" There can be no doubt about the fallibility of U.S. policy in the region, but the principal criticism that the U.S. did intervene in Iraq under Bush and didn’t intervene in Syria under Obama assumes that we are both the cause and the solution. "
George Mitchell
George Mitchell
George Mitchell, a Waterville native and former U.S. Senator, certainly earned the title of his 2016 book, “The Negotiator.” 

A Democrat, Mitchell served 15 years in the U.S. Senate, including six as the Senate Majority Leader, where he successfully led the effort to reauthorize the Clean Air Act, pass the Americans with Disabilities Act, and worked to establish global trade agreements. Republican Bob Dole was his political sparring partner in the Senate and they remain close friends. Mitchell then went on to successfully broker a peace deal in Northern Ireland after 800 years of conflict and investigate steroid use in baseball and the Olympics. 

An Arab-American born to a Lebanese immigrant mother and an Irish father, Mitchell also served two tours as a peace envoy to the Middle East under three presidents.

The Israeli-Palestinian peace process proved intractable, even for a proven diplomat, though Mitchell still firmly believes negotiation is the path forward that could lead to stability throughout the Middle East. 

Now a full-time practicing lawyer at 81, Mitchell was in Morocco last week to deliver a talk about the durability of American democracy, the inevitability of globalization, the U.S. role in global conflicts, and the necessity of restarting the Middle East peace process.

Mitchell spoke at the University of New England (UNE) Tangier Global Forum. UNE, which is based in Biddeford and Portland, established a permanent campus in Tangier, Morocco, in 2014.

Mitchell said the U.S. will not succeed as a broker if peace is not wanted. Though some Israelis and Palestinians do not embrace the right of the other to exist, Mitchell thinks there are still enough who do want peace and stability for the process to move forward.

While religious and tribal conflicts run deep throughout the Middle East and solutions are currently nowhere in sight, the Israeli-Palestinian problem itself is easy to define, he said.

“The nature of the dispute is about who has the right to the land,” said Mitchell. “It’s as simple as that.”

When boundaries were drawn and Israel created in 1948, the Israelis accepted the boundaries. The Palestinians did not. Mitchell is among those who believe the Palestinians made a profound miscalculation that they could win the land   in battle because they outnumbered Israelis.

“They have lost that conflict and every conflict since,” said Mitchell, noting that most Palestinians today would gladly accept the 1948 boundaries, but that there is no going back. The only way forward is to establish boundaries now.

Palestinians may believe they have a right to the land that Israel now occupies, and Israelis may believe they do, but the fact remains that only by setting those claims aside can Palestine become a self-ruling nation and Israel create secure and fixed borders, said Mitchell. 

Establishing fixed boundaries will benefit Palestinians  most, he said. 

“Palestinians may believe the land belongs to them, but Israel will not draw back,” he said. “It’s unrealistic to believe they will. It hasn’t happened and it won’t. And it is Palestinians who lose in this viewpoint. They will not convince Israel.”

“If you take the position that the other side must see how you view things, there is no way to move forward,” said Mitchell.  

“Palestinians must negotiate,” he said. They will not get a perfect solution, but they would get self-determination and a path forward as a nation, said Mitchell.

Audience members took issue with that. One said that the U.S. favors Israel to the detriment of Palestinians and another that Palestinians have never had a history of having a state of their own and have no claim to one now. 

Mitchell acknowledged that deep emotions drive the debate and have succeeded in stopping negotiations cold, but neither position has merit.

 The fact that Palestinians never had a state was a pointless argument when viewed through a historical lens of the region, said Mitchell, since most boundaries were formed by European colonial powers — Britain and France — at the end of World War I without concern for tribal or religious affiliations. That laid the groundwork for further dispute within and among nations that has led to a century of coups, wars, civil wars, terrorism, unrest and social upheaval throughout the region. 

Mitchell dismissed the idea that withholding funding from Israel or the Palestinians would further peace efforts.

“It is widely believed in the Arab-Muslim world that the U.S. has a pro-Israel bias,” he said, noting that it is common to hear arguments in the Arab world for cutting off American aid to Israel to put pressure on Israel to negotiate while, at the same time, not acknowledging that the U.S. is the primary financial supporter of the Palestinians.

“Why don’t the Gulf States support the Palestinians? The pro-Israel bias argument is a way of justifying the lack of Arab money to support Palestinians,” said Mitchell. “I?don’t believe cutting off aid to either will force either to do what the U.S. wants. I don’t believe that. They are too proud.”

Mitchell said he believes positive incentives to encourage the two sides to come together and negotiate would be more effective; among them, the U.S. could create a Palestinian fund as an incentive for peace that would become available to Palestinians when progress moves forward towards self-governance. It would help pave the way for a better life and a better future that includes housing, jobs, and opportunities for their children that they do not now have and have not had for over half a century, said Mitchell.

Mitchell makes more recommendations about how the peace process could move forward in “The Negotiator.”

There will be times of peace and conflict and no final peace is ever assured, said Mitchell, but the trend towards peace can grow to regional stability.

“Don’t forget that Europe was shaped by similarly long conflicts,” he said.

American interests rightly govern foreign policy, according to Mitchell, but today’s world requires a broad definition of national interest. Middle East stability clearly fits the category, he said.

He said that while the U.S. has a clear and compelling interest in staying involved in the Middle East to reduce violence and upheaval, it is also clear that America should not be blamed nor intervene in every problem in the world.

 History is long and the conflicts in the Middle East have deep religious and tribal roots that go back centuries before the U.S. was founded, said Mitchell. The West and the U.S. have played a heavy role in fanning some conflicts and have a responsibility to help in some, but solving them outright is beyond American ability.

“There can be no doubt about the fallibility of U.S. 

policy in the region, but the principal criticism is that the U.S. did intervene in Iraq under Bush and didn’t intervene in Syria under Obama assumes that we are both the cause and the solution.”

“I?think Obama’s response in Syria was inadequate, but the U.S. cannot solve that problem by itself,” he said. 

Again, Mitchell turned to history for perspective.

“Aleppo has been devastated four or five times over the past 2,000 years. That was long before the U.S. existed. Today, Syria has become a proxy war for Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States and Iran to fight their Sunni-Shia battles on someone else’s soil. That is a contributing factor in the ongoing conflict.”

Mitchell returned to recent history of Iraq when 5,000 Kurds were gassed under Saddam Hussein’s rule and the Shia were an underclass.

Then back to a lesson from the 1920s British revolt where a Sunni tribal leader in Mosul met and stabbed the highest- ranking British official in Iraq. That triggered the British-Iraqi war. Now, we have the grandson of that Sunni leader who is a leader in ISIS (The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria), said Mitchell.

“And then there is the Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr,” he said.

Muqtada al-Sadr’s militia fought American soldiers in post-Saddam Iraq. Now a powerful political player with a large following, al-Sadr is draped in the flag of nationalism and calling for peace protests as he positions himself to become champion of Iraqi’s poor and a foe of ISIS. He has a huge popular following.

The Sadr family were clerics and their involvement in unpredictable activism goes back to at least the beginning of the 20th century.

The conflicts run deep and long and while the U.S. can play a role in fostering stability, they cannot erase history, said Mitchell. Nor is peace an endgame. It will always be a process. What the U.S. can do is encourage a generally shared prosperity and help shepherd regional stability. 

As to the common view that the U.S. is in decline at  home and abroad and the world had become less safe, Mitchell disagrees. 

“In the twentieth century,  a hundred million people were killed in war. That is not true today. Though that could happen in another world war, it’s unlikely given the strength of the U.S. and our allies,” he said.

And democracy has always been threatened since the Greeks first introduced it.

“Today, 2,500 years later, democracy still faces challenges and the world is still a dangerous place,” he said.

“The long period of post–World War II stability has come to an end,” said Mitchell. “What we are experiencing now is more normal than not.” 

A nation and its place in the world are not fixed. They are ever-evolving and require adaptation. Fear and stasis is the alternative, according to Mitchell.

America cannot escape the modern reality that the industrial revolution, which helped launch the nation to prosperity and global prominence, is behind us. The technological age is upon us. There is much to value, he said, noting the leaps in science over the past two decades.

Manufacturing jobs, even if they return, will mostly be automated. Everyone knows it, he said.

No amount of wishing that the past will return will make it so, said Mitchell.