- The Washington Times - Friday, January 23, 2009

President Obama on Thursday signaled the priority he will place on diplomacy and his concern for the world’s most conflict-ridden areas by naming two high-powered envoys during a rare presidential visit to the State Department on his second day in office.

The president tasked former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell to advance the Arab-Israeli peace process and former U.N. Ambassador Richard C. Holbrooke to deal with Afghanistan and Pakistan. Both are well-known and successful negotiators from the Clinton administration who had been mentioned as candidates for secretary of state.

“My appearance today,” Mr. Obama told U.S. diplomats, “underscores my commitment to the importance of diplomacy in renewing American leadership, and it gives me an opportunity to thank you for the services that you perform every single day.”

With his new secretary of state and former rival Hillary Rodham Clinton by his side, Mr. Obama said, “The State Department is going to be absolutely critical to our success in the years to come and you, individually, are going to be critical to our success in the years to come.”

Mr. Obama immediately plunged into policy issues, pledging sustained U.S. efforts to help preserve the fragile cease-fire between Israel and the militant Palestinian group Hamas.

Although his basic approach is a continuation of the Bush administration’s policy, his remarks struck a more sympathetic tone toward the Palestinian people.

“As part of a lasting cease-fire, Gaza’s border crossings should be open to allow the flow of aid and commerce, with an appropriate monitoring regime with the international and Palestinian Authority participating,” he said. “Just as the terror of rocket fire aimed at innocent Israelis is intolerable,” he said in reference to Hamas’ actions, “so, too, is a future without hope for the Palestinians.”

He said he will send Mr. Mitchell to the Middle East “as soon as possible,” and that one of the envoy’s first tasks will be to assess how the United States can help in Gaza’s reconstruction.

Mr. Mitchell, who helped broker the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, said widespread skepticism about bringing peace to the Middle East is understandable but no reason not to keep trying.

“At the direction of the president and the secretary of state, and in pursuit of the president’s policies, I pledge my full effort in the search for peace and stability in the Middle East,” he said.

Mr. Holbrooke, an architect of the 1995 Dayton peace accords that ended the war in Bosnia, said that “putting Afghanistan and Pakistan together under one envoy” does not mean that the United States will ignore the individual history and traditions of each nation.

Aaron David Miller, a former U.S. Middle East negotiator, said the selections of two such high-profile figures were unprecedented and raised questions about who was in charge.

“You’ve never had a situation in which a secretary of state is managing two could-have-been secretaries of state,” he said.

Robert Gallucci, dean of the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University and a former senior State Department official, said that envoys “can weaken the line officers, assistant secretaries and above who lose control of the most important issues in their portfolio.”

Retired Gen. Anthony Zinni, a special envoy to the Middle East in the Bush administration who was limited to security matters, said an emissary’s portfolio must include political, economic and security issues to ensure a successful mission.

“An envoy needs to be very engaged, have his own staff and be well-connected to the government structures in Washington,” he said.

Israeli reaction Thursday was wait-and-see.

“It obviously indicates he’s signaling a strong interest and urgent interest in the Israel-Palestinian conflict,” Yossi Alpher, editor of the Israeli-Palestinian journal Bitterlemons.org, said of Mr. Obama’s decision. “Whether he’s going to devote much of the administration’s energies in the coming months” is uncertain.

Before Mr. Obama can address the festering conflict in earnest, Mr. Alpher said, he will have to wait for Israeli and Palestinian elections.

“This is about process and trying to buy political space,” Mr. Miller said of the selection of Mr. Mitchell. “Envoy or no envoy, you still don’t know whether the president of the United States is prepared to make the tough choices necessary to make a difference between Israel and the Palestinians and Israel and Syria.”

• Joshua Mitnick contributed to this report from Tel Aviv.

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