LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
Imagine getting a call from the Oval Office asking you to take responsibility for negotiating peace in the Middle East. It would be flattering, of course, and utterly overwhelming at the same time, right? Former Senator George Mitchell received that call in 2009, when he was asked by President Obama to take on the role of U.S. special envoy for Middle East peace. Senator Mitchell took on the challenge and spent two years trying to broker a deal. And he is here with us this morning from his home in Maine. Senator Mitchell, thank you very much for taking the time to speak with us.
GEORGE MITCHELL: Thank you for having me, Linda.
WERTHEIMER: Now, the current state of affairs must seem pretty familiar to you - sort of remember that old camp song - same song, second verse?
MITCHELL: Yeah, that's about right. I've been involved twice in the Middle East in addition to the tour of duty you described. I served there in 2000 and 2001 when Bill Clinton and then George W. Bush were president. You can cite a thousand causes for despair and a thousand reasons why you cannot succeed, but you have to keep going. Because while the two-state solution - that is, an independent and viable Palestinian state on the one hand and a secure Israeli state on the other - that is, a nation that is secure behind defensible borders - has been criticized. That is, I read articles all the time saying well, the two-states solution is over with. The problem is no one has presented a more credible alternative. And in my judgment, there is no credible alternative. So you have to keep working for that despite the obstacles and difficulties. And I do believe it will occur. Because I think it's so much in the interest of both sides - Israelis and Palestinians - to make an agreement.
WERTHEIMER: Senator Mitchell, let's go back in time even more. You were Senate majority leader. You were the United States special envoy for Northern Ireland, at which - both of which jobs you had some considerable success. I wonder what you think are the qualities that are necessary for somebody to take on essentially the job of negotiating peace?
MITCHELL: Well, I think the first quality is that you have to accept that there's no guarantee of success and you can't even let that factor into your decision. I feel that if the president of the United States asks you to do something, you do it. And you do the best you can whatever the odds are. The second one is, of course, total determination and commitment to the task once you undertake it. I think most important is a recognition that any decisions have to be made by the people who live in the area of conflict. And we have to accept their ownership of any process. Although, I will say that I believe it cannot be done without the active and sustained support of the United States government. It's the only entity in the world that could create the contacts and assure the results - that is, guarantee that any agreement will be kept.
WERTHEIMER: Well, now, you've had in your career - you've had the amazing experience of having brought peace to warring people. The highs and lows must be extraordinary.
MITCHELL: There was a great high in Northern Ireland, but that came at the end. Remember, I spent five years there. I chaired three separate sets of discussions and negotiations. And I was asked hundreds of times by reporters - Senator, you failed. When are you going home? And so it's all too easy to forget that for most of the time it was a process - a failure - just as the Middle East now seems.
WERTHEIMER: Well, the fellow who's stepped up now to this conflict is John Kerry, the Secretary of State.
MITCHELL: And the Secretary has tried very hard and I commend him for that. Keep in mind that we've had - I'm not sure these numbers - about a dozen presidents, about 20 Secretaries of State and innumerable envoys all trying to do this. And they all did not succeed. But they tried. And you have to build upon the work of the past. And at some point, I believe it's going to happen because I believe there is no credible alternative and because it is very much in the interest of Israelis and Palestinians. And I still believe that it is possible and that it will happen.
WERTHEIMER: Former Senator George Mitchell - he spent a good deal of his post-congressional career trying to make peace in troubled places. Senator Mitchell, thank you so much for taking this time.
MITCHELL: Thanks for having me, Linda. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.