Listening post

The Baltimore Sun

The United States' new Mideast envoy, George J. Mitchell, arrives in the region with a presidential imperative to listen and a sense of d?j? vu. This is not new territory for the former Maine senator. The geopolitical landscape hasn't changed much from when Mr. Mitchell last reported on the situation for former President George W. Bush in 2001. The polarizing personalities of Israel's Ariel Sharon and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat are gone from the scene, but the underlying issues of the conflict - terrorism, settlements, Jerusalem's future - remain obstacles to a negotiated resolution and two secure states coexisting in peace.

Mr. Mitchell's previous trip followed the violence of the second intifada, Palestinians' response to failed promises of the peace process, and Israel's retaliatory actions. This tour, with stops in Europe as well as the region, follows Israel's crushing, three-week military campaign to end volley after volley of rocket attacks from Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip into southern Israel. The shocking extent of destruction to Palestinian homes and villages has angered the Muslim world and leaders in Arab capitals. It also has put Israel on the defensive over the death toll among Gazans, whose safety has been compromised and exploited by Hamas militants.

Hamas' popularity has grown since Mr. Mitchell's last visit, and it retains its political power in Gaza despite the devastating results of its provocative strikes and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas' push for a unity government. Iran looms as a behind-the-scenes patron of terrorist organizations on Israel's north and south borders; its pursuit of a nuclear program has become more than an existential threat to the Jewish state. In Israel, Jewish settlement construction is on a robust track and conservative Benjamin Netanyahu is leading in the polls preceding parliamentary elections next month. Both pose significant challenges to resuming direct talks between the parties.

As he travels between Jerusalem, Cairo and the West Bank, Mr. Mitchell has to convey President Barack Obama's intention for the U.S. to be a facilitator, not a dictator. The president's decision to grant his first televised interview to Dubai-based Al Arabiya signaled boldly his desire for a new relationship with the Muslim world.

What Mr. Mitchell hears on this trip should expedite the search for a new diplomatic strategy to change the dynamics and prospects for peace in the Middle East.

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