- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 20, 2009

President Obama, in one of his first foreign policy decisions, will name an envoy to lead negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians as early as Wednesday, and his probable choice is former Sen. George Mitchell, individuals familiar with the issue said Tuesday.

The announcement, initially expected Tuesday afternoon, was postponed a day because Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s anticipated confirmation as secretary of state was put off until Wednesday.

Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said Mr. Mitchell [-] a veteran negotiator who wrote a report in 2000 on steps to end Israeli-Palestinian clashes [-] was “the front-runner” for the envoy post. His selection is “likely but not definite,” Mr. Hoenlein said.

An individual expected to join the Obama administration confirmed that Mr. Mitchell is the leading candidate for the job. He asked not to be named because the appointment had not been announced.

Current and former U.S. officials said that if Mr. Obama was so close to making an announcement, he must have made up his mind at least a few days ago. The officials declined to confirm or deny press reports about the choice of Mr. Mitchell, saying it would be a presidential appointment and the White House should be the one to make it official.

A source close to Mr. Obama’s transition team said this was the kind of decision that would be known only to the president’s closest advisers. The selection was reported by The Washington Post on Tuesday.

Should Mr. Mitchell be chosen, Mr. Hoenlein said U.S. Jewish groups would work with him, noting “we’ve worked with him in the past.”

Mrs. Clinton had been expected to be confirmed by unanimous consent Tuesday, but Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican, put a hold on the nomination because of questions about screening foreign contributions to the foundation of her husband, former President Bill Clinton.

Making a high-profile diplomatic appointment so soon after his inauguration is meant to signal Mr. Obama’s seriousness about the peace process and his determination to succeed where his predecessors have failed, officials and analysts said.

Speaking on the condition they not be named, the officials said Mr. Obama did not want his reluctance to comment on Israel’s offensive against Hamas in Gaza during the past three weeks to be viewed as lack of interest or desire to help. He did make some comments on the humanitarian situation but refrained from policy statements before taking office.

Some observers were surprised by the choice of Mr. Mitchell, who is 75, saying that resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict required high levels of energy and endurance.

However, 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 pol 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.

Just before Mr. Clinton left office, in late 2000, 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.

Barbara Slavin contributed to this report.

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