The George Mitchell Appointment: The Tactics of “Symmetrical Negotiations” May Not Work in “Asymmetrical Conflicts”

, January 25, 2009

Vol. 8, No. 19    January 25, 2009

  • The appointment of former Senator George J. Mitchell as Middle East envoy was warmly received in Washington, Jerusalem, and Ramallah. Yet, the Middle East that Mitchell will confront today is much changed from the one he wrestled with eight years ago as chairman of the 2001 Sharm el-Sheikh Fact-Finding Committee, which was created to investigate the outbreak of the Second Intifada.
  • The 2001 Mitchell Report was seen as an “even-handed” document, reflecting President Clinton’s directive to “strive to steer clear of…finger-pointing. As a result, the committee attempted – even at the risk of straining credibility – to split the blame for the crisis. The Mitchell Committee could not ignore Palestinian terrorism and the Palestinian use of civilians as human shields. Israel’s transgression – and there had to be one to balance Palestinian sins – was its settlement activity. The committee recommended a “freeze [of] all settlement activity, including the ‘natural growth’ of existing settlements.” Israelis objected that the freeze – never mandated in the interim stages of the Oslo Accords – would serve to reward the Palestinians’ terrorism.
  • The committee was appointed before the 9/11 al-Qaeda attack. Its report came 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 prior to President Bush’s 2004 recognition of “new realities on the ground [in the territories], including already existing major Israeli populations centers.” Bush continued: “[I]t 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 2001 Mitchell Report was issued years before Hamas’ coup in Gaza. 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. Hamas may yet prove to be a fatal flaw to Mitchell’s axiom that “there is no such thing as a conflict that can’t be ended.”

 

President Barak Obama’s appointment of former Senator George J. 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.

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 el-Sheikh Fact-Finding Committee,” mandated by a Sharm el-Sheikh summit in October 2000 to investigate the outbreak of the “al-Aqsa Intifada” one month earlier and to recommend ways to stop the violence. His committee, which also included Senator Warren Rudman and three European statesmen, presented its findings to the new Bush administration on April 30, 2001. Its recommendations were then 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.”1

The Mitchell Report was seen as an “even-handed” document, reflecting the fact that the committee was directed by President Clinton to “strive to steer clear of any step that will intensify mutual blame and finger-pointing between the parties….The Committee should not become a divisive force or a focal point for blame and recrimination but rather should serve to forestall violence and confrontation and provide lessons for the future. This should not be a tribunal whose purpose is to determine the guilt or innocence of individuals or of the parties.”2

As a result, 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 co-existence.”

Humiliation is rarely fatal; terrorism usually is.

While the Mitchell Report did not blame Israeli Prime Minister Sharon for the outbreak of the Second Intifada,3 nonetheless, it sought to evenhandedly spread the responsibility for the violence, ignoring the evidence of Palestinian incitement. In response to Israeli claims that the violence was planned by Arafat and the Palestinian Authority, the committee declared, “[We were not] provided with persuasive evidence that the PA planned the uprising. Accordingly, we have no basis on which to conclude that there was a deliberate plan by the PA to initiate a campaign of violence at the first opportunity.”

Subsequently, the real causes for the violence were exposed by a Palestinian minister in Yassir Arafat’s government. Palestinian 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 the Al-Aqsa Mosque is wrong….This Intifada was planned in advance, ever since President Arafat’s return from the Camp David negotiations.” Even earlier, al-Faluji had explained that the Intifada was initiated as the result of a strategic decision made by the Palestinians.4

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.5

 

The Mitchell Report’s Recommendations

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 issued these recommendations:

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,” the committee recommended, “should freeze all settlement activity, including the ‘natural growth’ of existing settlements.”

Two years later, the Roadmap would cite the Mitchell Report in its call for a settlement freeze in Phase I of the Roadmap. “Israel also freezes all settlement activity,” the drafters instructed, “consistent with the Mitchell Report” (emphasis added).

Israelis objected to the draconian call for a freeze. Sharon asked Secretary of State Colin Powell, “What do you want, for a pregnant woman to have an abortion just because she is a settler?”6 Moreover, Israelis objected, the freeze – never mandated in the interim stages of the Oslo Accords – would serve to reward the Palestinians’ terrorism.

 

A Changed World Since the Mitchell Report

The Mitchell Report was drafted relatively early in the Palestinian Intifada, when it was believed by some that the Palestinians’ violent outbreak was actually a spontaneous reaction to Prime Minister Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount in September 2000. As mentioned above, the world today knows otherwise.

The committee was appointed before the al-Qaeda attack on September 11, 2001, and the revelation of hostile international Islamic terrorism. The 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, George Mitchell was refocusing his attention on the threat of terrorism. In a commencement address at MIT in June 2003, 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. That U.S. opposition,” he continued, “has been consistent through the Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton and Bush administrations; just as consistent has been the continued settlement activity by the Israeli government.”

The U.S. position toward settlements, of course, underwent a major change under President Bush in April 2004 when he assured Prime Minister 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.”7 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’ 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.”

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Notes

1. Commencement address at MIT, Cambridge, Mass., June 9, 2003.

2. Mitchell Report, April 30, 2002.

3. Ibid. “The Sharon visit did not cause the ‘Al-Aqsa Intifada.’ But it was poorly timed and the provocative effect should have been foreseen; indeed, it was foreseen by those who urged that the visit be prohibited. More significant were the events that followed: The decision of the Israeli police on September 29 to use lethal means against the Palestinian demonstrators; and the subsequent failure, as noted above, of either party to exercise restraint.”

4. Al-Ayyam, December 6, 2000.

5. New York Times, August 3, 2000.

6. BBC News, May 12, 2003.

7. Letter from President Bush to Prime Minister Sharon, April 14, 2004.

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Lenny Ben-David served as deputy chief of mission in Israel’s embassy in Washington. He blogs at http://www.lennybendavid.com/.

About Lenny Ben-David

Lenny Ben-David is consulting editor for the Daily Alert Internet news digest. He served as deputy chief of mission at Israel's embassy in Washington 1997-2000, and as Program Director of the Institute for Contemporary Affairs (2002-2004). He was AIPAC's Director of Information and Research for 10 years, editing the Near East Report and numerous editions of Myths and Facts, then opened AIPAC's first Israel office in 1982, directing it for nearly 15 years.