MIDEAST: Mitchell Mission Risks Déjà vu

  • Analysis by Jerrold Kessel and Pierre Klochendler (jerusalem)
  • Inter Press Service

'Listening', was indeed a central element in Mitchell's first venture into his mission. But, with ongoing skirmishes between Hamas and the Israeli army, Mitchell's initial talks per force focused even more on the immediate situation in Gaza and on fears that all-out fighting could resume, less on laying the groundwork for an all-out U.S. diplomatic re-engagement.

Mitchell spoke of the 'critical importance' of consolidating the ceasefire.

This is not yet a threat to the Mitchell mission though he, like all in the region, will be mindful of the risk that all too soon he becomes bogged down in accusations and justifications, and questions of who goes first in implementing their part of any deal - a déjà vu of what scuppered the original Mitchell mission designed to revive peace moves at the start of the Palestinian Intifadah uprising.

Mitchell's 'listening' mandate also stemmed largely from the fact that on Feb. 10 Israelis will be voting in a general election. The new Administration is clearly awaiting the outcome of the elections, though when he suggested on the eve of the Mitchell visit that both Israeli and Palestinians were 'going to have to take some decisions,' the U.S. President was indirectly addressing the Israeli voter.

In the last several days there have been regular Palestinian actions in violation of the tentative unilateral ceasefire, and limited Israeli retaliation. Despite that, following their meetings with Mitchell on Wednesday and Thursday, Israeli leaders still maintain that their 22-day Gaza war went a good distance towards re-establishing their country's deterrent capability, a critical component, they believe, in their country's security.

Many world leaders have gone along with this Israeli argument of what lay behind their Gaza offensive. Much less so, international public opinion aghast at the scale of the offensive. Interestingly, from the opposite side, public opinion within Israel has also been markedly less impressed with the contention that Israel has re-asserted its deterrence. Many voters bluntly take the view that Israel would have only truly restored its deterrence by 'annihilating' Hamas's power.

This perception is underlined by a senior military commander who asserts that Israel 'lost a historic opportunity to defeat Hamas' in deciding not to broaden the offensive. 'We were close to defeating Hamas,' Brig. Gen. Zvi Fogel, who served as an artillery commander during the Gaza campaign, is quoted as telling the Haaretz newspaper. Fogel added that a forceful response was essential to Tuesday's killing of an Israeli soldier and that the Israeli military would lose the deterrence factor it had established in the campaign if it failed to react to Hamas provocations accordingly.

Such assessments go some way to explaining why, less than two weeks before polling day, the biggest political gainers appear to be those who weren't involved in running the war - namely, the right-wing opposition. It has lined up precisely with the position that 'the war stopped too soon'. Latest opinion surveys virtually crown Benjamin Netanyahu, the Likud party leader, the next prime minister. 'Bets are off, this election campaign is over,' proclaimed prominent TV talk-show host, Nissim Mishal on Wednesday night.

In fact, political pundits are stressing that Netanyahu himself has already begun the task of stitching together the governing coalition he would like behind him. In the 60 years of Israeli statehood no single party has ever gained an overall majority in the 120-seat Knesset; over the past 20 years, coalitions were usually constituted around several parties.

There was a more subtle message in the U.S. President's Al-Arabiya interview: 'I will continue to believe that Israel's security is paramount,' said Obama, adding, 'But I also believe that there are Israelis who recognise that it is important to achieve peace. They will be willing to make sacrifices if the time is appropriate and if there is serious partnership on the other side.'

Not unexpectedly, then, it will be what his envoy heard from Netanyahu that could be of the greatest interest to President Obama: What kind of coalition does the front-runner mean to form? Does he envisage that the Likud-led coalition will include the centre-right Kadima and centre-left Labour parties, or will he opt for a tough rightist coalition of which the Likud would, remarkably, be the left flank?

© Inter Press Service (2009) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service