WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama will move quickly to name a Middle East envoy and is strongly considering former Sen. George Mitchell for the job, sources familiar with the matter said on Tuesday.
The naming of the veteran international troubleshooter to the role would signal that Obama was serious about carrying out his campaign pledge to engage early in his administration on the Middle East issue, analysts said.
Best known for peacemaking efforts in Northern Ireland, the former Senate majority leader, 75, also has experience in the Middle East. Mitchell was appointed by former President Bill Clinton to find ways to halt Israeli-Palestinian violence.
“This is a tremendous signal of (Obama’s) desire to nail down once and for all a Palestinian-Israeli peace, and that he knows it is the linchpin to so many other difficulties we have had in the Middle East,” said Gregory Orfalea, who teaches Arab-American history at Georgetown University.
If he gets the job, Mitchell’s first challenge would be dealing with the crisis in Gaza, where Israeli troops are withdrawing after a 22-day offensive.
Mitchell’s 2001 report on the Israelis and Palestinians called for the Israelis to freeze construction of new settlements and stop shooting at unarmed demonstrators, and Palestinians to prevent attacks and punish those who perpetrated them.
Mitchell brokered talks between Roman Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland in an effort that led to the 1998 Good Friday Accord aimed at stemming the long-standing conflict there.
“A NEW WAY FORWARD”
Obama declined to comment in detail on the Gaza crisis prior to taking office, citing the principle that there should be only one president at a time.
In his inaugural speech, the new U.S. president promised to reach out to Muslims worldwide, telling those of Islamic faith that he would “seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect.”
The Bush administration worked to try and get a Palestinian statehood deal over the past year, but fell far short of that with Israel launching its three-week military offensive in Gaza in the last days of 2008.
Israel declared a cease-fire on Saturday and is now withdrawing its troops from Gaza, which is ruled by Hamas while the West Bank is run by Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
Experts predict the new administration will want to move cautiously at first, allowing the Egyptians and Europeans to push their initiative on Gaza first and wait for the outcome of the upcoming Israeli election.
Born in Waterville, Maine, Mitchell was the fourth son of a janitor of Irish descent and his Lebanese immigrant wife.
James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute, said appointing Mitchell would show Obama’s determination to reclaim U.S. leadership on Middle East peace issues.
“This is a president who appears to be serious on the Middle East from day one. This is an appointment that sends the message, ‘I’m ready to solve this,’” Zogby said.
Additional reporting by Sue Pleming; writing by Caren Bohan, Editing by Patricia Zengerle
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