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George Mitchell needs to listen to his own best wisdom of eight years ago

In his first week as president, Barack Obama has selected George Mitchell, the hero of northern Ireland, to take on the Middle East crisis — sort of.

Obama has acted quickly, but not precipitously. On its face, Obama’s quick selection of a Middle East emissary, responsible directly to him, signals a sharp break with the Bush administration’s supposed “hands off” policy on the the Middle East. However, Mitchell’s appointment is not a sharp break; in fact, it reflects lessons learned from the administration not only of Bush but also of Clinton.

The president instructed Mitchell to listen, to collect information, to hear perspectives. That’s not exactly a hands on, headlong plunge into the Middle East thicket. And for good reason, namely, the good reason that the Bush administration did not embrace a highly activist intervention at its own beginning. That good reason was the example of the well intentioned failure of Bill Clinton — his own hands on intervention, which saw him virtually locked up with the PA’s Yasir Arafat and Israel’s Ehud Barak for 11 days in July, 2000, in Camp David — only to have the entire exercise blow up in his face. Not only did Arafat reject Camp David’s promise of a Palestinian state, chock full of Israeli compromises, such as Palestinian control of much of the Old City of Jerusalem, and Israel’s ceding to the Palestinian state the same percentage of Negev land that settlements took up in the West Bank; but Arafat left Camp David burning with desire to launch the second intifada, which he did in September, 2000.

The Bush administration — as well as all the experts at the time, both Democrat and Republican — observed that too much American intervention only makes the Israeli-Palestinian conflict worse.

President Obama has not forgotten this. Apparently, with his quick appointment of Mitchell, Obama has signaled his intent to take on the Middle East crisis. At the same time, with his cautious instructions to Mitchell — listen, gather information — he has also preserved a certain distance.

Our point here is not to argue the effectiveness of the entire Bush or Clinton record on the Israel-Palestinian issue one way or another, only to observe that every expert’s conventional wisdom at the time of Bush’s inauguration said, “Don’t take Clinton’s approach; take it slow,” and to observe that Obama seems to have  struck a middle ground between Clinton and Bush. Obama is not going slow, as Bush did, and he’s not jumping in hot and heavy, as Clinton did. We don’t anticipate any quick miracle scenarios from George Mitchell. We hope his and President Obama’s prudence pays off.

We do commend to Mitchell that he listen to his own best wisdom from his involvement in the Middle East eight years ago.

Clinton charged Mitchell in October, 2000, with finding a way to end the second Palestinian intifada. Mitchell came up with a complex report, a total plan for bringing peace between Israel and the Palestinians, with demands made of both Israel and the Palestinians. By the time Mitchell finished his plan, Bush was president and Colin Powell was secretary of state. Mitchell wisely built a sequence into his complex report. It said: End the violence. End it first. Then we implement the rest.

Quote from Powell at the time:

“We should end the violence, and none of the confidence-building measures — or all of the confidence-building measures together — are . . . linked to ending the violence. It’s a very clear sequence in my mind.”

Mitchell got it. The Palestinians, alas, true to form, did not miss this opportunity to miss the opportunity. They fulfilled the late Abba Eban’s famous bon mot to the t: they sustained the violence, thus pushing their hopes for independence further and further into the background. They got their pound of flesh, quite literally, killing Israeli civilians in pizza shops, on busses, at cafes and nightclubs and Passover seders. But they did not get their state.

Besides our message to Mitchell that he recall his own best analysis of the time — end the violence, unconditionally — we could recommend a full agenda of helpful steps, but will limit ourselves to two:

First:

Eight years later, it is not enough to end the violence. It is also necessary to end that which makes the violence possible — the importation of arms into Gaza and Lebanon from Iran.

The critical importance of this is made clear by recounting what has transpired in Lebanon since the end of the war there in August, 2006. The ceasefire in Lebanon today is insufficient and, indeed, ominous. Hezbollah has exploited the ceasefire to rearm. It is only a matter of time, all else remaining equal, before Israel attacks Lebanon, simply to defend herself against the death and destruction that Hezbollah’s weaponry can and will bring to Israel, if Hezbollah is left to its own devices.

A solidification of the ceasefire with Hamas, therefore, is not, by itself, a success. In fact, it could  signal a major failure — a guaranteed return of war, only this time much more violent, if the ceasefire with Hamas is solidified in any other way than the absolute closure of arms smuggling into Gaza.

Second:

Our next recommendation to Mitchell concerns the contentious and controversial issue of Israeli settlements in the West Bank. We urge him to view this issue realistically, not symbolically. As symbols, the Israeli settlements have assumed a reality at variance with their actual significance. As symbols, they stand for the absence of a Palestinian state and, still more, the death of hope on the part of the Palestinians for their own state.

The reality on the ground is much more complex. It would be a valuable exercise to count up the hills in the West Bank, to count how many are settled — by either Jew or Arab — and how many are empty. We have not compiled this statistic. However, traveling throughout the West Bank, we are (and anyone would be) struck by the emptiness of most of these hills. Realistically, there is more than enough room for a Palestinian state, and, yes, a contiguous one, and for the Israeli settlements, too (or at least most of them).

Realistically, not symbolically, the question becomes: Should a Palestinian, or a Jewish, state legally be ethnically or religiously monolithic? Israel is not monolithic; its citizens are a majority of Jews and a minority of Arabs; its religions are Judaism, Christianity, Druze, Islam, Bahai and others. The West Bank, today at least, is also not monolithic; it residents are a majority of Arabs and a minority of Jews; its religions are, to our knowledge, Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

The blockage — the obstacle to peace in the predominantly Palestinian areas — are not Jewish settlements, but xenophobic values. Arabs can live as citizens, in their own homes, on Israeli land, in a Jewish state; Jews ought to be able to live as citizens, in their own homes, on Palestinian land, in a Palestinian state. This is basic political pluralism.

We would argue that if this perspective is rejected by Palestinians, it is because they reject the right of Jews to live anywhere between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea — and that rejection, bottom line, is what needs to be overcome to achieve peace. That’s the main thing for George Mitchell to listen for: whether, in the mind of Israel’s enemies, Israel has a right to exist anywhere between the river and the sea. If the answer is yes, and sincerely yes, then Israeli settlements will, in principle, present no problem to peace, any more than will the Arab villages, farms and towns of Israel.




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