President Barack Obama's appointment of former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell as Special Envoy to the Middle East is to be applauded. Senator Mitchell is an even handed, shrewd negotiator. He was the main architect of peace in Northern Ireland, which was probably as difficult an assignment as the Middle East if not more due to the length of that dispute. If anyone can bring peace to the Middle East, Senator Mitchell can, especially with the full backing of President Obama.
Irrespective of Israel's recent misguided foray into Gaza, its Government and leading political parties are talking reality after a long time. For the first time its Prime & Foreign Ministers seem to acquiesce the Saudi monarch's peace formula floated in 2002.
Apart from other obstacles, the disarray of Palestinian political leadership will pose a major problem. Mahmoud Abbas, the President of Palestinian Authority is no longer in a position to speak for all Palestinians as he has no writ over Gaza. He is also looked upon by most Palestinians as a U.S./Israeli plant, hence he lacks credibility. The leadership of Hamas has no writ over the West Bank, so they cannot speak for all of Palestine either.
A new leadership needs to emerge amongst the Palestinians, but much of their future leaders languish in Israeli prisons. One Palestinian leader who can command respect in the West Bank and Gaza alike is MARWAN BARGHOUTI and Israel knows it too. Despite incarceration, Barghouti has been instrumental in starting an education program amongst Palestinian prisoners in Israel. He is also responsible for starting a behind the scenes peace movement. Having split from Fatah, he has started his own Political Party - Al-Mustaqbal - the Future. In 2004 his announcement to run for President of Palestinian Authority ran chills down Fatah's leaders and they had to plead with him to withdraw.
Barghouti is possibly the one leader who can unite and speak for all Palestinians and negotiate with Israel a lasting and a permanent settlement. In time, he can also reduce political influence of Hamas in Gaza. Israel needs to release him and many other Palestinians leaders who are languishing in their prisons for no reason except that they oppose Israeli occupation. I hope one of first tasks Senator Mitchell will do, is ask Israel to release him and other Palestinian leaders immediately.
Soon thereafter Palestinian Authority needs to hold general elections in the West Bank & Gaza so a new leadership can emerge through a popular mandate. This is essential if the United States, Israel and Arab countries want a credible Palestinian peace partner. Meanwhile Israel should open all check points to Gaza, so food and fuel can flow again. Freezing the checkpoints has led to digging of numerous tunnels from Gaza to Egypt. If Israel is seeking a long term settlement, it must show compassion and not restrict humanitarian supplies.
King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia's peace plan calls for a complete Israeli withdrawal from territories captured in the 1967 i.e all of the West Bank, Gaza, East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights. In return, Israel will not only get recognition from all Arab countries but will have full trading rights with them. This means moving out from the settlements in the West Bank and giving up East Jerusalem. This could pose some political problems for the Israeli Government from right wingers, but Israel has to decide whether it wants to keep fighting for another 60 years or coexist peacefully with a fully empowered Palestinian State next door.
In return, the Palestinians will have to make permanent peace with Israel and forgo all other claims. The refugees expelled from what is now Israel will have to give up their claims in exchange for land in the West Bank.
A great deal of time has been lost due to George W. Bush's foolish policies in the Middle East over the last eight years. However, it is still not too late and if the United States becomes an honest broker, peace in the Middle East can be achieved sooner than most people think.