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CAMBRIDGE, Mass.--George J. Mitchell, the former U.S. senator who helped Northern Ireland reach an historic peace agreement and chaired the International Fact Finding Committee on violence in the Middle East, told 2,202 MIT graduates that he believes a resolution to the Middle East conflict is possible, but it will take both sides to endorse the other's needs.
MIT awarded 1,171 bachelor of science degrees, 1,096 master's degrees, 213 doctoral degrees and five engineer's degrees at its 137th Commencement.
Mitchell served as chairman of the peace negotiations in Northern Ireland. Under his leadership, an historic accord ending decades of conflict was reached by the governments of Ireland and the United Kingdom and the political parties of Northern Ireland. In May 1998, the Good Friday peace agreement was overwhelmingly endorsed by the voters of Ireland and Northern Ireland in a referendum. Mitchell's leadership earned him worldwide praise and a Nobel Peace Prize nomination.
In his MIT speech, Mitchell said the Palestinians want an independent, economically viable state and the Israelis want security. "Neither can obtain its objectives by denying to the other side its objectives," he said. "Both sides recognize that the only way to achieve a lasting, two-state solution is through negotiation." Yet the mistrust of each side for the other is total, he said. "They are caught in a zero-sum conflict in which both are suffering."
Nevertheless, Mitchell declared that "there is no such thing as a conflict that can't be ended. Conflicts are created and sustained by human beings; they can be ended by human beings."
One problem is that with each recurrence of terrorism, Americans react with increasing despair. "Americans should not turn away when the inevitable setbacks occur," he said. Part of the responsibility that accompanies Americans' good fortune in living in a "free and open society," he said, is to help others work toward similar freedom.
Mitchell said that MIT graduates were part of a privileged elite who should speak out against all forms of discrimination and injustice, help others achieve a good education and live in a pollution-free environment.
In 2000, President Clinton, Israel's then Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian Liberation Organization Chairman Yasir Arafat asked Mitchell to chair the Middle East fact-finding panel. The committee's recommendation, widely known as the Mitchell Report, was endorsed by the Bush administration, the European Union and many other governments.
Mitchell was appointed to the Senate from Maine in 1980 to complete the unexpired term of Sen. Edmund S. Muskie, who resigned to become Secretary of State. He was elected to a full term in 1982 and went on to a distinguished career spanning 14 years. From 1989 until he left the Senate in 1995, he served as Senate majority leader.
Upon leaving the Senate, Mitchell joined the Washington law firm of Piper Rudnick and the Portland, Maine law firm of Preti Flaherty Beliveau Pachios & Haley.
Mitchell received his undergraduate degree from Bowdoin College in 1954 and then served in Berlin, Germany as an officer in the U.S. Army Counter-Intelligence Corps until 1956. He received an LL.B. degree from Georgetown University Law Center in 1960. From 1960 to 1962, he was a trial lawyer in the Justice Department in Washington, D.C. From 1962 to 1965, he served as executive assistant to Senator Muskie.
In 1965, he returned to Maine, where he worked in a private law practice in Portland until 1977. He was then appointed U.S. Attorney for Maine, a position he held until 1979, when he was appointed U.S. District Judge for Maine. He resigned that position in 1980 to accept appointment to the U.S. Senate.
Mitchell is the author of four books. With his colleague, Sen. Bill Cohen of Maine, he wrote "Men of Zeal," describing the Iran-Contra investigation. In 1990, he wrote "World on Fire," describing the threat of the greenhouse effect and recommending steps to curb it. His third book, published in 1997, was "Not For America Alone: The Triumph of Democracy and the Fall of Communism." In 1999, he published "Making Peace," an account of his experience in the Northern Ireland peace negotiations.