Mitchell resignation another blow to the peace process

The US Middle East peace envoy to the has resigned over the impasse between Washington and Israel over the latter's settlement policies in disputed territories.

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WASHINGTON // The resignation of George Mitchell, the US Middle East peace envoy, has underlined the deep impasse in the US mediation efforts in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

Mr Mitchell, 77, was a central figure in negotiating the Northern Ireland peace treaty but could not move Palestinians and Israelis any closer to agreement in the two years he tried to guide the process.

His resignation, tendered last month, but accepted on Friday and effective from next Friday, was not a surprise. It comes at the beginning of a critical time for US mediation efforts that culminate in September with a UN vote on Palestinian statehood.

Barack Obama, the US president, is due on Thursday to give a speech on the Middle East that is likely to touch on the Palestinian-Israeli issue. Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, will address Congress on May 24 after meeting Mr Obama on Friday.

Mr Netanyahu has said his government will not negotiate with any new Palestinian unity government that has the backing of Hamas - the Islamist movement that won the last Palestinian legislative elections in 2006.

But negotiations have long been stalled, with Mr Mitchell and the US administration unable to hold Israel to its commitments under the 2003 road map plan for peace - based on Mr Mitchell's own recommendations - to freeze settlement construction in occupied territory.

The road map also calls on Palestinians to renounce violence and recognise Israel, something Hamas has refused formally to do, though it has said it supports the establishment of a Palestinian state on 1967 borders and has shown itself willing and capable of enforcing a ceasefire.

Formal negotiations broke down last year, only weeks after they were launched.

In the end, Mr Mitchell failed to achieve much in the two years he tried, said Steven Cook, of the US Council on Foreign Relations, but that was more due to the hand he was dealt than any failure on his part.

"I have not heard any new thinking [from the administration]," said Mr Cook. "We're still in this realm where the only politically acceptable thing is to talk about the two-state solution. The peace process has been dead for a really long time, but you can't talk about anything else."

With presidential elections looming in 2012, it is not clear that the US administration will risk too much political capital to push the parties forward, at least if that means applying pressure on Israel, which has enormous cross-political support in the US Congress.

The UN vote in September, should it go ahead, is likely to see the US, along with Israel, isolated in the world community.

The Palestinian unity agreement also forces the US to decide whether to continue funding the Palestinian Authority. The US defines Hamas as a terrorist group, and it is not clear whether the appointment of a technocratic government will mitigate this in Washington.

With the resignation of Mr Mitchell, Mr Obama's Middle East team has lost America's most experienced mediator to guide US policy in the weeks ahead. The US policy on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict appears similarly devoid of ideas.