On May 29, Israeli and Palestinian security officials held their first publicly acknowledged meeting since April. The encounter, conducted under CIA supervision, was arranged by William Burns, recently appointed US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, after a series of discussions with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. The very public US effort to knock Israeli and Palestinian heads together has been lauded throughout the region and the world as signaling the Bush administration’s “re-engagement” with the Middle East crisis. The basis for these moves, the Mitchell Committee’s “Report on Israeli-Palestinian Violence” officially released on May 21, has earned fulsome praise for its “balance” and “pragmatism.”
The Mitchell Committee and the report’s various sponsors make no secret of their determination to resuscitate the Oslo “peace process” that was critically wounded at the Haram al-Sharif on September 28-29, 2000. Indeed, the rather brief document has rightfully been termed a road map for putting Oslo back on track. Yet, by refusing to deviate from Oslo’s conceptual framework and political assumptions, and seeking to reinforce them instead, the Mitchell report has set the stage for its own failure. Future historians are likely to consider it Oslo’s last gasp.
Fact-Finding Report Without Facts
The Mitchell Committee was established pursuant to the October 2000 summit, hastily convened by Bill Clinton in the Egyptian resort of Sharm al-Sheikh. The summit ended in abject failure, since the US and Israel refused to budge on the issues which precipitated the Palestinian uprising. But the talks did persuade the Palestinian leadership to abandon its demand for an international commission of inquiry under UN auspices, and instead accept a “committee of fact-finding” appointed by Clinton. During “consultations” on the committee’s composition, the US and Israel rejected Palestinian proposals to include Nelson Mandela, or any other prominent statesman with suspect allegiances to anti-colonial struggles. Rather, the committee was led by George Mitchell and Warren Rudman, former US senators who received substantial campaign contributions from pro-Israel groups and consistently supported successive Israeli governments while in office; former Turkish President Suleyman Demirel, who presided over the expansion of the Turkish-Israeli strategic partnership during the 1990s; Norwegian Foreign Minister Thorbjoern Jagland; and Javier Solana, the European Union’s High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy.
Despite its mandate, one thing the Mitchell Committee did not do was find facts. The report specifically refuses to assign responsibility for the eruption and continuation of “the violence” (saying “we are not a tribunal”), and provides no independent opinion of its cause. Official Israeli and Palestinian viewpoints are summarized without commentary; by default, the reader is left to conclude that the events of the previous seven months were a tragic act of nature. One searches the report in vain for relevant information on casualties, weaponry, the forces using them, the division of the territories in question, the applicable conventions or even the Israeli-Palestinian agreements that are in dispute. Absent such information, the report conveys the impression that the Committee was investigating a confrontation between equal forces, each equally responsible for the “violence.” Israel’s harassment of the Committee, repeated appeals to Washington to disband it and formal suspension of cooperation are simply not mentioned.
Rather, the Mitchell report concentrates on (Palestinian) “violence” (a word used 36 times) and “terror(ism)” (20 mentions), and (Israeli) “security” (25). Together these terms make 81 appearances. By contrast, “settlements” are mentioned 18 times, “occupation” four times (three times to describe a Palestinian point of view), “illegal” twice (once referring to Palestinian weaponry), and “human rights,” “United Nations,” “international law” and “self-determination” once each. Crucially, “responsibility” is mentioned only four times, thrice in reference to the Palestinian Authority (PA) and once in connection with Israel’s “responsibility to help rebuild confidence.” “Accountability” appears just once — to criticize the PA’s chain of command. Given this framework, the report’s recommendations are all too predictable: an “immediate” and “unconditional cessation of violence,” an “immediate resumption of security cooperation,” a “meaningful ‘cooling-off period'” to be followed by “confidence-building measures” and, thereafter, a “resumption of negotiations.”
As a confidence-building measure, the Mitchell report demands that “the PA…make a 100 percent effort to prevent terrorist operations and to punish perpetrators…[and undertake] immediate steps to apprehend and incarcerate terrorists operating within the PA’s jurisdiction.” Such a vague formulation can only be interpreted as a call for mass repression of popular and/or organized resistance to continued Israeli occupation. The report effectively holds the PA accountable for any act committed by a Palestinian individual or political organization, including attacks within Israeli territory by Hamas or other opposition elements. Mitchell’s assessment pointedly declines to call for an investigation of Israeli conduct in the Occupied Territories, despite severe condemnations by international human rights groups of that conduct. Hence the report rejects the notion that Israel can or should be held responsible for gross violations of the human rights of civilian Palestinian non-combatants (including the killing of at least 120 Palestinian children), or held to standards even remotely similar to those applied to the PA. The deployment of an “international protection force” is made conditional on Israeli approval.
The Mitchell report does not demand that the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) withdraw their heavy equipment from the conflict, or call for an Israeli redeployment to positions held prior to September 28. Rather, it says the “IDF should consider” such moves, but only after the uprising has been terminated, security cooperation has resumed and the cooling-off period is completed. International human rights groups classify Israel’s lethal responses to unarmed Palestinian demonstrators, destruction of Palestinian homes, roads, trees and other property, and the economic siege against the PA and Palestinian population centers as illegal acts which must stop immediately. The Mitchell report reduces Israel’s cessation of these tactics to confidence-building measures, a carrot for the PA provided it first brandishes its stick against the raging anti-colonial revolt in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. On the whole, the report allows only for a relationship between Palestinian “violence” and the Israeli “response,” ignoring the possibility of a connection between Israeli conduct in the Occupied Territories and the intensity of the Palestinian uprising.
Optional Settlement Freeze
In a seeming break with its otherwise uncritical adoption of Israel’s positions, the Mitchell report states that Israel “should freeze all settlement activity, including the ‘natural growth’ of existing settlements,” and notes that “the kind of security cooperation desired by [Israel] cannot for long coexist with settlement activity.” No reference is made to numerous UN Security Council resolutions characterizing all settlements in the Occupied Territories as illegal and calling for their dismantlement. The report fails to specify whether the “freeze” should be temporary or permanent, and whether or not it includes settlements in East Jerusalem and West Bank territory formally annexed by Israel.
On the resumption of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, perhaps the most crucial point of all, the Mitchell report simply abdicates responsibility, concluding that “it is not within our mandate to prescribe the venue, the basis or the agenda of negotiations.” Stated differently, the Committee was not authorized — and by all appearances was disinclined — to explicitly recommend that negotiations should aim to achieve a permanent settlement, let alone to find that Palestinians are engaged in a revolt against military occupation. Rather remarkably for a document meant to revive the Oslo process, the report fails to provide a timeline for implementation of its own recommendations.
Notwithstanding the Mitchell report’s flaws, the PA almost immediately accepted it in full, provided that Israel also took the Committee’s recommendations without any changes. Israel formally accepted the report, but stipulated that the settlement freeze would only be discussed after a “full and complete cessation of all violence and terrorism,” the resumption of security cooperation and a cooling-off period of two to six months. In a public letter, Mitchell himself supported Israel’s position. More importantly, in a May 21 press conference, US Secretary of State Colin Powell openly distanced the US from the report’s recommendation of a settlement freeze, announcing instead that it was a negotiable element and asking Burns to help Israel and the PA “bridge the wide gap” between them on this issue. Several days later, Sharon, at US urging, sought to take the high ground by declaring a “unilateral ceasefire.” In practice the “ceasefire” has amounted to little more than refraining from attacks against the PA in response to Hamas bombings, and reducing the scope of high-profile “initiated operations.” But Israel has continued to use tanks, heavy machine guns and lighter weapons in daily invasions of PA territory. Arafat has refused to follow Sharon’s lead, insisting that Israel must first agree to the Mitchell recommendations without reservation, and agree to a timetable for their implementation and a monitoring mechanism.
Escaping the Spoiler Label
In accepting the Mitchell report, Arafat was primarily motivated by his need to impress Washington and the Europeans with a constructive approach, and to respond to Arab leaders (and key elements of the PA) increasingly anxious for the revival of the peace process. At the same time, the PA has acted on the assumption that Sharon is unwilling and unable to accept a settlement freeze. The PA hopes to use the Mitchell report to isolate Israel on this issue, and avoid implementation of the report’s recommendations, which would invite serious internal dissent. It is a risky gamble. Peace Now’s finding that the Sharon government has established 15 new settlements, and Housing Minister Natan Sharansky’s approval of 700 new West Bank settler homes, have elicited some international criticism. But the National and Islamic Forces (NIF) coalition which coordinates the uprising has specifically rejected the Mitchell report and any other proposal which does not explicitly provide for the end of the occupation. Various Palestinian factions have escalated their attacks within the Occupied Territories and Israel to drive the point home.
Similar calculations can be discerned within Israel. Sharon, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and many others openly speak of the need to win the public relations war surrounding the Mitchell report so that it can either be implemented on Israel’s terms or not at all. While Peres plaintively implores the world not to deny Jewish settlers the right to bear children, Sharon has used recent Palestinian attacks to underline the Mitchell Committee’s core demand for an immediate and unconditional end to the uprising.
Both parties are maneuvering to escape being labeled the spoiler of a process neither believes can succeed. For the PA, this means identifying Israel’s settlement policies as the cause of Mitchell’s failure, and persuading the international community to impose upon Israel the more detailed Egyptian-Jordanian proposal instead. Harboring no illusions about the short-term likelihood of serious permanent settlement negotiations, the Palestinian leadership believes the combination of PA diplomacy and attacks by NIF factions will cause the Sharon government to implode under pressure from its flanks. Israel’s current goal is to obtain both international approval for its view that the PA is ultimately if not directly responsible for continuing “the violence,” and international support for overwhelming force to suppress the uprising.