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Obama accepts resignation of U.S. Mideast envoy

By Jim Kuhnhenn

Associated Press

Published: Friday, May 13 2011 4:36 p.m. MDT

WASHINGTON — His two-year mission unfulfilled, Sen. George Mitchell announced his resignation Friday as the Obama administration's special envoy to the Mideast at a time of turmoil in the region and after fruitless attempts at rekindling Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

President Barack Obama, accepting the resignation, called Mitchell "a tireless advocate for peace."

In a two-paragraph letter to Obama, Mitchell said that he took the diplomatic job intending to only serve two years. "I strongly support your vision of comprehensive peace in the Middle East and thank you for giving me the opportunity to be part of your administration," Mitchell wrote.

Mitchell's resignation comes at a critical time for the Middle East, which is embroiled in uprisings, and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, which has been moribund since last September and is now further complicated by an agreement between Palestinian factions to share power.

Mitchell's resignation appears to have been timed to match Obama's increased public focus on the region. The president will deliver a speech next Thursday at the State Department about his administration's views of developments in the region, ahead of a visit to Washington by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Obama also will play host to Jordan's King Abdullah II on Tuesday. Mitchell's last day will be effective May 20 — the same day Netanyahu visits the White House.

The White House was also looking to schedule a speech by Obama to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee before he leaves for Europe May 22, officials said.

David Hale, Mitchell's deputy, will serve as acting envoy, Obama said in a statement.

White House spokesman Jay Carney said the administration remains focused on reviving Middle East peace negotiations.

"The president's commitment remains as firm as it was when he took office," Carney said. "This is a hard issue, an extraordinarily hard issue."

On his second full day in office in January 2009, Obama appointed Mitchell to the special envoy's post amid much fanfare. The former Democratic senator from Maine, who rose to be Senate majority leader, had established his credentials as an international mediator by helping broker peace in Northern Ireland. As such, he brought an outsize profile to one of the most intractable diplomatic undertakings.

Since his appointment, Mitchell, 77, has spent much of his time shuttling between the Israelis, Palestinians and friendly Arab states in a bid to restart long-stalled peace talks that would create an independent Palestinian state. But in recent months, particularly after the upheaval in Arab countries that ousted longtime U.S. ally and key peace partner Hosni Mubarak from power in Egypt, his activity had slowed markedly.

What's more Mitchell never established a firm presence, preferring to jet in for short visits lasting several days, or even several hours.

More critically, Mitchell never established a rapport with either side.

With Israelis suspicious of Obama even before he assumed office, Mitchell further unnerved them by taking a tough line against West Bank settlements, saying that any construction was unacceptable. The Palestinians, initially encouraged, became disillusioned when the U.S. was unable to persuade Israel to freeze settlement construction, and Mitchell lost credibility with the Palestinians.

Partisans also blamed each other for Mitchell's inability to bring the sides together.

Nimer Hamad, a senior adviser to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, told the AP that Mitchell's job had been made more difficult by Israeli intransigence.

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