September’s statehood vote as all but inevitable. Perhaps Mitchell wants to get out before relations between the Palestinians and Israelis turn from dysfunctional to bloody.