This past Wednesday, U.S. Middle East peace envoy George Mitchell — who successfully brokered peace in Northern Ireland — suggested to a PBS host that the United States could “withhold support on loan guarantees to Israel” as one tool to pressure the Israelis to seriously engage in peace efforts.
Mitchell’s remarks have sparked an “uproar” among the Israeli right, which has been intransigent on the issues of settlement expansion and the economic blockade of Gaza. Israel’s Maariv newspaper called Mitchell’s suggestion a “bombshell,” and Israeli finance minister Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz snapped, “We don’t need to use these guarantees. We are doing just fine.” Additionally, “senior members of Binyamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party…[said] in a statement that they would not be ‘threatened’ by the US.”
Meanwhile, a group of legislators — Sens. John McCain (R-AZ), Joe Lieberman (I-CT), John Barrasso (R-WY), and John Thune (R-SD) — appeared at a press conference in Jerusalem and slammed Mitchell’s openness to using all available tools to forge a Middle East peace:
Lieberman, after saying that an administration official had already disavowed Mitchell’s statement, said that in his opinion “any attempt to pressure Israel, to force Israel to the negotiating table by denying Israel support, will not pass the Congress of the United States. In fact, the Congress will stop any attempt to do that. I don’t think we will come to that point.”
McCain was equally unequivocal, saying that this type of pressure would not be helpful “and I don’t agree with it.” McCain added that he was sure that the administration would make it clear in the future that this was not its policy.
What right-wing critics of Mitchell’s suggestion do not acknowledge is that threatening to freeze loan guarantees is hardly unique to the Obama administration. In fact, the last time such a threat was made was under President George W. Bush. In 2003, Bush made the explicit threat to withhold loan guarantees from the Israelis due to the expansion of their “security fence” deep into Palestinian territory. Bush’s father went even further. In 1991, President George H.W. Bush briefly cut off loan guarantees to the Israeli government over their settlement policies, successfully forcing “Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir…to attend the Madrid Peace Conference.”
As Ori Nir of Americans for Peace Now writes, Mitchell’s “determination deserves support” in his effort to use every option in our diplomatic toolbox to successfully bring about peace in the Middle East. The former senator made peace “in Northern Ireland and he is determined to do it in Israel-Palestine as well.”