WASHINGTON (AP) — The Obama administration’s special Mideast envoy, former Sen. George Mitchell, is resigning after more than two largely fruitless years of trying to press Israel and the Palestinians into peace talks, U.S. officials said Friday.
The White House is expected to announce that the veteran mediator and broker of the Northern Ireland peace accord is stepping down for personal reasons, the officials told The Associated Press. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity ahead of an afternoon announcement that will follow a White House meeting between Mitchell and President Barack Obama.
There are no imminent plans to announce a replacement for Mitchell, the officials said, although his staff is expected to remain in place at least temporarily.
Mitchell’s resignation comes at a critical time for the Middle East, which is embroiled in turmoil, and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, which has been moribund since last September and is now further complicated by an agreement between Palestinian factions to share power.
Obama will deliver a speech next Thursday at the State Department about his administration’s views of developments in the region, ahead of a visit to Washington by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Jordan’s King Abdullah II also will travel to Washington next week.
In a telephone interview Friday with the MaineToday Media group in Mitchell’s home state, Obama said: “George is by any measure one of the finest public servants our nation has ever had.” He didn’t address the resignation directly, but added that Mitchell is also “a good friend.”
White House spokesman Jay Carney said the administration remains focused on the Middle East peace process.
“The president’s commitment remains as firm as it was when he took office,” Carney said. “This is a hard issue, an extraordinary hard issue.”
Since his appointment on Obama’s second full day in office in January 2009, Mitchell, 77, had spent much of his time shuttling between the Israelis, Palestinians and friendly Arab states in a bid to restart long-stalled peace talks that would create an independent Palestinian state. But in recent months, particularly after the upheaval in Arab countries that ousted longtime U.S. ally and key peace partner Hosni Mubarak from power in Egypt, his activity had slowed markedly.
Nimer Hamad, a senior adviser to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, told the AP that Mitchell’s job had been made more difficult by Israeli intransigence.
“Mitchell hasn’t been in the region in three months,” Hamad said. “Whether he resigns or not, it’s clear that Mitchell wasn’t in the region because he didn’t see the possibility of being a mediator between two sides where one of them is not responsive.”
Israeli officials declined to comment until the official announcement is made.
Mitchell has led a long career as politician, businessman, congressional investigator and international mediator.
Upon being announced as the administration’s point man for Mideast negotiations, he recalled his role in producing Northern Ireland’s Good Friday peace accord in 1998.
“We had 700 days of failure and one day of success,” he said. “For most of the time, progress was nonexistent or very slow.”
Mitchell believed his patience would serve him well in the Arab-Israeli conflict and its constant forward and backward steps. Speaking of the Northern Ireland conflict, he added: “I formed the conviction that there is no such thing as a conflict that can’t be ended. Conflicts are created, conducted and sustained by human beings. They can be ended by human beings.”
Mitchell served in the Senate as a Democrat from Maine from 1980 to 1995, the final six years as majority leader. In 2000-01, he headed a fact-finding committee on Mideast violence that called for commitments by Israel and the Palestinian Authority to immediately and unconditionally end their fighting. The panel urged a cooling-off period and other steps toward peace, but it did not lead to lasting results.
The April 2001 Mitchell report asked Israel to freeze settlements in the West Bank and called on the Palestinians to prevent gunmen in Palestinian-populated areas from firing on Israeli towns and cities. The settlements, as well as Israeli concern over rocket and other attacks on its soil, remain sticking points today.
Mitchell also led the 2007 investigation into the use of performance-enhancing drugs in major league baseball. Before that, he was chairman of The Walt Disney Co. from 2004-2006.
Associated Press writer Julie Pace in Washington and Dalia Nammari in Ramallah, West Bank, contributed to this report.