Former envoy says moving Israeli capital would be setback

If folksy charm could bring peace to Israelis and Palestinians, George Mitchell would have clinched a deal by now. But the former U.S. senator and Middle East envoy knows it will take far more to bring about a two-state solution.

Mitchell and his former senior aide Alon Sachar made a Dec. 9 appearance at San Francisco’s Commonwealth Club to promote “A Path to Peace,” a new book the two wrote about their experiences as U.S. negotiators.

Alon Sachar (left) and George Mitchell speaking at the Commonwealth Club on Dec. 9, 2016 photo/dan pine

The folksiness bubbled up with Mitchell’s amusing personal tales, such as once being mistaken for Henry Kissinger on a book tour. But he turned serious when addressing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“We believe there is no such thing as a conflict that cannot be ended,” said Mitchell, who brokered peace between Northern Ireland’s warring factions. “We also believe it is very much in the interests of the United States, Israel and the Palestinians that they reach an agreement under which each achieves its primary objective.”

For Israel that would be security; for the Palestinians, a sovereign state. Mitchell quoted former President George W. Bush, who said neither party will get what it wants without the other getting what it wants.

Mitchell acknowledged peace has been frustratingly elusive. Twelve American presidents have tried, with limited results and no comprehensive resolution, as well as hostility and cynicism left in the wake of failed talks.

But he also pointed to enduring peace pacts Israel signed with Egypt and Jordan as signs of hope.

“Societies act out of self-interest,” he said. “They will ultimately come to see [peace] is in their mutual self-interest and will come to an agreement.”

Mitchell and Sachar conceded support for the two-state solution is declining, due to frustration and despair. But both emphasized the only way forward is for both sides to sit down face to face and, assisted by the United States, hammer out a deal. He said he is cheered by President-elect Trump’s expressed desire to tackle the problem.

Sachar addressed the so-called one-state solution, under which either Israel annexes the West Bank or is absorbed into a binational state and loses its Jewish character. Israelis and Palestinians, he said, are “politically and economically incompatible. One entity would lead to death and destruction.”

He lauded the close cooperation between Israel and the Palestinian Authority when it comes to West Bank security, but conceded that Palestinians increasingly see this as “easing the burden of occupation on Israel.” Should it stop, though, Israel might be forced to re-occupy parts of the West Bank, an outcome nobody wants.

On a more hopeful note, Mitchell saw potential for bilateral relations between Israel and its Sunni Arab neighbors, including Saudi Arabia, due to their mutual suspicions of an ascending Iran.

“They share much in common,” he said. “The principal objective is to deter the Iranian drive for hegemony. They should be overtly allied,” though, Mitchell added, such alliances first require an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal.

An audience member asked the two their opinion of Trump’s promise to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a pledge many candidates have made, yet none has kept. Both Sachar and Mitchell thought it would be a very bad idea.

“It would be a setback and reduce the likelihood [of a deal] if the embassy is moved,” Mitchell said, “but if it’s done I hope there would be the recognition of a possibility of a Palestinian capital in Jerusalem in the future. Otherwise it would be a serious blow to solving the conflict. Jerusalem is a Muslim issue, not just a Palestinian issue.”

To underscore that point, Mitchell noted that Muslims now total one-fifth of the world’s population. By the time humanity reaches 10 billion in number, he said, Muslims are expected to make up a third of all people on earth.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is J.'s news editor. He can be reached at