hamas women gaza 248 88 ap.
(photo credit: AP)
US President Barak Obama's appointment of former senator George Mitchell as Middle East envoy was warmly received in Washington, Jerusalem and Ramallah.
Over the years, Mitchell, a respected judge, legislator and negotiator, has been tasked by presidents to broker a peace agreement in Northern Ireland, explore paths to peace in the Middle East, and even chair a commission to investigate steroid use in Major League Baseball. "The conciliator" was the apt moniker given to Mitchell by one British newspaper.
But the Middle East that Mitchell will confront today is much changed from the one he wrestled with eight years ago. And the parties to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict bear little resemblance to the antagonists he dealt with in Northern Ireland.
Mitchell chaired the Sharm e-Sheikh Fact-Finding Committee, mandated by a Sharm e-Sheikh summit in October 2000 to investigate the outbreak of the "al-Aksa Intifada" one month earlier and to recommend ways to stop the violence. Its recommendations were incorporated into the April 2003 "Performance-Based Roadmap to a Permanent Two-State Solution to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict," drafted by the Quartet of the UN, European Union, United States, and Russia.
In 2003, Mitchell distilled his vision of the Middle East conflict: "Palestinians will never achieve a state if Israel does not have security. Israel will never get sustainable security if the Palestinians don't have a state."
Based on his experience in reaching the Northern Ireland "Good Friday" peace agreement, Mitchell expressed his belief in 2003 and again in December 2008 that "there is no such thing as a conflict that can't be ended."
The Mitchell Report was seen as an "even-handed" document, reflecting the fact that the committee was directed by then-president Bill Clinton to "strive to steer clear of any step that will intensify mutual blame and finger-pointing between the parties."
The committee attempted - even at the risk of straining credibility - to split the blame for the crisis. "Some Israelis appear not to comprehend the humiliation and frustration that Palestinians must endure every day as a result of living with the continuing effects of occupation," the report wrote. "Some Palestinians appear not to comprehend the extent to which terrorism creates fear among the Israeli people and undermines their belief in the possibility of coexistence."
Humiliation is rarely fatal; terrorism usually is.
While the Mitchell Report did not blame prime minister Ariel Sharon for the outbreak of the second intifada, it did seek to spread the responsibility for the violence evenhandedly, ignoring the evidence of Palestinian incitement.
In response to Israeli claims that the violence had been planned by Arafat and the Palestinian Authority, the committee declared, "[We were not] provided with persuasive evidence that the PA planned the uprising."
Subsequently the real causes for the violence were exposed by a Palestinian minister in Yassir Arafat's government. Communications Minister Imad al-Faluji admitted in the Lebanese daily Al-Safir on March 3, 2001, "Whoever thinks the intifada broke out because of the despised Sharon's visit to al-Aksa Mosque is wrong... This intifada was planned in advance, ever since President Arafat's return from the Camp David negotiations."
The intifada's premeditation is seen in the training and indoctrination of 25,000 Palestinian youth in summer camps even while Arafat was engaged in negotiations at Camp David.
In its recommendations to the two sides, the Mitchell Committee could not ignore Palestinian terrorism and the Palestinian use of civilians as human shields. It urged: "The PA should make clear through concrete action to Palestinians and Israelis alike that terrorism is reprehensible and unacceptable, and that the PA will make a 100-percent effort to prevent terrorist operations and to punish perpetrators. This effort should include immediate steps to apprehend and incarcerate terrorists operating within the PA's jurisdiction. The PA should prevent gunmen from using Palestinian populated areas to fire upon Israeli populated areas and IDF positions. This tactic places civilians on both sides at unnecessary risk."
According to the committee, Israel's transgression - and there had to be one to balance Palestinian sins - was its settlement activity. "The Government of Israel should freeze all settlement activity," the committee recommended, "including the 'natural growth' of existing settlements."
Two years later, the road map would cite the Mitchell Report in its call for a settlement freeze in Phase I.
"Israel also freezes all settlement activity," the drafters instructed, "consistent with the Mitchell Report."
Israelis objected to the draconian call for a freeze. Sharon asked then-secretary of state Colin Powell, "What do you want, for a pregnant woman to have an abortion just because she is a settler?"
Moreover, Israelis objected, the freeze - never mandated in the interim stages of the Oslo Accords - would serve to reward the Palestinians' terrorism.
The Mitchell Committee was appointed before the al-Qaida attack on September 11, 2001, and the revelation of hostile international Islamic terrorism. Its report was issued prior to the capture of two weapons-laden ships bound for Gaza - the Santorini in May 2001 and the Karine A in January 2002 - and the surfacing of proof of the grand battle Arafat was planning against Israel. (The Grad rockets, explosives, mortars and anti-tank weapons on the ships would find their way into Hamas arsenals in Gaza five years later through tunnels from the Sinai Peninsula.)
By 2003, Mitchell was refocusing his attention on the threat of terrorism. In a commencement address at MIT in June of that year, he stated, "Our committee's report was very tough on terrorism. We branded it morally reprehensible and unacceptable. It is also politically counterproductive. It will not achieve its objective. To the contrary, with each suicide bomb attack, the prospect of a Palestinian state is delayed. Such tactics also are destructive of Palestinian civil society and the reputation of the Palestinian people throughout the world."
Nevertheless, Mitchell repeated at MIT his opposition to Israel's settlement policies, in keeping with the "long-standing opposition to the government of Israel's policies and practices regarding settlements."
But the US position toward settlements underwent a major change under president George W. Bush in April 2004 when he assured Sharon, "In light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli populations centers, it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949."
The universal interpretation of Bush's letter was that settlement blocs would remain under Israeli sovereignty.
Lastly, the 2001 Mitchell Report was issued years before Hamas's coup in Gaza and its open fealty to Iran. Hamas remains dedicated to Israel's destruction. Its alliance with Iran and its affiliation with the Muslim Brotherhood mark Hamas as an enemy of moderate Arab regimes such as Egypt and Jordan.
As such, Hamas cannot be compared to the Irish Republican Army (IRA), which wanted to throw the British out of Northern Ireland but had no aspirations to capture London. Moreover, while the IRA had limited international contacts, it was not a part of a European-wide network and was not backed by a petrodollar-rich, oil-producing country like Iran, which was also on the verge of obtaining nuclear weapons and thereby emboldening its regional surrogates.
In short, Mitchell will be conducting diplomacy under completely different strategic circumstances than he did in the 1990s. Indeed, Hamas may prove to be a fatal flaw to Mitchell's axiom that "there is no such thing as a conflict that can't be ended."
The author of this JCPA Jerusalem Issue Brief served as deputy chief of mission in Israel's embassy in Washington. He blogs at http://www.lennybendavid.com