In his long career as a lawmaker and diplomat, George Mitchell dealt with many of the world’s thorniest problems. He helped broker the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland, which is marking its 20th anniversary Tuesday.
In the first of two conversations, Here & Now‘s Peter O’Dowd speaks with Mitchell about the Middle East, where he also served as an envoy.
“It’s a mistake to think of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in isolation from the region in which it’s located,” Mitchell says. “Northern Ireland is off there in the North Sea by itself, and it’s between, really, Britain and Ireland. And, at the time, I thought it was very difficult and complicated. But then I went to the Middle East and I realized that that’s much more complicated.”
On whether lessons from the Good Friday Agreement apply to conflict in the Middle East
“Each conflict is unique. Each requires a solution that is grounded in the specific and particular history of the people, the region, the issues. There are similarities, of course: religion, territorial demands, national identity. All of that are factors. But I think that the issue in the Middle East is far more complicated because there are many, many more complicating external circumstances.
“First off, of course, there’s Islam: 1 in 3 people on Earth will be Muslim by 2050. It’s now 1 in 5. Islam is torn by internal conflict, the great schism between Sunni and Shia, which traces back to the death of the Prophet Mohammed — not a religious dispute, a political dispute for control of power. As Pope Francis has said several times, throughout history, ambitious men, usually men seeking power, use religion as a political tool, exacerbating differences to gain and maintain power, and that’s the case in the region. You have many intersecting, overlapping conflicts. Look at the tangle of U.S. interests in the region. I mean, it is very, very complicated. And they fight among themselves. All of that impacts Israel and Palestine.”
On President Trump’s decision to move the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem
“I believe it was premature and unwise. Let me make a point: Jerusalem is the capital of Israel — is, has been, will be. There is no doubt whatsoever about that in anyone’s mind. The only doubt is whether there will be a Palestinian capital in east Jerusalem of [an] independent, sovereign Palestinian state. The president’s decision ratified a fact that everybody knows but makes less likely achieving that which is necessary: a Palestinian state with a Palestinian capital. It undermines American policy, the president’s own policy, of a solution based on negotiations between the two sides.”
On what it will take to broker peace
“I frankly think that the qualities or experience of the representative are less important than the circumstances that exist at the time. I succeeded in Northern Ireland not because of me, but because of the people of Northern Ireland and the political leaders who came up with the courage and vision to do the job. So the circumstances in the Middle East are fast-changing, and they could be conducive to an agreement, whoever is involved, and I commend the president for making the effort. The problem is that the steps taken so far contradict and undermine what has been American policy for nearly a half-century, and what the president has stated or his own objectives. I personally don’t think you can solve it in any manner other than a two-state solution. I wrote a book last year to make just that point. That while the two-state solution has not been achieved and is subject to much justifiable criticism, if you analyze the alternatives that have been presented they are far less realistic and far less likely to be achieved. And so we have to redouble our efforts to move toward a two-state solution.”