George Mitchell’s Middle East Tour

Press review – week from July 27 to 31, 2009


This week US Middle East envoy George Mitchell  toured widely in the region visiting one after another Israeli, Syrian, Egyptian and Palestinian authorities.

During his visit to Damascus, George Mitchell said that President Obama had decided to work for a « comprehensive peace in the Middle East which includes Israel and Palestine, Israel and Syria, Israel and Lebanon and normal relations with all countries in the regions, » saidNouvel Obs.

The Express reports that the U.S. Middle East envoy has stressed during his visit to Cairo that the United States « does not ask anyone a complete normalization at this stage », recognizing « that it will take place later in this process ». He also called on countries to take significant steps.

Al Jazeera details those « significant steps ». Regarding the Arab States, the United States expect them to make « significant steps towards normalization of their relations with Israel. » The Palestinians are required for their part to « expand and improve their security forces, and refrain from words or acts that would make it more difficult to move fast forward to successful negotiations. » Finally, Israel must ensure to « enable better access, movement and economic growth for the Palestinians … and deal with difficult issues such as settlements and outposts.  »

The comeback of Syria on the regional scene

Le Monde highlights the feat : despite a clear position in favor of the Iranian regime and of Hezbollah and Hamas, Bashar al-Assad has been able to restore Syria in the role of a  regional actor that cannot be ignored. The daily commented the failure of the French policy which was trying, by resuming diplomatic relations, to take Syria away from its Iranian ally. On the contrary, Syria has managed to use the blank check offered by France to revive its relations with Washington.

For the second time in just over a month, the U.S. special envoy for the Middle East visited Damascus. Le Monde reminds that on June 14, George Mitchell visited the Syrian capital, breaking the diplomatic cold that prevailed between the two countries since 2005.

Following this visit, Washington has announced the gradual lifting of the economic sanctions imposed to Syria, said AFP. Tommy Vietor, a spokesman for the White House nevertheless warned that « to change the U.S. sanctions would require coordination and close consultation with Congress ». AFP also reminds that Washington also announced on pas June 24 the sending of a new ambassador to Damascus.

According to Israeli news agency Guysen news, as they have done with Iran, the United States try to find a compromise with Syria in order to » make Damascus a new bridge between Islamists and Arab moderates, particularly between Hamas and Fatah.  »

Le Monde also notifies that Syria is a central player in the palestinian inter dialogue: The Syrian capital is hosting the headquarters of Hamas and Hezbollah, while Mahmoud Abbas is coming there regularly to consult his Syrian counterpart.

Haaretz reports the visit of Walid Moallem, the Syrian Minister of Foreign Affairs in London. The latter reminded the central position occupied by Syria regarding the Iranian nuclear issue. He said the willingness of Syria to make the Middle East a zone free of nuclear weapons, and added that Syria was « in a unique position to influence the Iranian policy », although it could not « take decisions in place of Iran “ that  » has to take its decisions according to its interests.  » The minister did not specify what role Syria could play in the crisis between Iran and the majority of the international community.
The Israeli newspaper said that meanwhile Syria does is not very cooperative with the IAEA and that Walid Moallem had carefully avoided answering questions from journalists on the flow of arms passing through Syria to reach Hezbollah or Hamas.

The Arab-Israeli conflict

After the visit to Damascus it is the one of the envoy George Mitchell in Jerusalem which received the more attention. Le Nouvel Obs reminds the recent disagreements between the Obama administration and the Israeli government of Netanyahu. While the United States ask to their ally a complete freeze of the settlements in the occupied territories, a new Jewish settlement in East Jerusalem had rekindled tensions between the two countries.

L’Express reports the Tuesday talks between Netanyahu and Mitchell on this topic. Both declared that there had been some progress towards a solution, even if the American envoy admitted that « There is always a gap between us and the Israelis on the issue of settlements. » The daily noted that it will be difficult to start negotiations with the Palestinians or with Saudi Arabia or Syria, if the phenomenon of colonization does not undergo a complete freeze.

This view is corroborated by an article in the pan-Arab newspaper Ash Sharq Al Awsat, which reported the feeling of the Arab countries that do not accept so much U.S. pressure for a normalization of their relations with Israel. According to them, such a gesture is premature and will remain conditioned by the total ending of the settlement activities in the West Bank.

Al Jazeera’s journalist in Jerusalem, Mike Hanna finally remark that even if the American and Israeli leaders said they had made progress on the issue of settlements, we cannot hide that there are  » substantial differences between the approach of the Obama administration and that of Israel.  »