Elisabeth Bumiller at the NY Times, often well-informed, is reporting that former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell is the leading candidate to be Mideast "peace" envoy. I reported on January 7 that "Clinton is torn between making a high level political appointment of a prominent public official, like George Mitchell, who might report to the president, or a professional reporting to her, a counterpart to Dennis Ross or Bill Burns. If she appoints at the high level, unrealistic expectations may be further inflated and the issue could spin out of control. But if she appoints at the professional level, it may be described as disappointing, less than Obama led the region and the world to expect. Clinton is proceeding very carefully on this one."
If in fact Mitchell is appointed, it will be taken in the region as a message that Obama intends to pursue a policy less closely coordinated with Israel, and less fully under the control of the Secretary of State. Mitchell is of partly Lebanese descent, and was brought up as a Maronite Catholic. To many, he is a prominent symbol of "evenhandedness," but he is not regarded as hostile to Israel. As a Senator, he had many supporters in the pro-Israel community, and he generally favored legislation important to the U.S.-Israel relationship. He has many friends among Israel's leaders, and in the American pro-Israel community.
He is best remembered in the Mideast for the Commission he headed in 2000-2001, which called for a freeze on Israeli settlements and a Palestinian crackdown on terrorism. Its final statement, known as the "Mitchell Report," very strongly emphasized Israel's legitimate security interests. But it received more press attention for its conclusion that Israel "should freeze all settlement activity, including the 'natural growth' of existing settlements...The kind of security cooperation desired by [Israel] cannot for long coexist with settlement activity." Daniel Pipes dissected the report in the Washington Times, particularly its studious neutrality between the perpetrators of terrorist acts and those trying to defend themselves. But it should also be noted that then-Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon accepted the Mitchell Report as a basis for negotiations. Much of the report was drafted by Fred Hof of Armitage Associate, who may re-emerge if Mitchell is appointed. Mitchell laid out his own views here.
The concept of a freeze on "natural growth" of settlements is opposed in Israel not only by the Likud, but also is rejected by the leadership of the Labor Party and most other Zionist parties, unless it is qualified by important reservations. Israeli governments have at times accepted a freeze on the construction of new settlements, and on the geographic expansion of existing settlements. But they have reserved the right to continue what Shimon Peres called "vertical growth", such as adding a room to an existing home or building a new home inside the geographic perimeter of the existing "construction line" of an established settlement. Also, Israelis generally distinguish between construction inside the settlement "blocs" that are expected to remain under Israel sovereignty as part of a territorial compromise, versus settlements expected to be outside the blocs. The Bush Administration gave some recognition to these distinctions, albeit with reluctance and inconsistently. In 2004, there was an agreement that Israeli and American technical teams would review aerial photos of settlements and "jointly define the construction line" in each one, to define agreed-upon areas where construction might be allowed. But the Mitchell Report did not acknowledge any of these distinctions.