Can Mitchell deliver peace in the Middle East?

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Can Mitchell deliver peace in the Middle East?

Aref Assaf

President Obama’s appointment of George Mitchell as special Middle East envoy is seen as a step in the right direction regarding U.S. policy toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But there remain questions as to whether Mitchell is fully invested and, more importantly, whether the Obama administration is ready to risk the needed political muscle. A brief reflection on Mitchell’s past and especially his peacemaking and negotiating forte will help with our quest.

Following his retirement from his two full terms in the Senate, Mitchell led a commission which oversaw the Northern Ireland peace process and played an important mediating role in negotiations between Catholic and Protestant leaders, which resulted in the Good Friday Accords of 1998. His even-handed approach and conflict-resolution skills were widely praised and have led to hopes that he may be able to move the Israeli-Palestinian peace process forward as well.

After the outbreak of the second Palestinian intifada in the fall of 2000 President Bill Clinton appointed a U.S.-led team to put forward its own report. Following a U.S.-convened security conference in the Egyptian town of Sharm el-Sheikh, Clinton announced the formation of the Sharm El-Sheikh Fact-Finding Committee, led by Mitchell.

The United States determined that the commission would limit its investigations on the ground in Israel and the occupied territories. The commission’s report, released at the end of April 2001, ended up being surprisingly balanced. It refused to hold either Israelis or Palestinians solely responsible for the breakdown of the peace process or the ongoing violence, countering claims by both the Clinton and Bush administrations as well as congressional leaders of both parties, who put all the blame on the Palestinian side. In its appeal for a ceasefire, the report called on the Palestine Authority (PA) to “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” and for the Israelis to “ensure that the IDF adopt and enforce policies and procedures encouraging non-lethal responses to unarmed demonstrators, with a view to minimizing casualties and friction between the two communities.”

The report chose not to attribute the outbreak of violence solely to the provocative visit of then-opposition leader Ariel Sharon to Al-Aqsa Mosque in occupied East Jerusalem the previous autumn. It correctly recognized the root of the uprising was in Palestinian frustrations in the peace process to get their land back or to establish a viable Palestinian state. The fighting had been fueled, according to the report, by unnecessarily violent responses by both sides in the early hours and days of the fighting. The commission failed to call for an international protection force to separate the two sides, however, underscoring an unwillingness to support the decisive steps necessary to curb further bloodshed.

The Mitchell Commission Report also failed to call for Israel to withdraw from its illegal settlements. However, it did call on Israel to “freeze all settlement activity, including the ‘natural growth’ of existing settlements,” emphasizing that a “cessation of Palestinian-Israeli violence will be particularly hard to sustain unless the Government of Israel freezes all settlement activity.”

The report called on the Palestine Authority to prevent gunmen from firing at Israeli military and civilian areas from Palestinian-populated areas as a means of minimizing civilian casualties on both sides. It also called on Israel to lift its closures of Palestinian population centers, transfer all tax revenues owed to the Palestine Authority, and permit Palestinians who had been employed in Israel to return to their work. It also emphasized the need for Israeli security forces and settlers to “refrain from the destruction of homes and roads, as well as trees and other agricultural property in Palestinian areas” and for the PA to “renew cooperation with Israeli security agencies to ensure, to the maximum extent possible, that Palestinian workers employed within Israel are fully vetted and free of connections to organizations and individuals engaged in terrorism.”

In June of that year, the Bush administration — spearheaded by CIA director George Tenet — began pushing for a ceasefire from the Palestinian side, as called for in the Mitchell Commission Report, but without including concomitant recommendations for a settlement freeze and other Israeli responsibilities. Indeed, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon specifically rejected these recommendations and pledged to continue building more settlements.

The PA was unable to control Palestinian militants who rejected this one-sided U.S.-brokered agreement, however, since it did not provide the Palestinians with any incentive to end the uprising. As a result, the violence continued, and Israel refused to withdraw from reconquered Palestinian land. Tenet’s proposal not only didn’t insist that Israel stop building more settlements, as the Mitchell Commission had recommended, it didn’t include international monitors or verifiers for a ceasefire or establish buffer zones to separate the two sides. Instead, the United States essentially permitted Israel to serve as monitor, verifier, and decision-maker for the Tenet Plan’s implementation and subsequent steps.

The failure of the commission headed by Mitchell, then, occurred not because of Mitchell himself but because of the Bush administration, supported by the bipartisan congressional leadership, refused to press the Israeli side to abide by its recommendations.

The question regarding Mitchell in his new role, then, is whether the Obama administration will be willing to support him to take a more balanced approach to the peace process, which emphasizes the responsibilities of both parties.

The 2001 Mitchell Commission report was praised at the time for being relatively “balanced.” That term has already cropped up in some of the more favorably reactions to Obama’s appointment of the former Senate leader. However, even should President Obama and Congress allow for such “balance,” will that be enough to bring peace?

The problem in being “balanced” in mediating the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is that it fails to recognize the unbalanced nature of a conflict between an occupied people and their occupiers. While balance in the sense of recognizing that both Israelis and Palestinians have the fundamental right to live in peace and security is indeed critical, it should be remembered that Palestinian land is being occupied, confiscated, and colonized, not Israeli land; that Israeli military and economic power is dramatically greater than that of the Palestinians; that Palestinian civilians have been killed in far greater numbers than Israeli civilians; and that it’s the Palestinians and not the Israelis who have been denied their fundamental right of statehood.

However strong the ties between the United States and Israel may be, Israel as the occupying power bears the most responsibility for resolving the conflict, particularly since the recognized Palestinian leadership already acceded to Israeli control of 78% of Mandatory Palestine. Despite the many faults of the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority, which governs the majority of the Palestinian population on the West Bank, its positions on the outstanding issues of the conflict — settlements, withdrawal from occupied lands, sharing Jerusalem, and the rights of refugees — are far more consistent with international law, UN Security Council resolutions, and the consensus of the international community that are the U.S. or Israeli positions.

And even assuming the best of intentions by Mitchell, there remains the fundamental contradiction of the United States being both the chief mediator of the conflict and the primary diplomatic, economic, and military backer of the Israeli occupation. Until the Obama administration recognizes and is not constrained by that contradiction, Mitchell will have a very difficult task before him.

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