Former Sen. George Mitchell and four eminent colleagues were asked in October by then-President Clinton to write a report about the outbreak of Palestinian-Israeli violence "to determine what happened and how to avoid it recurring in the future." The fact-finding committee traveled to the region, held consultations with leaders and issued its report last week.
It is a great disappointment, and for three main reasons. First, it reveals the would-be peacemaker´s typical unwillingness to judge right and wrong. Had the Mitchell committee been asked to assess the outbreak of World War II, it would likely have regretted Hitler´s crossing of the Polish border but balanced this with tsk-tsking about "provocative" statements coming from Warsaw. Assigned the same job for the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor, it would have evenhandedly blamed both parties. Saddam Hussein´s invasion of Kuwait? A regrettable development for which both Iraq and Kuwait must be blamed.
Not wanting to offend, in other words, creates an illusionary balance of blame ("Fear, hate, anger, and frustration have risen on both sides," says the report) that makes it impossible to distinguish between aggressor and victim, between right and wrong.
In fact, the recent violence has a clear address, and it is the Palestinians. The Israeli government, hoping to end the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, made unexpected and startling concessions to Yasser Arafat at Camp David in July 2000, only to have these contemptuously rejected. Worse, in an effort to extract even more concessions than the Israelis had offered, two months later, the Palestinians began a round of violence that still continues.
This was clearly not a question of equal responsibility, but a plain case of one side aggressing against the other.
Second, the Mitchell report suggests that Israel "should freeze all settlement activity" to mollify the Palestinians. This is a step the Israelis never agreed to, even when negotiations were under way. To do so now rewards the Palestinians for engaging in violence, something objectionable in principle and ineffectual in practice.
Third, and most profoundly, the report emphasizes getting the two parties back to the negotiating table, as though this were an end in itself. It seems oblivious to the important fact that negotiations over the past eight years did not bring the parties closer to a settlement but, to the contrary, exacerbated differences and had a role in the outbreak of violence. Contrasting the relatively benign and hopeful mood of 1993 with the venom and dangers of today, it is clear that the talks were part of the problem, not part of the solution.
The Mitchell committee seems myopically unaware of the real issue at hand, which is not violence, or Jewish settlements, or Jerusalem. It is, rather, the enduring Arab reluctance to accept the existence of a sovereign Jewish state. Always present, this somewhat diminished by the early 1990s, only to flare up again as a result of the Oslo process.
In other words, the Israeli flexibility, aimed at closing down the conflict, was received by many Arabs not as a sign of goodwill but as an indication that Israel was weak and vulnerable. Rather than want to live harmoniously with Israel, these concessions made Israel into a more tempting target.
Contrary to the Mitchell report, the solution lies not in getting the parties back as fast as possible to diplomacy, but in instilling in the Palestinians an awareness of the futility of their use of violence against the Jewish state. It would be wonderful if this could be achieved through negotiations; unfortunately, the negotiations that began in 1993 and lasted until last September show that it can only be done through force. The Oslo process was an effort to avoid force; it failed.
What the Israeli authorities are now doing, with great reluctance and with a minimum of violence, is sending a message to the Palestinians: Give up on your aspiration of destroying Israel, end your reliance on force, experience a change of heart. That message needs to be endorsed by the U.S. government.
Talk-talk is always better than war-war, but in some cases an aggressor cannot be dissuaded by talk alone, and so war is a necessity. Sadly, that is the case with the Palestinians today. Sadly too, the Mitchell commission did not comprehend this fact. And so, its report is destined either to get in the way of a solution; or, more likely, to disappear quickly and without a trace.