Mitchell Is Ready to Listen, but Is Israel?

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Fadi Aruri / AP

U.S. Middle East envoy, George Mitchell, left, meets with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, at Abbas' headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah, Thursday, Jan. 29, 2009.

The Middle East may be in a mess, but the Obama Administration's new envoy, George Mitchell, has several things going for him. He arrived in a hurry after the Inauguration, he knows the region from his past days as a fact-finder, and perhaps most importantly, as he told Israeli and Arab leaders, for now he's "just here to listen." That's already a departure from the style of former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. According to a senior Palestinian official, "It seemed like Condi would listen to the Israelis and lecture everybody else."

That willingness to listen is further evidence of President Barack Obama's pledge to bring a new even-handedness in America's foreign policy, which is symbolized by his choice of Mitchell, a former Senate majority leader and an Arab American who some Israelis view as too evenhanded. Winding up his tour to the region this week, Mitchell says he'll be back after the Feb. 10 elections when Israelis choose a new Prime Minister. Most likely, according to polls, it will be the hawkish Benjamin Netanyahu from the Likud Party, and if so, Mitchell's job will immediately get a lot harder. Netanyahu has vowed to "finish the work" in Gaza. By that, he says he intends to crush the Islamic militants of Hamas, even if that means launching an assault similar to the 22-day offensive that just ended with more than 1,250 Palestinians, 13 Israelis dead and Israel being accused by some of war crimes.

When Mitchell did speak during his week-long visit to the region, he made it clear that the White House wants the faltering cease-fire between Israel and Hamas to endure and strengthen. He also wants Israeli to lift its 19-month long economic blockade on Gaza, as long as the Palestinian Authority — and not Hamas militants — maintain a presence on the border crossings; Hamas, however, is refusing to let the Palestinian Authority man its borders. "The tragic violence in Gaza and in south Israel offers a sobering reminder of the very serious and difficult challenges and, unfortunately, the setbacks that will come," Mitchell told reporters, adding: "It is important to consolidate a sustainable and durable ceasefire while addressing immediately humanitarian needs." ( See pictures of Gaza digging out.)

But Mitchell's wish is not necessarily going to be Israel's command. Outgoing Israeli Premier Ehud Olmert is refusing to open the Gaza borders, despite calls by the international aid community to lift the 19-month long blockade. Olmert wants to link the lifting of the siege of Gaza to the release of an Israeli soldier, Corp. Gilad Shalit, held captive in Gaza for over two and a half years. Hamas counters that it will only release Shalit in a trade for hundreds of Palestinians held inside Israeli jails.

In 2001, Mitchell led an international fact-finding team looking into the roots of the Palestinian uprising known as the Intifadah. He drew a line connecting Palestinian anger to the spread of illegal Jewish settlements in the West Bank, and that line is still there, only more indelible. The leftist Hebrew daily Ha'aretz on Friday published a confidential report from the Israeli defense ministry stating that over 75% of construction in settlements ever built was done without the proper permits, and much of the building was carried out illegally on private Palestinian land.

The newspaper said Defense Minister Ehud Barak blocked publication of the data, arguing it could endanger state security or harm Israel's foreign relations. But the leaked report will make it easier for Mitchell to renew his eight-year old argument that the growth of illegal Jewish settlements in the West Bank is an obstacle to the elusive peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

That doesn't mean, of course, that the new Israeli premier — probably Netanyahu — is going to listen. During his campaign this past week, he claimed that he would allow West Bank settlements to expand. (Last year, according to the Israeli human rights group Peace Now, settlements grew by 69% over the previous year.) If Netanyahu insists on refusing to close down the settlements, it may be the Israelis that the Obama Administration and Mitchell find themselves lecturing.

See TIME's photos of Israel's sweep into Gaza