These days it can be hard to remember that violent conflicts can actually end. Modern wars seem to rise and fall instead of start and finish. As violence has turned inward over the past few decades, shifting from between nations to within nations, conflict driven by sectarianism has gained the spotlight. Such conflicts can seem intractable given their foundation in typically decades- or centuries-old grievances. But this has not stopped the international community from trying everything they can think of to end ongoing violence. In these attempts to find political solutions, there is always a seemingly endless string of failed negotiations and broken agreements.
But against all odds, sometimes peace does prevail. The people get weary of war, leaders soften their stances, and deals can be struck. Inevitably at the heart of these historic deals are individuals devoted to making peace a reality. Maine has just one of those such individuals—one who has seen both success and failure in the peacemaking process.
Former U.S. Senator George Mitchell was appointed the first U.S. Special Envoy for Northern Ireland by Bill Clinton in 1995. By that point “The Troubles” had been going on for nearly thirty years. A guerrilla war was being fought between Irish nationalists, a.k.a. republicans, who wanted Northern Ireland to be part of Ireland and Unionists, a.k.a. loyalists, who wanted it to stay in the United Kingdom. The Unionists were largely Protestants descended from British settlers while the republicans were Catholic and ethnically native Irish. The Irish had a long history of trouble with the British, but the capital-T Troubles started in the late 1960s as a republican civil rights campaign devolved into violence from all sides. By 1970-72 the violence had escalated dramatically with hundreds killed and thousands injured in bombings, shootings, and street battles. The violence tapered off somewhat towards the end of the decade, but continued through the ‘80s and early ‘90s. Little had been resolved.
The appointment of George Mitchell signaled that Clinton was serious about ending the conflict. Mitchell had been one of the most respected senators in Congress as the Senate Majority Leader and had been considered as a Vice Presidential candidate for Clinton. That the conflict was of interest to the U.S. is no surprise given our large Irish population. Mitchell himself could claim Irish descent since his father was an orphan born to Irish immigrants. The U.K. government initially had no interest in letting the U.S. get involved in the peace process after Clinton let Gerry Adams, the head of the Irish Republican Army’s (IRA) political wing, Sinn Fein, visit the U.S. in 1994, since they saw it as both giving him validity and allowing him to fundraise for the IRA. But after the IRA declared a ceasefire, potentially due to the U.S. visit, and Clinton and Mitchell visited Northern Ireland in 1995, reaching out to both sides and condemning the violence, the British government changed their minds. Mitchell was officially appointed the chair of the peace talks, which began in earnest in 1996. The parties agreed to the “Mitchell Principles” laid out in the beginning of the year, which required a commitment to disarmament and peaceful political negotiation in order to participate.
Negotiations took two years. During that time, Mitchell gained the respect of both sides, including the Unionists initially untrusting of American involvement. His greatest tool was one that seems to be wielded far too little in politics: listening.
“Mr. Mitchell’s great skill was that he learned to embrace silence. He sat at his table, listening to speech after speech…He pitched himself against the tenacity of the fanatics. He was unpaid and initially unheralded, but he fell in love with the people and allowed them to talk through their vitriol. He tried never to take sides — he split a feather down the middle and encouraged both halves to take flight.”
By the time his commission finished crafting a final agreement in 1998, enough trust was built into the process for the key parties to sign. The Good Friday Agreement covered the multiple factions within Northern Ireland, as well as the relationship between Ireland and Britain. It contained a litany of measures, including creating new political institutions in Northern Ireland, handling civil rights for the Irish Catholic minority, and paramilitary disarmament. The agreement marked the beginning of the end of armed conflict there. Despite its provisions being implemented in fits and starts, disagreements, even severe ones, have been handled peacefully. The peace is not taken for granted, and when troubles arise, as they have in the wake of the Brexit vote, people are quick to reaffirm the importance of non-violence (Northern Ireland voted against leaving the E.U., but the U.K. as a whole voted to leave, leading republicans to call for a referendum on leaving the U.K. and joining Ireland).
Mitchell’s role as Special Envoy for Northern Ireland ended along with Bill Clinton’s presidency in January 2001. Eight years later, he would be appointed to a similar position, but one that proved more vexing. Two days after President Obama’s inauguration, he appointed Mitchell to be the Special Envoy for Middle East Peace, a role focused on resolving the Israel-Palestine conflict. Mitchell had proven his ability to coax intransigent combatants in Ireland to come to peace, but he was now trying to deal with something on another level. Armed conflict had been happening on and off since the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, ranging from civilian-on-civilian violence to full-blown interstate war. The fate of Israel and Palestine had long held global geopolitical, religious, and cultural weight far beyond the region’s small size (in total it is less than a third the size of Maine).
When Mitchell was appointed to the position, there was a lot resting on his shoulders. President Obama made finding a resolution to the conflict a primary goal of his from the beginning of his first term. After 19 months of no discussions, indirect talks resumed between Israeli and Palestinian leaders in May 2009 with Mitchell as their conduit. A meeting between Obama, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas took place in September. In November, Netanyahu declared a freeze on new Israeli settlements in the West Bank, which was a key step for beginning peace negotiations in earnest. But the freeze did not include East Jerusalem, so the Palestinians took it as an empty gesture and refused to offer anything in return, angering the Israelis.
Indirect talks continued off and on, and the process lagged for the next ten months as all sides maneuvered. But direct talks between the leaders finally began in September of 2010. That month, as talks were ongoing, Obama made a speech to the UN aspiring to achieve a solution within a year. The talks would end unsuccessfully after only three weeks. Israel’s settlement freeze was due to expire on September 26th, and despite pressure to extend the freeze to allow talks to continue, they let it lapse and the negotiations ended. The peace process would not recover under Mitchell’s tenure. He resigned eight months later, on May 13th, 2011, having served for the two years he originally intended.
So what went wrong? Mitchell’s role in the initial progress and ultimate failure is difficult to parse out, but the best insight we have into his involvement as well as the overall maneuvering of the White House in the process comes from a 2012 article in the Washington Post. The details of Mitchell’s role are best read in the article, but the overall arc of the story is worth pulling out. He was clearly a key facilitator in all of the major steps in the process—the indirect talks, the settlement freeze, and eventually the direct talks—and behind him he had the weight of Obama’s own speeches and meetings with the leaders in question. Mitchell had a bold vision for how the U.S. could position itself and what they should pressure the two sides, particularly Israel, to agree to as a baseline for the talks. The settlement freeze was one such thing, and he also wanted Obama to address a division of Jerusalem and the right of Palestinian refugees to return to Israel—two of the thorniest issues.
This is where he started to run into internal White House politics. Obama had tapped Dennis Ross, a veteran of Middle East policy, to help handle the peace process. Ross had a very different idea about how the U.S. should approach the issue; he didn’t like the settlement freeze idea, or Mitchell’s boldness on other negotiating points. Early on the political environment seemed favorable for real movement towards peace given Obama’s initial popularity in the Arab world, the backing of Jewish lawmakers in the U.S., and Netanyahu’s apparent belief that it would be personally politically damaging if he was to run afoul of a U.S. president. Therefore, Mitchell’s vision was embraced by Obama and his administration. But all of those things soon changed. Netanyahu hardened as he discovered he could buck Obama and do even better domestically, Obama lost political capital at home as Congressional Democrats didn’t want him to upset key Jewish groups in the run-up to the 2010 midterm elections, and his sway with the Arab world was quickly declining (and would become nearly irrelevant once the Arab Spring began in early 2011). As this happened, Ross and his narrower sights became favored at Mitchell’s expense. There is speculation that Mitchell resigned because of these disagreements, but he denies it.
The failure of the Israel-Palestine peace process cannot be blamed on Mitchell (or Ross) any more than the success of the Northern Ireland one can be. Ultimately it is the warring parties that need to decide to end their fight, and someone like Mitchell is only there to nudge them along. In Northern Ireland, Mitchell seemingly had the benefit of greater autonomy and was able to put his skill of listening into action. He had no such luck in the Middle East with so many powerful actors, including the President, having their hands in the mix. Still, for his great success in Northern Ireland and hard-won progress in Israel-Palestine, even if it was short-lived, Mitchell proved himself as a remarkable peacemaker and a truly notable public servant from Maine.
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