Seeking the Elusive ‘Balance’ in the Middle East

It has been nearly 10 years since the name of former US Senator George Mitchell was mentioned as a possible mediator in the Middle East.


Published: Thu 12 Feb 2009, 10:05 PM

Last updated: Mon 6 Apr 2015, 12:51 AM

I recall asking the senator precisely this question at a press conference in the Qatari capital of Doha in the months following the historic Good Friday agreement of 1998 that ended the Irish Troubles.

Mitchell had been on a kind of victory lap through the Middle East, and I’m sure I was not the only one who saw a parallel between the Troubles and the Intifada. The soft-spoken Americanmediator was coy in his response, pointing out that the history and circumstances in Palestine and Ireland were different, but added that he was honoured that people in the Arab world were even contemplating such a possibility.

The long-time senator comes to the job with obvious advantages over the last high-profile American mediator, Dennis Ross, who has admitted in the years since 2000 that his Jewish identity came in the way of being accepted as neutral in the negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians.

Mitchell may be able to approach the job with less baggage, and has definitely earned his stripes as “one of the few people who have international experience brokering peace deals,” in US President Barack Obama’s words, but it is pertinent to ask if “balance” in Middle East diplomacy is just an elusive ideal.

Consider some of the more recent examples of countries and diplomats tying themselves in knots in an impossible attempt to “balance” between Israeli military actions in Gaza and the humanitarian misery of Palestinians:

· Canada, a traditional middle power and peacekeeper of choice, has recently come under criticism for siding with Israel during the recent Gaza offensive. Envoys from 15 Arab nations met Foreign Minister Lawrence Cannon complaining about his country’s “unbalanced” Middle East policies. Ottawa’s positions “do not reflect reality and place blame for the war in Gaza entirely on Hamas’s rocket-firing into Israel,” the Palestinian Authority’s representative in Ottawa was quoted as saying following the meeting.

· Nobel laureate Mohamed ElBaradei, the redoubtable chief of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), cancelled an interview with the BBC after the British station refused to air an ad on behalf of charities working in the Palestinian territories.

America’s most successful mediator whose shoes will now be filled by Mitchell was candid in his memoirs (The Missing Peace, 2004): “My being Jewish gave Palestinians, and Arabs more generally, a ready-made handle to explain publicly why America was not following its ‘interests’ in the Middle East.” In fact, he recounts a conversation he had with Hassan Asfour, one of the Palestinian negotiators at the almost successful Camp David negotiations in 2000, in which they discussed why the Arab side never fully trusted Ross.

A few on the Israeli side mistrusted him as well. “There were those who felt Israel to be in such danger — and the Arabs to be so untrustworthy — that Israel should never be subject to criticism or pressure.”

Ross, who had the distinction of working under both President George Bush, Sr., and President Bill Clinton, says he was labelled a “self-hating Jew” during the Bush administration (1989-92) when the Americans leaned hard on the Yitzhak Shamir government to stop settlement building.

Mediation, of course, is not for the faint-hearted, and to be fair, no recent US President, including Barack Obama, has hidden his bottom line, namely, the security of Israel. Banging Israeli and Palestinian heads is similar to the dialogue between ‘an irresistible force and an immovable object’ and a lot can be learned from Mitchell’s experience in Ireland. One of the less known aspects of those negotiations between Irish unionists and the separatists was the hidden hand of then US President Bill Clinton, who stayed in touch with all the parties via telephone mainly at the instance of his British counterpart at the time, Tony Blair.

Clinton’s involvement is recorded in The Blair Years that is based on the diaries of the former British prime minister’s press secretary, Alistair Campbell. At one point the diary records this on April 10, 1998: “Bill [Clinton] said there is nothing more important to me right now than this. Call me whenever, even if it means waking me up.” With 17 days left in office, on January 2, 2001, Clinton demonstrated the same single-minded determination while bringing the Palestinians and Israelis closer than ever before — or since — to signing a lasting agreement, only to be thwarted at the last minute.

His wife and current Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is among those now picking up the pieces after eight years of futile deadlines and photo-ops during the Bush presidency. But, there are important lessons to be learned from the Clinton and Bush eras, including bringing back credibility to the words “honest broker” and weighing the impact that US policies have on the trajectory of the conflict itself. For starters, the US is not an idle bystander.

Equally importantly, the Palestinians have played into the illusion that this is a battle between equals, a myth perpetuated by the American media in the wake of the 1993 Oslo Accords. This is baloney. Just consider the death toll in the recent Gaza fighting: 1,300 Palestinians to 13 Israelis. This is “balance” only if 1=1,000.

George Abraham is contributing editor of Diplomat & International Canada. He can be reached at

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