• Print

Why Did George Mitchell Resign?

In response to:

Israel & the US: The Delusions of Our Diplomacy from the October 9, 2014 issue

To the Editors:

While I disagree with some of Nathan Thrall’s judgments and conclusions, I respect his right to reach and state them [“Israel & the US: The Delusions of Our Diplomacy,” NYR, October 9]. Factual error, however, should be corrected.

The author asserts that Dennis Ross “struggled with George Mitchell over control of Middle East policy until he won; when Obama sided with Ross and refused to call for the division of Jerusalem…, Mitchell resigned.” The suggestion that I resigned over a dispute about Jerusalem is untrue.

In January 2009 President Obama asked me to serve as special envoy to the Middle East. I told him that I could commit to serving for only two years. A little more than two years later, in March 2011, I decided to leave. On April 5, 2011, I told Secretary of State Clinton and Denis McDonough, now the president’s chief of staff, of my decision. At that time neither the date nor the content of the president’s speech was known.

I was asked to stay for a brief period to permit an orderly transition. Once the president decided to deliver a speech, I agreed to provide my views on it. The speech was delivered on May 19, 2011, which was my last day in office. As this chronology makes clear, my decision was made months before the president’s speech; what he said, or didn’t say, about Jerusalem had nothing to do with my resignation.

George J. Mitchell
Chairman Emeritus DLA Piper New York City

Nathan Thrall replies:

I am grateful to Senator George J. Mitchell for his letter. Senator Mitchell disputes what he says is my “suggestion” that as special envoy to the Middle East he resigned over a disagreement about Jerusalem. But that is a claim I did not make. I chose my words carefully, based on conversations with several Obama administration officials who emphasized that the president’s decision to ignore Mitchell’s advice and side with Dennis Ross—who, unlike Mitchell, argued against mentioning the division of Jerusalem in Obama’s May 19, 2011, speech—was not the sole cause of Mitchell’s decision to leave but rather the final in a long series of defeats for Mitchell as Ross wrested control of Middle East policy.

Senator Mitchell leaves unchallenged the main points I made regarding the end of his tenure: that he argued for mentioning the division of Jerusalem while Ross counseled against this; that he had lost control over the policy he was mandated to oversee; and that as Obama sided with Ross, he stepped down (Mitchell’s resignation was announced six days before Obama’s speech was delivered).

Senator Mitchell claims that he decided to resign months before Obama’s speech and that “at that time neither the date nor the content of the president’s speech was known.” But this is misleading. Obama’s May 2011 speech was the outcome of numerous deliberations, participated in by Mitchell well before he says he decided to resign, over whether the US should announce parameters outlining the US vision of an Israeli–Palestinian peace agreement. In December 2010, months before the date that Mitchell says he chose to leave, his boss, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, gave a speech discussing plans to put forward such parameters. As she writes in her memoir, “I pledged that America would stay engaged and keep pressing both sides to grapple with the core issues…. Now we would be more aggressive in setting the terms of the debate.”

After Senator Mitchell’s resignation, he was one of numerous former and current officials interviewed for the most thorough article so far published on Obama’s first-term policy toward Israel, written by Scott Wilson of The Washington Post (July 14, 2012). On the issue he raises, Senator Mitchell speaks for himself, as quoted at the end of the following account by Wilson:

Mitchell and Ross disagreed…. A larger debate emerged over how far Obama should go in setting out his view of an eventual peace agreement. He had been considering doing so for months, particularly at times when Mitchell was hitting brick walls in the region.

Mitchell led a group of advisers in arguing that Obama should endorse new direct talks based on the pre–June 1967 lines, and acknowledge that swaps of land from inside what is now Israel would be made to account for Israeli settlements in the territories….

Where Mitchell differed strongly from Ross was that he wanted Obama to take on the conflict’s two most vexing issues: a division of Jerusalem, the holy city that Israelis and Palestinians both claim as their capital, and the right asserted by millions of Palestinian refugees and their descendents to return to land inside Israel.

“Mitchell wanted Obama to be as bold as possible, to send a signal to the parties and the Arab world more broadly that the United States wanted change on this core issue of historic contention,” said a senior Obama adviser involved in the debate. Mitchell lost, and announced his resignation six days before Obama delivered the speech at the State Department.

“I left because I had told the president from the start I would only do it for two years or so,” Mitchell recalled. “But that wasn’t the only reason I left.”