The prospect of next week's direct talks between Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu offers no obvious grounds for enthusiasm, or even hope. Abbas has agreed to the talks with a reluctance that seems to border on dread, while Netanyahu, his public firmly behind him, feels little pressure to make real concessions. Middle East experts have set expectations at subbasement levels. But George Mitchell, U.S. President Barack Obama's special envoy to the Middle East, believes he knows something the handicappers don't: With enough patience and persistence, you can bring the most bitter enemies to see their common interest. That was the lesson he learned from his role in the Northern Ireland peace process in the 1990s. "We had about 700 days of failure and one day of success," as he put it recently. As then, so now: "Past efforts at peace that did not succeed cannot deter us from trying again."
Having conducted successful negotiations under very trying conditions not only in Northern Ireland but between baseball's owners and players, Mitchell has earned a right to his quiet and undemonstrative optimism. Hopefulness is itself an important ingredient for negotiations: You often have to believe in the possibility of a successful outcome more than the adversaries do just to get them talking to one another. In short, we should not want Mitchell to feel any less positive about the Middle East than he apparently does. But that's different from the question of whether his hopefulness is justified. Does the Northern Ireland peace process offer a meaningful precedent for next week's talks? What are the lessons of Mitchell's first foray into global diplomacy, which were crowned with success in 1998?