By Alon Ben-Meir
It is time for the White House to bring on a new Mideast peace team. At various points in the past several months Special Envoy for Middle East Peace George Mitchell has responded to reporters’ questions about the stalled peace process by recalling his experience mediating the conflict in Northern Ireland, stating that he had “700 days of failure and only one day of success.” Unfortunately, this analogy was never an apt one. In the Middle East, 700 days of failure serves to undermine credibility and trust — and that is exactly what has happened to Mitchell and his team.
In less than two months, Mitchell will reach his 700th day working to end the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, with no semblance of “success” achieved thus far, nor on the horizon. As a result, Israelis, Palestinians and the international community are deeply cynical as to the United States’ peacemaking efforts led by the former Senator from Maine, and the two-state solution is being openly questioned like never before. It is time for Mitchell to resign. He should be replaced by someone who already has the trust of both sides, who can effectively communicate to leaders in the Mideast and to domestic audiences in the US, and who can live in the region to work face-to-face with the parties on a daily basis. There is one individual who fits this description to a tee — former Congressman Robert Wexler.
Wexler already has the trust of the president and both Israelis and Palestinians. As a surrogate for President Obama during the presidential election season, Wexler was a lead voice in promoting Obama’s credentials to Jewish audiences in particular. William Daroff, the Washington director of the Jewish Federations of North America, told reporters when Wexler left Congress that “It was a crucial tipping point to have someone of Robert’s stature in the Jewish community to vouch for (Obama).” Wexler could now have the same impact for Obama in the Middle East. As a Congressman from Florida, Wexler was described by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) as “one of the stalwart leaders of the American-Israel alliance in Congress.” But he has also earned the trust of Palestinian leaders.
In recent months, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minster Salaam Fayyad have held two high-level, off-the-record meetings with prominent leaders of the American Jewish community in Washington, DC and New York, respectively. Both were hosted by Wexler in his current role as head of the Washington-based Center for Mideast Peace. Even more, he enjoys the trust of one of the most aggressive and critical actors in the Middle East today: Turkey. Wexler co-founded the Congressional Caucus on US-Turkey relations and today is a frequent visitor to the country. Few, if any, match Wexler’s experience, credentials, and knowledge of the interrelated issues at play in this volatile region.
With trust in place, Wexler would have the ability to speak with the parties and domestic audiences in a way that Mitchell never could. Immediately upon his appointment, Mitchell was viewed with skepticism, perhaps unfairly, by some in the pro-Israel community in particular, but Mitchell still has yet to earn the trust of either side. The emphasis he placed on settlements has proven ineffective for advancing the peace process and actually served to undermine the already tenuous trust between the White House and the Israeli public. In fact, in order to obtain a settlement freeze or any other concession from the Israelis, trust with the Israeli public and pro-Israel advocates must be achieved. Mitchell has been unable to help President Obama do this, but Wexler could.
As the former Congressman from the most heavily Jewish populated district in the United States, Wexler is not a novice when it comes to addressing the concerns of Israel and pro-Israel Americans. He fully understands and appreciates the mindsets of the players involved and would be able to provide both sides with the confidence needed to support significant concessions for advancing the peace process.
Rumors have been swirling for months that Wexler could be named the new US Ambassador to Israel. He would be a good choice for that position. However, even better would be to give him the task of advancing the peace process: Post him in Jerusalem and put him to work capitalizing on the trust he has earned from both sides.
One of the keys to the success of recently retired Lt. Gen. Keith Dayton, the United States Security Coordinator charged with training Palestinian security services in the West Bank, was that he lived in the region and worked daily to earn the trust of Israelis and Palestinians on the ground. The same approach should now be applied to advancing peace talks. Also key to Dayton’s success was his no-nonsense approach which Congressman Wexler fully shares.
What the peace process needs today is a messenger with a presidential mandate to mediate and offer new and creative ideas, and who can also be blunt and honest with the parties to communicate what is at stake and the obligations that both sides must meet. Wexler wears his toughness and frankness as badges of honor, so much so that he titled his memoir “Fire-Breathing Liberal.” For the sake of ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict based on the two-state solution, it is time to appoint former Representative Wexler the fire-breathing envoy.
Alon Ben-Meir is a professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches courses on international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies. [email protected]; web: www.alonben-meir.com.