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U.S. Mideast Envoy George Mitchell Is Resigning

U.S. Mideast envoy George Mitchell is stepping down for personal reasons.
Amr Nabil
U.S. Mideast envoy George Mitchell is stepping down for personal reasons.

The Obama administration's special Mideast envoy, former Sen. George Mitchell, is stepping down after more than two years of trying to restart peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians.

Accepting the resignation, President Obama called the veteran mediator and broker of the Northern Ireland peace accord a "tireless advocate for peace."

"His deep commitment to resolving conflict and advancing democracy has contributed immeasurably to the goal of two states living side by side in peace and security," Obama said.

In a two-paragraph letter to the president, Mitchell said that he took the diplomatic job intending to serve only 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, 77, wrote.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has asked David Hale, the deputy Middle East envoy, to serve as acting envoy until a replacement is found.

The change comes at a critical time for the Middle East, which is embroiled in turmoil, and the Israel-Palestinian peace process, which has been moribund since last September and is now further complicated by an agreement between Palestinian factions to share power. Obama is expected to deliver a speech next week about the administration's views of developments in the region ahead of a visit to Washington, D.C., by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Mitchell's resignation will be effective May 20 — the same day Netanyahu visits the White House.

Since his appointment on Obama's second full day in office, Mitchell has spent much of his time shuttling among Israel, the 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 has slowed markedly.

Just what the U.S. does next is an issue that is hotly debated within the administration, according to Jeremy Ben-Ami, who runs a pro-Israel, pro-peace advocacy group called J Street.

"At the end of the day, this is a question of what does the president of the United States want to do and what are his calculations about the risks of action versus the risks of the status quo," he said. "I don't think one adviser or another makes or breaks that decision. The teams come, the teams go, but the president of the United States is the one who has to make these decisions."

Ben-Ami is among those urging Obama to make public the outlines of a possible deal as a way to draw Israelis and Palestinians back to negotiations and head off Palestinian attempts to go to the United Nations in September to try to win statehood that way. But Mitchell's departure raises doubts that Obama is really preparing that sort of diplomatic initiative.

NPR's Michele Kelemen and Scott Horsley reported from Washington, D.C., for this story, which contains material from The Associated Press.

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NPR Staff and Wires