President Obama resurrected the practice of special envoys to troubled regions Thursday in his first foray in diplomacy, tapping former Sen. George Mitchell to lead Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and former U.N. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke as a special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Mr. Obama made the announcement at the State Department during a visit on his second day in office, which he said should signal to the world his commitment to diplomacy.
“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 neighbors,” Mr. Obama said, standing beside Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.
He added that he would send Mr. Mitchell to the Middle East “as soon as possible” and that the outline for a “durable cease-fire” between Israel and the militant group Hamas after three weeks of recently ended hostilities in Gaza was clear.
“Hamas must end its rocket fire; Israel will complete the withdrawal of its forces from Gaza. The United States and our partners will support a credible anti-smuggling and interdiction regime so that Hamas cannot rearm.”
Aaron David Miller, a former U.S. Middle East negotiator who worked with Mr. Mitchell during the Clinton administration, praised the choice.
“The appointment reflects a seriousness of purpose,” Mr. Miller said. “You’ve got a senior envoy that for the first time since [former Secretary of State] Jim Baker has a successful track record of negotiations [in Northern Ireland], who is a politician experienced in the ways of Washington and who is really fair in assessing the needs of Israelis, Arabs and Palestinians.”
A former Senate majority leader whose mother was of Lebanese origin, Mr. Mitchell helped broker the so-called Good Friday agreement between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland in 1998 that ended decades of fighting. More recently, he led an investigation into steroid use by baseball players.
In late 2000, just before Mr. Clinton left office, he asked Mr. Mitchell to prepare a report on steps necessary to end newly erupted violence between Israelis and Palestinians in what became known as the second intifada. The report, which came out the following year, recommended a freeze on new Israeli settlements on Palestinian land and dismantling the Palestinian terror infrastructure. Neither has been achieved.
Mr. Holbrooke is best known as the architect of the Dayton peace accords that ended the war in Bosnia in 1995.
Earlier, Mrs. Clinton was greeted with a storm of applause and loud cheers when she arrived at the State Department to take up her new position, declaring the start of a “new era.”
Mrs. Clinton, the third woman to serve as chief U.S. diplomat after Madeleine K. Albright and Condoleezza Rice, was overwhelmingly confirmed by the Senate and sworn in Wednesday.
She was 15 minutes late for her welcome ceremony, but the crowd of hundreds did not seem to mind. She was greeted at the department’s main entrance by Undersecretaries of State William J. Burns and Patrick F. Kennedy, the two highest-ranking career officials at Foggy Bottom.
“I’m absolutely honored and thrilled beyond words to be here with you as our nation’s 67th secretary of state,” Mrs. Clinton told her new employees. “I want you to think outside the proverbial box.”
She also said that President Obama and Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. would visit the State Department on Thursday afternoon to show their commitment to working closely with the diplomatic corps.