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Ex-Envoy Mitchell Urges U.S. To Maintain Mideast Leadership Role

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

George Mitchell is pressing for Israelis and Palestinians to have a serious talk. Mitchell is the former Senate majority leader and then was President Obama's envoy to the Middle East for a couple of years. He has now written a three-part article in the Boston Globe offering ideas for what to do. Senator Mitchell, welcome back to the program.

GEORGE MITCHELL: Thank you very much for having me.

INSKEEP: I should note that you're writing after peace talks - which were never very promising - fell apart and then of course Israel and Hamas fought a war. Are you worried that President Obama's administration has effectively given up on Israeli-Palestinian peace talk progress?

MITCHELL: No, I don't think that's the case. I think the problem is what it's been for many years, that while both sides say they want peace and want an agreement, they've not been able to figure out a way to get there. And the purpose of my article really was to make the point that despite the many setbacks, this still is an important issue. And peace between Israelis and Palestinians is an important objective for them, for us and for the region.

INSKEEP: I want to probe something you said. You noted that both sides say they want peace, Senator Mitchell. Do you suspect that neither side - the headship anyway - really wants peace at least on any terms that they could realistically get right now?

MITCHELL: No, I don't think that's the case. I think the case is - as I described in the article, that at least the leaders don't have confidence in the sincerity and seriousness of purpose of the other.

INSKEEP: We're talking about Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, each one thinks the other is not serious, you write.

MITCHELL: That's right, and since it is so difficult politically in both societies - both are divided deeply on this issue - it's difficult to get someone to take a risk when they don't think it's going to work out anyway in the end. In other words, speaking in blunt language, why take the political flak when I don't think this is going to work out in the end anyway?

INSKEEP: Is it possible that each leader is right about the other, meaning that Netanyahu perhaps really could not politically deliver a peace deal and get his country to go along and Abbas maybe really could not deliver a peace deal given his political situation?

MITCHELL: Well, of course that's obviously possible. But I think what we have to do and what I've tried to do in this article is to point out that the benefits to a peace agreement far outweigh the political difficulties in getting one, particularly when viewed from the standpoint of the alternatives. The point I make is that what's going to happen if there isn't an agreement, isn't very good for both societies. And it'll be a very difficult time in the future for both. And they're better off taking the flak and going forward and getting an agreement.

INSKEEP: What prevented you from being able to make more progress on that during your two years and change leading this problem looking at this problem for the Obama administration?

MITCHELL: Well, the very issues that we've been discussing, and of course what's prevented, as I point out in the article, 20 presidents, and a dozen secretaries of state and many Israeli and Arab leaders, it's not an easy thing. It's obviously very different. There are very deep-seeded feelings. Mutual mistrust is very high. That is particularly so in light of the number of people killed in the recent flare-up in Gaza. That's the third in the last few years there, and so it's hard to get people to take difficult steps.

That's, I think, an understandable thing, but my point, as I said and I repeat now, is to make the case that it's important enough to keep trying for everybody involved and particularly for the - both the Israelis and Palestinians. And I made a connection in the article between that and the turbulence that's now in the region from these extremist groups like ISIS and others.

INSKEEP: Would a peace deal really make much difference to those extremists because they have broader agendas and would still surely have things to blow people up about?

MITCHELL: It wouldn't make any difference to them immediately, but it would enable those who are now on opposite sides on other issues, who have a common interest against them. Israel is of course very deeply concerned about the turbulence in the region, and so are the Sunni monarchies in the Gulf. When I was over there, I met with about 15 or 20 national leaders in the Arab countries, and most of them brought up their concern about Iran first. They know that they've got a real problem.

INSKEEP: Senator Mitchell, got to stop you there, but Senator George Mitchell, it's always a pleasure to talk with you. Thank you very much.

MITCHELL: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: George Mitchell is the former Senate majority leader and then was President Obama's envoy to the Middle East. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.