George J. Mitchell discusses his career in government, as part of the HBO History Makers Series.
The Home Box Office History Makers Series focuses particular attention on the contributions made by a prominent individual at a critical juncture in international relations. Recent speakers in the series include Madeleine Albright, Jimmy Carter, and Erskine Bowles.
WARREN HOGE: Welcome to today's Council on Foreign Relations History Makers Series with Senator George Mitchell. The History Makers Series focuses on the contributions made by a prominent individual at a critical juncture in U.S. foreign policy or international relations. On behalf of the council, I would like to thank Richard Plepler and HBO for their generous support of this series and to remind you that these History Maker events are about the past, not about current events. So please be aware of that when the time comes to put questions to Senator Mitchell.
I am Warren Hoge, senior adviser of the International Peace Institute, and I'm up here with George Mitchell because one of the high points of my 32 years as a correspondent and editor at The New York Times was a period in the late 1990s when I was the paper's London bureau chief, and I had the chance to cover the extraordinary work he did in brokering the settlement of a fiercely antagonistic and deep-rooted conflict that had plunged Northern Ireland into three decades of sectarian violence.
The Belfast I first knew in 1996, the same year that George Mitchell became the independent chairman of the Northern Ireland peace talks, was a dangerous and forbidding place, a place that ruthless paramilitary groups had condemned to a brutish culture of killing and vengeance. By the time I left in late 2003, tens of thousands of people who had abandoned Northern Ireland in despair had returned. And they had such confidence that the so-called troubles and the violence with them were over that a publican I interviewed in Donegal Square, whose tavern had been bombed over and over and over again for years, was opening a new pub. And the storefront he was installing was made entirely of sheet glass.
It was an extraordinary societal change in a relatively short time, in a land famous for having a long memory. As the writer Colum McCann recalled in a New York Times op-ed this month marking the 15th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, there's the old joke that Irish people with Alzheimer's forget everything except the grudge. (Soft laughter.)
The Good Friday Agreement was just one of the many accomplishments of George Mitchell. In fact, it's hard to think of any American with a more distinguished record of service and achievement than George Mitchell. You have his full biography, but here's a quick list of the job titles: trial lawyer, state prosecutor, U.S. attorney, federal judge, almost a Supreme Court justice, U.S. senator, U.S. Senate majority leader, university chancellor, chairman of the board of directors of the Walt Disney Company, member of countless commissions and task forces, a think tank chairman, an army counterintelligence officer and a consistent winner of polls among Washington insiders measuring who was the most respected member of the U.S. Senate.
Now, I have left out two other positions deliberately, and I hope I don't provoke a mass walkout now when I tell you that we are not going to be talking about baseball and not going to be talking about the Boston Red Sox. What I want to focus on instead is George Mitchell's five-year mediation in Northern Ireland and then his two-and-a-half year service as President Obama's special envoy for Middle East peace.
Now, George Mitchell is a good story teller, and I'm going to start this conversation by prompting one from him that he once told me. It's both a way of recalling a critical moment in how he secured lasting piece in Northern Ireland and of looking at the inventive methods he used in getting that done. It's 1999, a year and a half after the peace accord was agreed and you've been asked by Prime Minister Blair and his Irish counterpart, Bertie Ahern, to return to the province because the two sides are threatening to crash the settlement. You're once again holed up with the grim and endlessly talkative men from 10 different Northern Ireland peace -- excuse me, political parties that you had spent 22 months cajoling into an agreement. These are tough guys. These are reformed bombers and gunmen. These are hard men who for a long time refused to even look at or talk to the other people in the room with them. At this moment, they're in an angry stalemate. You know they love nothing more than venting their grievances, and you decide to tell them a story about opera.
Can you take it from there?
GEORGE MITCHELL: (Chuckles.) Well, thank you for that really very generous introduction, Warren. I appreciate it. Thank all of you for being here.
It had been very long and very difficult, with not just antagonism and harsh words across the table, but surges of assassinations, bombings. Two of the men who were delegates to the talks had been murdered during the process. So a veil of violence hung over the whole process, and they were all concerned about -- understandably, about their own safety as well as the very difficult issues we were facing.
But most of all, they were concerned about the press -- no offense, Warren. But there was a gate around the building -- it was a British compound and we were inside, secure, but just outside the gate, there was a massive press encampment. And each day, coming in and going out, everyone of them was accosted by the press, with understandably, provocative questions: Well, now, Joe said this; you'd never agree with that, would you? And John said that, and I'm going to give you the change to rebut such a ridiculous statement. And of course the rebuttal and back and forth.
So the talks had been -- had lasted a very long time, and I told them that in the Senate we had something called the morning hour, where people could come in and talk about anything and usually vent about their concerns, and I was going to introduce a process like that here. I said, every morning we'll start, and you guys can all yell back and forth at each other, and when you get tired of that, we'll get to the discussion.
But they were concerned about having to encounter the press on the way in and on the way out of it. And they said to me, we have to find someplace where we have some privacy.
So after much debate and discussion, I'll -- that's a separate story in itself -- I got a small group moved to the U.S. ambassador's residence in London in secret, which lasted about a week before the press found out where we were. And we got a lot done during the week.
And I said -- and I made up rules as we went along -- I said, my first rule is, we'll have all of our meals together here. And secondly, you can't do what you guys usually do: Everybody sit -- you all sit on one side and the other guys sit on the other side. And thirdly, I said, no discussion about the business. We'll do that during the day; I'll handle the business discussions.
Well, they said, what are we going to talk about at dinner? I said, we'll talk about your kids, your dogs, your vacations, what you do in your spare time, anything except the business.
So the first night started out a little strained, but gradually I prodded them with questions and then it got to be fairly lively. And then one of the guys yelled across the table to David Trimble, a Unionist Party leader who was sitting next to me. David, he said, we know -- we read in the paper that you're an opera buff. He said, tell us what's the last opera you saw. And Trimble had listened to an opera the night before and he described it.
And when he finished, one of them yelled at me, he said, Senator, do you ever go to the opera? And I said, well, yes, in fact I do. Really? they said. Well, tell us about it. And I said, I went to the opera last night and I go to the opera the night before I come over here every time I'm scheduled to meet with you guys.
Well, of course that got a lot of interest. They'd say, why is that? And I said, because I want to get in the right frame of mind. (Laughter.) And I said, I know when I go to the opera, I know in advance every word that's going to be sung or spoken. I said, I've seen "La Boheme" 12 times and Rodolfo has never once uttered a word off the script. (Laughter.) I said, when I come over to see you guys, I feel like I'm at the opera -- (laughter) -- because I hear the same thing over and over and over again and you never go off script. I said, you guys are a good bunch of Rodolfos. (Laughter.)
Well, they got -- they got a good laugh out of it, it provoked a further discussion, and we made quite a bit of progress that week, at least in the process of dehumanization -- I mean of humanization and deconstructing the stereotypes. They started actually talking. People who had lived in the same city, had been political leaders, had shot at and killed enemies really didn't know about the others. They didn't know anything about their personal lives. So they started thinking about them as people rather than as members of an enemy tribe.
HOGE: I wanted to ask you, in your immediate -- the role the public opinion plays, and I ask you for this reason. When I was covering that process, and particularly when I would go back to the British mainland, I'd go back to London, where I was then living, people would say, what are you wasting your time with that -- you know, they'll keep killing each other; it will never change, right up until a week before the actual Good Friday accord. As I remember, there was a poll taken, and it showed 75, 80 percent of the --
MITCHELL: Eighty-three percent.
HOGE: OK, there you are -- (laughter) -- said no chance this will be settled. And then a week later it's settled. How do you divorce yourself from public opinion? Do you just have to not trust it?
MITCHELL: In the many years I was there, I became well-known, and people spoke to me all the time, on the street, in a restaurant, in the airport. It always began with kind remarks: Thank you, Senator; God bless you; we appreciate what you're doing. They always ended in despair: You're wasting your time -- (laughter) -- we've been killing each other. A woman who looked like everybody's favorite grandmother said to me -- I'll never forget -- we've been killing each other for centuries, and we're going to go on killing each other forever.
But behind it all, there was a hope. They didn't want to be disappointed again because there had been prior negotiations, several of them, that had failed. And so I knew that when that poll came out, 83 percent saying no chance of an agreement, 7 percent saying there was, 10 percent undecided, I knew that underneath those figures, there was a tremendous hope and a wish and a desire.
And that was reflected in the overwhelming public interest, as you'll recall, in those last few days when we worked around the clock. It was televised around the clock. People stayed up all night watching nothing more than a camera showing a couple of guys inside -- a long-range shot, two guys standing by a window inside a building. It was overwhelming. And when we did it, then I think the real sentiment came out.
HOGE: And then of course you had referenda in the North and the South, which supported it by an overwhelming margin.
MITCHELL: Seventy-one percent in the North and 95 percent in the South. So there was overwhelming public support, somewhat less -- I mean, it's hard to say that 71 (percent) isn't a landslide; only in comparison with 95 (percent). It was substantial. And it demonstrated that there had been this lingering longing for peace that I think wasn't reflected in the 83 percent poll.
HOGE: One of the key issues to be settled, as a matter of fact, the issue that almost sank the accord at the time that you would have had to go back there to rescue it, was always disarmament. The republicans -- and by the way, one talks about Protestants and Catholics, and republicans are largely Catholic, and Unionists or loyalists are largely Protestant. But of course, this is not about religion; it's about economics. And we'll get to that in a second. But the disarmament -- the republican movement said, we will never disarm because that signifies that we are surrendering. And the Unionists, for their side, and really the population of Northern Ireland, was demanding that you have disarmament; you can't have an armed army in the middle of a Western European country. You had a very ingenious method of separating that out. Could you just tell us about that?
MITCHELL: Well, that was the obstacle to getting into the negotiations. And that was my first assignment. The two governments asked me to conduct an inquiry and then prepare a report and a recommendation on that very subject. Prior -- they called it decommissioning, not disarmament -- prior decommissioning of arms, as opposed to after-the-fact decommissioning of arms.
HOGE: Can I just interrupt you to say that I always thought that was a brilliancy because "disarmament" has a sound to it.
MITCHELL: It does.
HOGE: "Decommissioning" sounds like papers being shuffled. It sounds like something -- (inaudible) --
MITCHELL: That's exactly -- that's exactly why the word was used. I mean, it's -- it was kind of an awkward title, the International Commission on Decommissioning, but -- (laughter) -- nonetheless, we --
HOGE: I can't tell you how many times I had to write that. (Laughter.)
MITCHELL: (Inaudible.) So I and my colleagues devised a process which was based on what had occurred in El Salvador. I had done a lot of inquiry, talking to people who'd been involved in other processes, of what was called parallel decommissioning, that they should get into the talks, even absent prior decommissioning, and try to decommission in a parallel way.
Now, that was designed to get the republicans into the process. The challenge was to set up a process that would get them in and not have the Unionists walk out. And so what we did was the Unionists wanted an election, and the republicans were very adamantly opposed to it, so I threw in an election to accommodate the Unionists and the parallel decommissioning to the republicans, and it turned out that that got them all in, and -- not all of them. The republicans didn't come in because I also, in that report, established what became known as the Mitchell principles, which set forth requirements for the political parties to which they had to agree and commit themselves publicly before they could enter the talks.
And basically it was a renunciation of violence and a commitment to accept the results and to advocate to change them only through democratic and peaceful means. That was enough to get them all in. And that's the reason why a few months later when they did get them in, the two prime ministers called me and said, well, you basically provided the outline that enabled us to get into the talks; we want you to now come and chair the talks.
HOGE: Now, I want to ask you about how it ended, and this will be sort of a segue to talking about the Middle East also.
After talking and talking and listening and listening and flying back and forth to America, you suddenly decide -- or maybe it wasn't so suddenly, but it was sudden to us -- that you're going to give them a framework, you're going to impose and effect a settlement. I'm not sure it was "take it or leave it," but it was -- it was your ideas. And you said to them, I'm going to move up the clock, and you've got to get it decided -- as I remember, it was by a Thursday night, a Thursday night of the eve of Good Friday.
And why did you feel you had to do that? Why, suddenly, after all -- because you were famous for having the extraordinary patience that only a former U.S. Senate majority leader could have --
HOGE: -- and yet I always hear -- I remember in the very beginning you told them, you said, I'm here to stay; you can talk as much as you want; I'm staying here. I used to wonder several years into it if you ever regretted -- (chuckles) -- making that promise because, boy, did they talk your ears off.
MITCHELL: Often, often. One of the many dumb things I've said in my life. (Laughter.) Yeah, yeah.
HOGE: But, anyway, the point I'm getting to is when do you decide, OK, now is the moment to move and impose a settlement? And let's talk about that, and then I want to sort of take that same example to the Middle East. But answer this one, first.
MITCHELL: After a year and a half of negotiations, we had gotten literally nowhere. And two days after Christmas, December 27th, 1997, a prominent Protestant paramilitary leader was murdered in prison by a group of Catholic prisoners. That touched off a spiral of tit-for-tat assassinations. Almost every day, someone was murdered, and then it accelerated into bombings. And I could see that the process was deteriorating rapidly.
The British and Irish governments, desperate to get the process moving, moved the talks to London in January and to Dublin in February. And they actually went downhill even faster because we had a process by which if a party violated the Mitchell Principles, they could be expelled or suspended from the talks. So, we spent weeks in London and weeks in Dublin not talking about the issues but talking about who should be expelled and who should not be expelled.
It was on a flight from Dublin back to New York in the middle of February that I concluded that the process was very nearly over and there was only one chance to impose an absolute, early, unbreakable deadline that would focus attention and force a decision, otherwise the violence was escalating so rapidly, the parties were becoming so embittered and angry that I didn't think there was any chance.
I didn't have the authority to unilaterally impose a deadline, so it took me a month to go around -- 10 parties in 12 governments -- and that was one of the toughest things I ever did: getting them to agree on the terms of an absolute deadline. I didn't want to impose a plan on them from the outside. I had said to them on the very first day of negotiations if there is an agreement, it will be your agreement. I said, every word in every agreement we reach will be your words. And when I drafted the agreement two years later after setting a deadline, I made certain that every single word in it had either been spoken or written by one of them. And when I distributed it to them, I put in the cover sheet: Remember what I said two years ago, it would be your agreement? I said, here's your agreement. Everything in it is yours.
Now, the truth is of course that I exercised the judgment of deciding what went in and what went out. There were millions of words spoken or written that didn't appear in the agreement. And that really was the judgment call: What do you put in that can bring this side in and not drive that side out and vice versa with that side? That was the real challenge. But we did have a deadline. We did -- we didn't make the deadline. It was midnight Thursday and it was 18 hours later that we finally did get to the agreement -- 6:00 p.m. on Good Friday.
Now, in -- you've become President Obama's special envoy for Middle East Peace, named -- and I'd forgotten this -- two days after he was inaugurated. It was one of the early acts that Obama gave. I remember it gave a surge of expectation; the magician from Northern Ireland is now going to take care of the Middle East.
In that -- in those 2 1/2 years, there was constantly -- constantly suggestions that the president ought to just at one point say, here's the plan, adopt it. Was that something that was debated a lot? Did you have a point of view about that as to whether he should or should not have done that?
MITCHELL: I did, yes. I did not think it was feasible at the time. First off, let's be clear, each conflict is unique. There is no universal plan that you can say it worked here, so it will work there. Every conflict requires a unique local solution to its problems. And while they can look at the others for procedures and processes, you can't import substantive solutions from one place to another.
Secondly, I didn't impose a plan in Northern Ireland. In fact, on the first day, I said to them I do not come here with an American plan. There is no Clinton plan, there is no Mitchell plan; any plan will be yours. The agreement that was drafted was after two years of intense negotiation between -- among the parties and was in their words.
In the Middle East in January of 2009, Obama took office four days after the conflict in Gaza ended. Emotions were extraordinarily raw. Hostility was high. Mistrust was total. The concept that a president or anyone else could have written a plan externally, absent any negotiations, absent any communications directly between the parties, and then just go over and say, here's my plan and you've got to accept it, was a fantasy. It was not grounded in reality.
The Israelis were absolutely clear -- publicly, privately, consistently, through every channel that they could explore -- if you come in here with an American plan, we're telling you right now the answer is no. We're not going to accept it. And I don't think the Palestinians would have either, although they never took the categorical position that the Israelis did.
What we tried to do, the only thing we could do, which is to create a context within which there could at least be some discussion between them, some negotiation. It's hard now to go back and put yourself in the frame of mind that existed then, but just four days earlier, thousands of people had been in the process of dying. There was a war going on. And you couldn't just say right now here's a plan, we're going to impose it on you.
The other factor was, of course, there was no Israeli government in place. An election was held in February; the government didn't take office until the 1st of April. So you had a period of months before you even had people who you knew you were going to discuss the issue with.
HOGE: I want to talk about two moments -- two dramatic moments in the period in which you had that job. Matter of fact, the last one happened just as you were stepping down. The first one, of course, is the president's speech in Cairo in June of 2009. And I want to talk about the misunderstandings that arose from both that and then the last one, which was the president's speech in May of 2011, just, actually, literally after you had resigned but you were -- in both cases, the president said things that were dramatic. In the case in Cairo, he said the settlements were illegal, that -- wanted to halt the expansion of settlements.
You were somewhat on the record at that point because in 2001 you had conducted a survey for President Clinton and reached that same conclusion, that expansion of settlements was a bad idea. Yet that particular line in that speech that Obama gave became a real flash point in relations between the United States and Israel.
And the second time, the same thing happened, the speech he gave in May of 2011. I heard that speech, and I will tell you I was surprised at the reaction from Prime Minister Netanyahu. You may remember he reacted almost while the speech was being given. He called Hillary Clinton in a rage because the president had talked about going back to the '67 border or that any settlement would have to begin -- the '67 borders with land swaps. Netanyahu said, on the same day, those borders are indefensible -- which I think misses the point.
My question is not to say who was right or who was wrong, but how does that kind of misunderstanding happen? It was so damaging to the peace process to have the Israeli prime minister almost accusing an American president of taking a new position, which to my mind was not a new position. It was the position of the Quartet -- you know, the EU, the U.N. and the United States and Russia. Am I understanding that wrong, or was that your view of it as well?
MITCHELL: No, you're not. In fact, both positions had been well-established and publicly advocated previously. First, let's take settlements. Every American president, Democrat or Republican, has opposed policy and construction activity on settlements of the government of Israel -- every American president.
When President Obama proposed a settlement freeze, many of this critics said that was a new American position, but they'd had short memories because just a few years earlier President George W. Bush had proposed it in writing in the road map as part of his plan.
So it wasn't a new position. It had been an American position of opposition to settlements and settlement construction activity with every American president since settlements started. And on the issue of the freeze, President George W. Bush had explicitly, in writing, proposed it just a few years earlier. So there was nothing new about it.
Neither, however, was the opposition of the government of Israel to it. That was well-known and established. There had been a brief freeze during Rabin's term, but it had been relatively short and wasn't the same for complicated reasons regarding private and public construction. So it didn't have the same affect. I negotiated with the Israelis, and they did agree to a 10 month moratorium on new housing construction, which was a significant action. Unfortunately, the Palestinians didn't see it in that way.
Now, let me go forward now to the '67 borders. The fact of the matter is that the words that President Obama used in that speech in May were almost identical, and the substance was identical, to a proposal that had been made just two years earlier by the then-prime minister of Israel.
MITCHELL: Ehud Olmert.
MITCHELL: Olmert made exactly that proposal in his discussions with President Abbas before he left office. And so it's kind of a hard thing to say that an American president was doing something wrong when he proposed something that an Israeli prime minister had proposed just a couple of years earlier.
And in fact, it was mischaracterized because the response that the borders are indefensible overlooked the fact that the proposal itself accepted the premise that the borders would be changed, because it said the '67 lines with mutually agreed swaps, which meant that there could not be a border established without the consent of both parties -- the Palestinian Authority and the government of Israel.
So I think, frankly, that the criticism in both respects was misdirected and based upon erroneous assumptions.
HOGE: Was any of that linked to your decision to resign at that point?
MITCHELL: No. I was aware of the president's speech, of course. By complete coincidence my resignation took effect on the day that the prime minister came over here. But I'd made that decision sometime before. When President Obama first asked me to accept this position -- that position, it was at a meeting before he took office in his transition office in Washington.
And I said to him when he asked me to do it, I said: Look, I spent five years in Northern Ireland. I can't do five years in the Middle East. And I can't even four. I said, I -- so if you want someone to commit to a full four-year term, coinciding with your term, I can't do it. He said, so how long will you commit to? And I said two years. I said, after two years, I'll review it, take a look at it. And I did and made a decision to leave, which was independent of the two issues that you raised.
HOGE: I take your point that the situations are totally different and there's no one-size-fits-all. But I just wanted to ask you, before we turned to the -- to the members: Dealing with absolute stalemate, and you faced them both situations, where two sides have absolutely contradictory views and there is just no conciliatory point between them, do you have any theory as to what you as a mediator -- what a mediator must do at that point to find a way out of that?
MITCHELL: I think you have to have a lot of patience and you have to let them talk to get their points of view out, to make certain that no one feels that he or she has not had an opportunity to express their view. So I invited discussion. We got it in Northern Ireland; didn't get it in the Middle East.
Secondly, you have to have the strength to listen. Most people prefer talking to listening. And when you get at that level in politics, people really prefer talking to listening. And you have to listen carefully, because even if you -- even when people are saying what seem to be irreconciliable things, if they talk long enough, you can begin to identify where some degree of overlap occurs. And most importantly, you can identify what is in their -- what we would call their bottom line. What is their ultimate self-interest?
When I drafted the agreement in Northern Ireland, I did it as a former politician who was dealing with politicians. Every one of them had been elected. And I knew that none of them could take a document and go to their constituents and say, we were defeated, because they hadn't been defeated on the battlefield.
They had -- everybody had to have something that they could say we prevailed on. And so I constructed it in a way that -- I went to, first, the one side, and I said, here's A, B, C -- this is what you guys said you wanted, and you've got it in this agreement. So you can sign this agreement, and you can take it to your constituees, and you can say, here is what we did.
I said, now, of course, you understand, I've got to give the other guys something. So they're going to have some things they're going to say. But you've gotten what you wanted. And I said that to both sides. And I showed them -- different pages, of course -- here's where you've got what you wanted. And in that way, both sides were able to stand up and say, this is the right thing. And of course, they combined it with a lot of other rhetoric about their courage and the needs of the country and so forth, all of which is true and important.
I think you need that in both cases. We didn't get to that point in Middle East, but the fact is, it's all there in the Middle East. Clinton laid it out before he left office; George W. Bush made a very powerful speech a week before he left office when he went to Jerusalem. And if you just read those documents, you pretty much know how this is going turn out once the parties conclude that it is in their self-interest to do so.
I believe they will. I sincerely believe that it is so much in the interests of both sides to enter into an agreement or, stated another way, that the alternative to getting an agreement is far more dangerous for both sides that they'll come around to it. It's just a question of when and how and in what circumstances.
HOGE: Excellent. I would like to invite members to join us now with their questions. The Council has asked me to remind you once again, the title of the series is "History Makers." So we should keep your questions focused on Senator Mitchell's past experience, not on current events.
Wait for the microphone.
MITCHELL: Like you did.
HOGE: Did I? (Laughter.) Exactly. I've got to set a good example, George.
So please wait for the microphone and stand, state your name and affiliation and please be concise. I'll go to the back row there -- gentleman in the back row.
QUESTIONER: Thank you for calling me a gentleman. I'm Stanley Arkin (ph). Senator, my question to you is, you had this extraordinary success in Northern Ireland, and you're well-known for your negotiating skills -- exquisite and intelligent and visionary.
Then you went down to the Mideast and you dealt with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Asking you, do you think that the tribal, ethnic, religious disparities between Palestinians and Israelis are much greater than those between the Republicans and the other side up in Northern Ireland, and that those ethnic, religious and tribal differences would have affected your potential for success?
MITCHELL: Let me -- let me start by telling a humorous story. Before I took this last assignment, I lectured several times at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. And at one event, which was organized by the president -- it was a very large crowd -- I talked, and in the question-answer period, in referring to Northern Ireland, I commented offhand that in Northern Ireland the agreement came almost exactly 800 years after the British domination of Ireland began. And that's the date some people go back to, as Warren knows, over there.
And after I finished, I -- as I was leaving, as often happens, a crowd gathered round, people wanted to shake hands or a picture. And an elderly gentleman, with a big hearing aid and obviously hard of hearing, yelled out, Senator Mitchell, did you say 800 years?
Yes, I said, 800 years.
He repeated the number in a loud voice. I repeated the number -- 800 years.
And he kind of waved in this -- he said, ach. He said, no wonder you settled it. Such a recent argument! (Laughter.)
Only in the Middle East could 800 years be a recent argument.
The answer to your question is yes, but it's much more complicated than that, because in the Middle East there are several parallel and intersecting conflicts that bear directly on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This isn't isolated, like the British Isles are up in the North Atlantic. You've got Iran. You've got Syria exploding. You've got Egypt trembling. You've got all of the conflicts in the Middle East that are occurring in many of those countries where you have the contending forces of the established government -- most often, not a democratically elected government -- the opposition divided between, to significant degree, Islamist groups and what I'd call sort of Western-oriented democratic groups. You've got the ancient conflict between Persians and Arabs. You have the conflict -- the Sunni-Shia divide, which has existed from the moment of Muhammad -- the Prophet Muhammad's death and has risen and fallen over time in intensity, is now at a very important peak of intensity and will be one the most important factors in the coming half century in that region and throughout the world. So it's much, much more complicated.
A few months ago I spoke to about a thousand Irish-Americans and Irish in Queens, and I began by saying, I never thought I'd reach the point in life where I even thought what I'm about to say, but the fact is that after 2 1/2 years dealing with the Israelis and the Palestinians, the Irish were really easy to deal with. (Laughter.)
It is more complicated.
QUESTIONER: Thank you very much, Senator. I'm Allen Hyman from Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center. You have worked on huge conflicts -- Middle East, Ireland, but also the United States Senate. And when you were the majority leader, I worked for the minority leader as a Robert Wood Johnson fellow, and Senator Dole was my boss. And I saw you and he in conflict, in heavy discussions, but at the end of the day, you seemed to come together, and in those days it seemed a handshake meant a deal.
Nowadays things have changed rather dramatically, and I wanted to ask your opinion as to why these changes have occurred between our leaders in Congress and the executive branch, and even in the Supreme Court, you know, as a real division. And if you were called in to be a conciliator, what would you suggest?
MITCHELL: When I was elected Senate majority leader, literally within minutes I called Bob Dole and I asked to go see him. And I saw him the next day. I said that -- you, Senator Dole, have been here for 25 years. I've only been here a few years. You know a lot more than I do about the Senate, about the Congress. But, I said, even in my brief tenure, it's been obvious that these are very tough jobs -- impossible, in my judgment, without some degree of trust between us.
So, I said, I've come here to tell you how I intend to behave towards you and to ask you to behave in the same way toward me.
And I then laid out really the simple, basic concepts. First, I said, I'll never surprise you. You, having worked in the Senate, know how important that is. I said, I'll never insult you, publicly or privately. I'll never try to embarrass you. And when we disagree, as we'll often, I'll -- as much as humanly possible I'm going to stick to the issues.
He was delighted. We shook hands. To this moment, not just the six years that we served together, never did a harsh word pass between us, publicly or privately. We did disagree very vigorously every day, but in the end we were able to negotiate things out because he trusted me, and I trusted him.
It's more difficult now. I have to say, I thought it was tough at the time. (Laughter.) I thought it was really hard. I thought it was partisan. I thought a lot of this stuff was unnecessary and inappropriate. It's much worse now.
I'm not a political scientist. I haven't been in the Senate for a few years. I have a few thoughts on some of the contributing factors. It'll take the judgment of history. First, you now have an amount of money pouring into the American system that is exponential in both its amount and in the damage it's doing to the system. It is not so much the issue of a corrupt person in the sense of Senator Hoge, if you'll cast a vote my way, I'll give you a million dollars.
HOGE: I wonder why he was pointing at me talking about corruption. (Laughter.)
MITCHELL: Right. It is the corruption and the severing of the trust between the American people and their elected representatives.
I'm going to ask you a question I ask the audiences all over America. Is there anyone here who believes that your representative, elected members of the Congress, are more responsive to their constituents than they are to their contributors? (Laughter.)
HOGE: No takers, right?
MITCHELL: Not once has an American raised his or her hand, and I've asked that questions dozens of times to groups all -- the essential bond of trust for an effective democracy has been severed in America.
The Supreme Court decision in the Citizens United case did not buy itself open the money spigot. But what it did was it destroyed any restraint and will lead to a circumstance in which the vast sums of money, which are growing exponentially, will migrate out of the regulated system into the unregulated system. You saw super PACs in the presidential race. You're not going to see a race for any office in 2014 to 2016 in which there aren't super PACs.
And it removed the one restraint that existed on negative advertising, and that was a candidate had to go on the air and say, I approve -- I'm Warren Hoge, and I approve this ad. And every politician will tell you that a negative ad has benefits and disadvantages. The benefits are that the American people, despite their complaints about the system, are moved by negative ads, so there's an incentive to use them. The restraint was that American people don't like the guys who run negative ads. So if you had to go on the air and say, this is my ad, you get a benefit and you incurred a disadvantage. Now they're able to shift the ad to a so-called independent PAC run by people who used to work for the candidates in every instance, and they make the ad, and the candidate doesn't have to say it. So the restraint -- what little restraint there was has disappeared. So money.
The other big factor, redistricting. Technology enables redistricting to now occur on a very precise method. If you want to have fun sometime, get a photograph, a picture of every congressional district in America. It looks like a bunch of Rorschach tests. Congressional districts look like that. And as a consequence of that, as far as the House of Representatives is concerned, the pivotal moment in American politics is no longer the general election. It's the primary. And we all know that the level of participation in the primaries is a tiny fraction of the electorate, meaning that the activists, who tend to be more rigid, more ideological, more passionate, have a hugely disproportionate role in the selection of the House of Representatives.
Charlie Cook, who you know, an expert on congressional matters, after the last election, estimated that fewer than 50 of the 435 seats were actually competitive. And it's one reason why, although Democratic candidates in the aggregate got a million and a half more votes for the House than did Republicans, Republican carried the House by a very substantial margin. So the next decisive moment in American politics is going to be the census of 2020 and the redistricting that follows that.
HOGE: (Excellent ?). Here in the fourth row.
QUESTIONER: I'm Donald Shriver of Union Theological Seminary. I had a teacher at Yale who used to say, we all have views of the absolute, but none of us has a right to absolute views. (Laughter.) Politicians and religious people are both rather famous for their absolute views, and I must take most of the blame, maybe, from -- for religion here. In both Northern Ireland and in the Middle East, you have had to face clashes of parties associated with religion. I know many Northern Irish say this is not a religious conflict, and yet in some respects it has been. My question is in what ways have you found it possible to blunt the edge of absolutism in this conversation between people who represent, in some respect, different religions?
MITCHELL: With great difficulty and scant success. (Laughter.) You've identified what is of course one of the major problems to not only conflict resolution where violent conflict occurs, but to political reconciliation where ideological differences occur.
My approach -- and it really grew out of my experience as Senate majority leader and was validated or reaffirmed in my experience in Northern Ireland -- is that you have to figure out what the self-interest of the person or party is. And once you find that out, you got to figure out a way to try to accommodate that self-interest. You have to make people believe that this is something that they want, if you can get them to believe that, or if not, at least it's good for them and that there are benefits that come from it.
Now, there are always, in these cases, general benefits that exist on all sides -- in a conflict, of course, the end of conflict, the -- a dramatic reduction in fear and anxiety that is such a powerful factor in these urban conflicts. It's actually much easier for a population to live through a big war, where they can watch on television and see that the battle line is somewhere in between Guam and Midway in the Pacific, and the enemy are on that side of the line, and we're on this side of the line, than these urban conflicts where there are no lines, there are no armies, and you can walk down the street, your kid can be going to school in the morning and suddenly be killed. So it's actually -- psychological effects are greater, even though the actual destructive effects and numbers of deaths are fewer. And that's what I tried to do in both cases.
Now, I believe that the arguments I made to the prime minister of Israel and to the president of the Palestinian Authority are persuasive arguments. I was not able to persuade them of that, but I think ultimately they will be. And in the case of Israel, while it seems good now -- things are calm; the wall has reduced the suicide bombing; the Palestinian Authority has vigorously suppressed any terrorist action toward Israel coming from the West Bank -- there are threats in Iran and rockets. It's a very dangerous future.
I believe Israel faces a period not just of a year or two but of decades of very serious danger that will not be eliminated, but the threat could be reduced somewhat by reaching an agreement with the Palestinians. I think for the Palestinians, it's even more dramatic. I said to both Arafat, when I was over there the first time, and Abbas the second time, that you've been waiting 60 years for the perfect solution to come down from heaven. It hasn't come; it never will come. The Arabs rejected the U.N. partition plan in -- well, it was proposed in '47, rejected in '48, and invaded Israel because they thought they could win an easy military victory. There were then only 600,000 Jews in Israel, and the Arab populations were in the tens of millions. They were wrong, the first of their many miscalculations.
And I said to them, there's no prospect that the choices are going to get any better. They're going to get worse. So you should do the logical, common-sense, self-interested thing of sitting down, negotiating, making a deal now, and get a state and then build upon it.
I frankly -- it sounds immodest. I find my logic impeccable. (Laughter.) But unfortunately both of the audiences didn't agree. I think they will come around. I really do.
HOGE: Evelyn, in the back.
QUESTIONER: Mr. Mitchell, do you think --
HOGE: Please identify yourself, Evelyn.
QUESTIONER: Oh, I'm sorry, Evelyn Leopold, a long-time journalist at the United Nations.
Thank you, Warren.
Do you think part of your problem with Prime Minister Netanyahu when you first got there was that he thought President Obama would be a one-term president? And as was shown later, he more or less campaigned for the Republicans right until the end -- two months before the election. Or did that not figure into it?
MITCHELL: It really had no effect on me during my time there. And I think if it was the case, it really wasn't ripened. I left in May of 2011, so it was quite a bit before the election. So, it really -- it really didn't have an effect.
I have to say, a lot has been written about Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Obama, and I won't get into that. I think the core problem is that Prime Minister Netanyahu doesn't believe that President Abbas is serious; or even if he is, can produce an agreement of the type that Netanyahu feels is necessary for him to get approval from his government.
And President Abbas doesn't believe that Prime Minister Netanyahu is serious about proceeding and is not going to make any proposal that could remotely be acceptable to the Palestinians. And in that context with those beliefs, I think both are very reluctant to take any step that might subject them to internal criticism in two deeply divided societies. You know -- you all know the issues very well. Both societies are divided. There are people on both sides who don't want an agreement.
Now, so it's one thing to say to a guy: Take a political risk because, look, here, an agreement is going to be a great thing; great for your country, great for your people, great for you. If he doesn't think there's really any chance of getting an agreement because of the other guy -- I can't tell you how many times I sat with Netanyahu in his office in Jerusalem and he would lean over and -- put your arm there -- (laughter) -- grab my arm and say, I'm serious, I want to get this done. But is he? And he would point out the window -- (laughter) -- I don't know what direction -- (laughter) -- but ostensibly in the direction of Ramallah. And then I would drive 45 minutes to Ramallah and I would sit with President Abbas and the exact same scene would be repeated. He would say exactly the same things. So, in the absence of any degree of confidence of one in the other's sincerity, intention, capability of producing, it's very difficult to get them to move.
I -- again, I'm sorry, Warren, about the press. I think the press has -- they like this stuff of controversy. And so if you can gin up Netanyahu-Obama -- or, I wouldn't say gin up -- or emphasize it, a conflict, it's more newsworthy.
I mean, I'd just tell one story about the reporters. When I was doing the clean-air bill -- big bill in the Senate -- it took years. It was a tremendous struggle. And there were so many issues, so complicated. It took a big part of my life. And we were right near the end; we'd gotten about 90 percent of the issues done. And a reporter from The Washington Post ran a big story, which was -- 90 percent of it was about the 10 percent disagreement, and there was nothing about all the agreement. And I spoke to him, I said, how can you do that? Oh, he said, he said, you don't understand the news business. He said, Senator Mitchell, you will never see a headline in The Washington Post that says "3 Million Commuters Made It Safely to Work Today." (Laughter.) He said, you will see a headline that said "Six People Were Killed in a Two-Car Crash on I-270." And I've never forgotten that. He's right. (Laughter.) I haven't seen that headline all the times I've been looking.
And so I think there's -- I don't mean this personally critical but I think that the Obama-Netanyahu thing has been emphasized more than it should be in terms of the real effect on the discussion.
HOGE: I don't know what you're talking about but -- (laughter) -- we have time for one last question. Mr. Murphy.
QUESTIONER: Senator, Richard Murphy. In both cases, you were dealing with a snowstorm of press commentaries. Were you ever tempted, or did you find yourself in the position of using the press yourself to advance towards a solution? And if you didn't do it personally, were you telling Washington what they might usefully say?
MITCHELL: Yeah, the answer generally is no; specifically not in Northern Ireland. At first, Dick, in Northern Ireland, I was a -- I was not a representative of the United States government. After my initial service as the president's special representative, when the governments asked me to chair the negotiations, they were explicit in saying, we want you to be in fact and in perception independent -- to the degree that the British governments insisted on paying the salaries of the three staff -- I had three -- a small staff, three people. They insisted on paying them; they and the Irish government. They offered me compensation; I didn't take it. They paid my expenses.
So, I did not report to anyone in Washington. I did talk often with the president about it -- he was very interested in it -- and the national security adviser. But I never once said, do you think I should do this, do you think I should do that. They never said, you should go do this. They'd pass on advice and stuff to me, and I accepted or rejected it.
When I was in the Middle East, I was part of an administration. And what I learned -- and you will appreciate this in your service -- that on no issue with respect to American foreign policy are there more experts in our government and outside of our government than on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict -- all of them who feel an urgency to need to speak to if not the president then the vice president or some high-ranking officials. It would take an encyclopedic volume just to record all of the communications, conversations, discussions that occur in, around, over, under, beside on this issue. So, it was a completely different circumstance in that respect.
With respect to the press, I felt my role in Northern Ireland was to deflect press criticism off of the delegates, who themselves were politicians and very sensitive to it. And one of the reasons that I got along so well with them, toward the end even the guys who were -- had been against me initially became, like, Velcro buddies to me; they couldn't get their arms around me enough. (Laughter.) It was because I accepted that position. And I generally took without response all of the criticisms that -- I never would've done that if I was Senate majority leader in elected office.
And I also felt -- now, we're going to be frank here. I had a relatively -- a fairly low opinion of the integrity of the American press as a result of my six years as Senate majority leader. Then I went to Northern Ireland. (Laughter.) By comparison, the American press looked like paragons of accuracy and virtue, I mean, compared to the press in the United Kingdom. And then I went to the Middle East. (Laughter.) And, boy, it was a case of substituting someone else at the bottom of the ladder and the others guys went up by comparison. And I felt I couldn't -- I didn't feel comfortable, and so I pretty much stayed away from it.
The most difficult part for me dealing with the press, for me personally, was that for most of the time the negotiations were going nowhere, and we regularly had bombings, assassinations, terrible events that occurred. And without exception, the British and Irish governments would ask me to hold a press conference to say how good things were going. And it was very difficult for me to tell the truth -- not even to tell the truth; to not lie and still try to create some sense of positive, forward movement. And I had a really tough time with that because, you know, a bomb would go off in Manchester; people were killed and a lot of destruction. And the negatives coming out of both sides were awful, and how could I go and make a good, sunny story out of that? It was very, very hard. So, I had a very difficult -- that part I had the most difficult time doing.
In the Middle East, I found everything I said in a meeting -- in confidential meetings, in secret meetings -- was in the press before I got back to my hotel. Both sides. I mean, it's like an open line, an open mic. (Laughter.) So, there's nothing I could do because unless I had raced out to the press the minute I walked out of the meeting, what I would say was old news because they already had what I said. And so I didn't really -- I didn't really get involved in that.
HOGE: We've run out of time. I want to say I can't tell you how happy I was when the Council asked me to do this tonight because I was happy to see George Mitchell again. I've been particularly happy tonight that George has used me -- in addition to being his interviewer -- as a prop -- (laughter) -- and I'm very willing to -- (laughter).
MITCHELL: I said to myself when I heard you were doing it, I said, he's not a potted plant. (Laughter.)
HOGE: Thank you. And thank you all for your attention -- (applause).
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