You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Buying Time

George Mitchell’s contribution to the peace process dictionary of lost causes is the link between “end of violence” and “settlements.” But the former senator, former North Ireland negotiator, and former head of the fact-finding Mitchell Commission is going back to a Middle East much different than the one he had studied back in 2000. Mitchell, the Obama administration’s newly appointed Middle East envoy, will still recognize many of the players in the region. However, rereading his report to President Bush from eight years ago is like reading an old, outdated newspaper clip.

Thus, many of the questions related to possible success--or failure--will be questions about the ability of a 75-year-old veteran to adapt to new realities. Can Mitchell forget his 2001 report and start fresh? Can he overcome the human tendency to rehash one’s previous conclusions without paying attention to change of circumstances?

In Israel and Palestine, Mitchell’s appointment was accepted without much enthusiasm, but also without much bickering. Obama, as he did with many other appointments to his cabinet of secretaries and advisors, made the fairly safe, cautious choice; appointing Mitchell cannot be considered a bold move by any stretch. When he was in Israel earlier in the decade, he got along well, but not very well, with both sides. His report was adopted, but not wholeheartedly adapted, by both parties. It had something for everyone: The Palestinians got their demand (rejected by Israel) for a freeze of settlements, while Israelis got their unequivocal demand for “ending the violence” launched by Palestinians in 2000.

Much will be written in the coming days about Mitchell’s distaste for both terror and settlements. However, the questions he will be facing now are more nuanced, and thus more complicated than in 2000. Israel, never obliged by the demand for freeze, was partially excused by the 2002 “road map” for peace, and the sequence it created: end violence first, end settlements later. While Mitchell wrote that “a cessation of Palestinian-Israeli violence will be particularly hard to sustain unless [Israel] freezes all settlement construction activity,” the first phase of the road map required that “Palestinians immediately undertake an unconditional cessation of violence.”

All this is really water under the bridge. Since 2000, 25 settlements were evacuated by Israel--and the other settlements kept growing. Palestinian violence was crushed and consequently subsided in the West Bank, but terror originating from Gaza never ceased. When Mitchell comes to the region, he is going to hear contradicting stories, exactly the way he did in 2000: The Palestinians will still focus on settlement activities, while Israel will argue that violence is still a threat. Palestinians will try to convince him that the West Bank and Gaza should be handled separately, while Israel will try to argue that you can’t fix one area without fixing the other.

But while most people will focus on Mitchell’s supposed position regarding settlements (and the possibility that such position will make it hard for him not to pick a fight with the most probable next Israeli prime minister, Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu), the Mitchell Report finding that seems much more problematic today is the conclusion that Palestinian violence was not planned by the Palestinian leadership (namely, Yasser Arafat). The report says that “we were provided with no persuasive evidence that the [Ariel] Sharon visit [to Temple Mount in 2000] was anything other than an internal political act; neither were we provided with persuasive evidence that the PA planned the uprising.” This was, arguably, the most devastating rebuke of Israel’s claims--what most Israelis believe today, and what the Bush administration eventually came to believe --that Arafat wanted, initiated, planned, and executed this terror campaign.

This was typical Mitchell. Rejecting the narrative of both sides--Mitchell did not accept Palestinians’ claims that Sharon’s “provocation” was the cause for violence either--in the hope that a third, “balanced” version, can be swallowed, if not enthusiastically, by the parties. There’s reason to assume that in style, if not in substance, Mitchell will not change this approach and will try to find a middle ground, earning some praise and some rebuke for his actions.

Mitchell was in Israel last month when rumors of his possible appointment had already reached Jerusalem. Those meeting him left with the impression that Mitchell still believes in the viability of the “Clinton parameters” for peace--those presented during the Camp David summit of 2000. Not an earth-shattering position for an American president, but one that shifts the debate from the principals of the future Israeli-Palestinian agreement to the practical questions related to getting there. Will he decide that solving the problem of Gaza is crucial before real progress can be made on other issues, or will he adopt the position that Gaza can be contained while progress is made in the West Bank, and dealt with later in the process? Settlement freeze first or second? Building Palestinian institutions first, or final status agreement first? Israelis can point to Gaza as proof that the concurrent-steps approach initiated in the Annapolis summit doesn’t seem to work very well; Palestinians will point to the success of Palestinian forces in Jenin as proof that it does. Mitchell will spend many months debating and pondering those issues, as both sides have proven in the past that they excel most in a dragging-feet contest.

Even if Mitchell can somehow overcome each side’s inertia, his achievement or failure will not be determined by new road maps or modified Obama parameters. Mitchell’s success will be determined by the ability of the Obama administration to engage Iran effectively, and by its ability to turn the regional tide. As long as those forces working to destabilize the Middle East--Hezbollah, Hamas, and their enablers--control the pace of events and inspire the Arab masses, it is very hard to envision a “road map” that will take this track to its final destination.

Thus, the appointment of the patient, distinguished Mitchell is playing for time: As he works to create the conditions for peace, his other colleagues will be tasked with the more daunting mission. This is the “linkage theory” turned upside-down: The real difference between the original linkage (that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the key to the region) and the second (that the region is the key to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict) is that the latter has a much better chance of actually leading to peace in the Middle East. Iran, after all, is a source of instability across the region, funding terrorist groups in Gaza, Iraq, and Lebanon, and propping up the Syrian regime. Mitchell’s portfolio does not include negotiations with Iran; but the outcome of those talks will be the most significant factor in accomplishing his mission.

Shmuel Rosner is a Tel Aviv-based columnist. He blogs daily for the Jerusalem Post.

By Shmuel Rosner