Is Mitchell Up to the Task?

Obama’s appointment of George Mitchell as special Middle East envoy may signal a step in the right direction regarding U.S. policy toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But there remain questions as to whether Mitchell is up to the task and whether the Obama administration is willing to put some muscle into the process.

Mitchell was a prominent Maine attorney, Democratic Party activist, and U.S. district judge prior to being appointed to the U.S. Senate in 1980 following President Jimmy Carter’s selection of Senator Edmund Muskie as his secretary of State. He was subsequently elected to two full terms, quickly rising in the ranks to serve as majority leader between 1989 and 1995.

Mitchell was raised in a blue-collar family in Waterville, his mother a textile worker who had emigrated from Lebanon as a young woman. Though one of the most prominent Arab-Americans in politics, Mitchell rarely embraced his Arab heritage openly. As a senator, he received large campaign contributions from right-wing political action committees supportive of Israeli policies and was a strong proponent of unconditional military and economic aid to the rightist Israeli government of Yitzak Shamir. He initially opposed the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel. He even criticized James Baker, the secretary of State under the first Bush administration, for characterizing the illegal Jewish settlements ringing eastern Jerusalem on lands seize by Israeli forces in the 1967 war as being on occupied territory. As such, he effectively argued that the United States should recognize Israel’s unilateral annexation of a part of the West Bank in contravention of international law and a series of UN Security Council resolutions.

Following his retirement from the Senate, Mitchell led the 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.

The Mitchell Commission

Following the outbreak of the second Palestinian intifada in the fall of 2000, the UN General Assembly created a commission charged with investigating the causes and possible solutions to the violence chaired by the noted American international law professor Richard Falk. As a means of taking attention away from the UN commission, which was expected to stress Israel’s obligations under international humanitarian law, 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. Other members of the commission included former U.S. Senator Warren Rudman, also a strong supporter of Israel’s earlier right-wing governments, as well as former Turkish President Suleyman Demirel, a strong ally of Israel. They outnumbered the more moderate members, Norwegian Foreign Minister Thorbjorn Jagland and European Union representative Javier Solana.

The United States determined that the commission would operate primarily out of Washington and would limit its investigations on the ground in Israel and the occupied territories. Israeli journalist Meron Benvenisti, after witnessing Mitchell’s team in their interviews with Israeli officials predicted, “The committee will become one more instrument for stifling any initiative for examining the actions of Israeli security forces and for uncovering the truth lurking behind the propaganda smokescreen.”

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 an Islamic holy site in occupied East Jerusalem the previous autumn. The commission also countered charges by congressional leaders of both parties that the violence was part of a preconceived plan by the Palestinians to launch a violent struggle. Instead, 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 as required under UN Security Council resolutions 446, 452, 465, and 471. 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 also failed to call for Israel’s withdrawal from the occupied Palestinian territories, even in return for security guarantees, which Israel is required to do under UN Security Council resolutions 242 and 338, an omission Mitchell subsequently claimed was necessary due to the limited mandate that President Clinton gave to the commission.

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.”

Bush Administration Interpretation

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.

Tenet called on a complete cessation of violence for one week followed by a six-week cooling-off period, during which Israeli forces would withdraw to their positions prior to the outbreak of violence in September 2000. In effect, the United States used the Mitchell report to put the pressure on the Palestinians to cease their resistance to Israeli occupation forces without demanding anything in return from Israel other than redeploying their forces to the demarcation lines to which they were already obliged to withdraw according to previous treaties. Nevertheless, the Palestine Authority agreed.

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.

To follow up on the Tenet Plan, President Bush dispatched retired Marine Commandant Anthony Zinni in November 2001 as his special Middle East envoy. His mission was solely to establish a ceasefire, not to restart negotiations or address any of the other elements of the Mitchell report. Zinni’s plan, presented on March 26, 2002, used unconditional language in reference to the Palestinians, requiring them to “cease” violent activities, while only asking the Israelis to “commit to cease.” This new U.S. proposal also dropped the Tenet Plan’s requirement that Israel should stop its attacks on “innocent civilian targets” and its other restrictions against “proactive” Israeli military operations. Instead, Zinni’s proposal would permit Israeli attacks on Palestinian Authority buildings, including prisons, “in self-defense to an imminent terrorist attack,” a situation that the Israelis have always defined quite liberally.

The failure of the commission headed by Mitchell, then, occurred not because of Mitchell himself but because 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.

Is “Balance” Enough?

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.

Indeed, it’s doubtful Mitchell would have authored a balanced report regarding Iraq and Kuwait during Kuwait’s six months under Saddam Hussein’s army of occupation, or a balanced report regarding Indonesia and East Timor during that island nation’s 24-year occupation by its powerful neighbor.

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 than 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 that contradiction, Mitchell will have a very difficult task before him.

Stephen Zunes, a Foreign Policy in Focus senior analyst, is a professor of politics and chair of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of San Francisco.