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Obama sends George Mitchell on Mideast peace mission

The president says the special Middle East envoy will speak for the White House in a search for 'progress, not just photo ops.'

January 27, 2009|Paul Richter

WASHINGTON — President Obama dispatched his special Middle East envoy on his inaugural peacemaking trip Monday, declaring that former Sen. George J. Mitchell would speak for the White House in a search for "progress, not just photo ops."

Obama's public appearance with Mitchell and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was his second in five days and placed a strong emphasis on the peacemaking efforts, which come when many analysts rate the chances for Arab-Israeli peace as the worst in decades.

"Now, understand that Sen. Mitchell is going to be fully empowered by me and fully empowered by Secretary Clinton," he said, appearing at the White House. "So when he speaks, he will be speaking for us."

The president reinforced his message with an appeal to Muslims, in a lengthy TV interview with the Al Arabiya channel, based in the United Arab Emirates. Obama stressed his break with the Bush administration, saying the U.S. "all too often" has approached world problems by dictating rather than listening.

More broadly, he emphasized the need for "respect" in dealing with the Arab world. Asked about the former president's "war on terror" terminology, Obama said: "We cannot paint with a broad brush a faith as a consequence of the violence that is done in that faith's name."

Some analysts have warned that if the administration puts its prestige on the line and the cease-fire between Israel and the militant group Hamas collapses, it could be an early black mark for the Obama team.

Daniel Levy, a former Israeli peace negotiator, said the Mitchell announcement was intended to stress that he is speaking for Obama and to push back against anyone critical of the appointment. Sending Mitchell to the region also allows Obama to take action without "getting bogged down in the details."

"He can say, 'George is on it,' " Levy said.

Obama promised in his campaign to work for peace beginning early in his presidency.

"The cause of peace in the Middle East is important to the United States and our national interests," Obama said. "It's important to me personally. It is important to Arabs and Jews. It is important to Christians, and Muslims, and Jews all around the world."

Mitchell, who was named only Thursday, left Monday for an eight-day trip to the Middle East and Europe.

Obama hopes Mitchell can identify ways to "solidify the cease-fire, ensure Israel's security, also ensure that Palestinians in Gaza are able to get the basic necessities they need and that they can see a pathway towards long-term development that will be so critical in order for us to achieve a lasting peace."

The ambitious peace push has stirred some unease among more conservative supporters of Israel, who fear that the plans for "evenhandedness" mean that Israel will come under new pressure.

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paul.richter@latimes.com

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