Mitchell prepares for mission to Middle East as peace envoy

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The Independent US

Barack Obama has confirmed Bill Clinton's Northern Ireland peace envoy, George Mitchell, as his special representative in the Middle East, saying he would send the former Democratic senator to the region "as soon as possible" in an attempt to secure a lasting peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

The President also appointed Richard Holbrooke, the veteran US peace negotiator in the Balkans, as his special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The Middle East was foremost in Mr Obama's mind when he visited the State Department. "It will be the policy of my administration to actively and aggressively seek a lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians, as well as Israel and its Arab neighbours," he declared, with the newly confirmed Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, at his side.

During his transition to power, Mr Obama had allowed the Israeli onslaught in Gaza to proceed almost without comment. Yesterday, he expressed deep sympathy for the suffering of Palestinians, but also made clear that Hamas rocket attacks against Israel were unacceptable. "America is committed to Israel's security and will always defend Israel's right to defend itself," he said. He went on to demand that Hamas meets the conditions of the latest ceasefire, makes clear its recognition of Israel's right to exist, and renounces violence.

Mr Mitchell, 75, from Maine, brings a wealth of experience and credibility to his new job. As the fourth of five children born to an Irish father and a Lebanese mother, he has found himself drawn to two of the world's most intractable conflicts. Under President Clinton, he negotiated the Good Friday agreement in almost complete secrecy, an achievement that led in 1998 to the IRA ceasefire that set the scene for reconciliation.

Mr Mitchell's contacts with senior Irish Republicans did not always please London and Dublin, but he was trusted by all sides and his diplomatic skills are widely credited with resolving the bitter conflict. Yesterday, he said that tackling the Irish conflict had taught him there was "no such thing as a conflict that can't be ended".

He admitted that the "volatile, complex and dangerous" stand-off between Israel and the Palestinians had become so entrenched that it was seen by many as unchangeable. However, he has dealt with the region's problems before. A report he wrote in 2000 was praised for its impartiality and became the basis of the "road map" to peace. A document he wrote later called for a halt to Israeli settlements and greater efforts by the Palestinians to fight terrorism. Mr Mitchell will be plunged into efforts to establish a long-term ceasefire between Israel and Hamas after the carnage of recent weeks. Until the truce was called on Sunday, Israel had killed more than 1,200 Palestinians and wounded thousands more.

However, Mr Mitchell's appointment may not please Israel, given his reputation for being scrupulously even-handed, because recent US envoys have listened more carefully to the Israeli side than the Palestinian. "He is neither pro-Israeli nor pro-Palestinian," said Martin Indyk, a former US ambassador to Israel. "He is, in a sense, neutral."

Mr Holbrooke, who negotiated the 1995 peace deal that ended the war in Bosnia, faces an array of challenges in Afghanistan. He is an unapologetically assertive supporter of US interests, he also served under President Jimmy Carter and was Mr Clinton's ambassador to the UN.