US President Barack Obama is losing his special envoy to the Middle East just as the administration is showing a renewed focus on the long-troubled region.
Former US Special Envoy for Middle East Peace George Mitchell, who helped broker peace in Northern Ireland, announced his resignation on Friday after fruitless attempts at rekindling Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
Obama, accepting the resignation, called Mitchell “a tireless advocate for peace.”
Mitchell’s departure comes with Obama preparing for a flurry of activity on the Middle East, which has seen popular uprisings sprout in several countries, but little movement in the effort to find a peaceful settlement between Israel and the Palestinians. That peace process has been moribund since last -autumn and further complicated by an agreement between Palestinian factions to share power.
Obama plans to deliver a speech next Thursday at the US Department of State about his administration’s views of developments in the region. The next day — Mitchell’s last on the job — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will visit Washington.
Obama also will play host to Jordan’s King Abdullah II on Tuesday. And the White House was looking to schedule a speech by Obama to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the country’s largest pro-Israel lobby, before he leaves for Europe on May 22, officials said.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said the administration remained focused on reviving Middle East peace negotiations.
“The president’s commitment remains as firm as it was when he took office,” Carney said. “This is a hard issue, an extraordinarily hard issue.”
David Hale, Mitchell’s deputy, will serve as acting envoy, Obama said in a statement.
Mitchell wrote a two-paragraph letter to Obama saying he took the diplomatic job intending to only serve two years.
“I strongly support your vision of comprehensive peace in the Middle East and thank you for giving me the opportunity to be part of your administration,” Mitchell wrote.
On his second full day in office in January 2009, Obama appointed Mitchell to the special envoy’s post. The former Democratic senator from Maine, who rose to be Senate majority leader, had established his credentials as an international mediator by helping broker peace in Northern Ireland.
Since his appointment, -Mitchell, 77, has shuttled among the Israelis, Palestinians and friendly Arab states in a bid to restart long-stalled talks that would create an independent Palestinian state. However, in recent months, particularly after the upheaval in Arab countries that ousted longtime US ally and key peace partner former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak from power, his activity had slowed markedly.
Mitchell never established a firm presence, preferring to jet in for short visits lasting several days, or even several hours. More critically, Mitchell never established a rapport with either side.
With Israelis suspicious of Obama even before he assumed office, Mitchell further unnerved them by taking a tough line against West Bank settlements, saying that any construction was unacceptable. The Palestinians, initially encouraged, became disillusioned when the US was unable to persuade Israel to freeze settlement construction.
Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Mitchell’s task held greater hope at the time of his appointment.