'Mitchell's Mideast Report Is No Magic Bullet'

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A Palestinian policeman walks in Gaza City

The Bush administration wants to use the report by Senator George Mitchell into the causes of Israeli-Palestinian violence as a guide to a Middle East cease-fire. But what will Washington actually do?

Jay Branegan: Secretary of State Colin Powell is weighing in more heavily than ever, trying to use the U.S. bully pulpit to push both sides to start doing things that will ease the violence. That's a measure both of Washington's desperation, and the opportunity presented by the report. The U.S. doesn't have any great options of its own, and its position remains that it can't do anything unless the parties themselves are willing to take the necessary steps. But now he's saying to both sides, you say you want something to happen, well, here are some things you can do to make things happen.

During the recent visit to Washington of Arafat's number two, Abu Mazen, the Palestinians indicated that they would be able to comply with the Mitchell recommendations if the Israelis did. Abu Mazen told Powell that the Palestinians see it as a road map that would allow both sides to reduce the level of violence pretty quickly. But while they're saying they'll accept it, the Israelis are cherry picking. And Israel doesn't like the one recommendation the Palestinians have come to focus on, which is a freeze on Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank and Gaza. But Powell indicated that the U.S. would apply itself to finding a compromise on that issue. Of course, freezing Israeli settlement in the West Bank and Gaza has been U.S. policy for a long time. And while Mitchell has urged the Israelis to do this, his report also says ending violence requires the Palestinian Authority to go out and arrest members of Hamas and other terrorist groups. So there are things that are unpalatable for both sides in the report.

The Bush administration had hoped to take a more standoffish approach to the conflict, but it's now being forced to take a more active role. But the U.S. has few good policy options in this situation…

Everyone is frustrated by the escalating violence and wants the U.S. to do more, but nobody has any brilliant ideas on just what it could do to address the crisis. There's no course of action available to the U.S. right now that has even a reasonable chance of success. Every option is fraught with political risk and even then carries only a slim chance of success. Powell getting flak from both sides for the neutrality he's trying to maintain. It's very hard to be creative in foreign policy, especially when neither side accepts a need to be constrained. Right now, neither side sees any advantage to being the one to take the first step towards ending the violence. Both have painted themselves into positions where taking the first step would be counter to their principles and their domestic political climate.

President Clinton would, no doubt, have been a lot more personally involved, but there's no reason to believe that would have been any more successful…

President Clinton, too, had a great deal of difficulty dealing with a Likud government. This is the guy Israeli voters chose, and nobody could accuse Ariel Sharon of violating his campaign promises. Clinton would certainly have made a bigger show of intervening, but he may have already cheapened the currency of the presidency by his constant direct involvement. If the two sides are not ready to do reach out to each other, then the time is not right for presidential involvement, which is why Powell is doing the work and President Bush is keeping himself above the situation.

The Arab League Summit voted on Saturday to sever all ties with Israel. Was this a message to the Bush administration?

Yes, it was a warning that the escalating Israeli-Palestinian violence was spilling over into other spheres, and that this would affect U.S. relationships and interests throughout the region. The good news was that Egypt and Jordan appear to remain committed to brokering a cease-fire between Israel and the Palestinians.

So what's Powell's game plan?

He's going to try to use the Mitchell recommendations as a path, highlighting the things each side can do — without even negotiating directly — to ease the climate of confrontation. The Israelis have previously indicated they're interested in simple, reciprocal steps to reduce confrontations, and Powell hopes to use the Mitchell report to highlight things they can do toward that end. Likewise with the Palestinians. The idea would be to nudge each side into parallel paths using the Mitchell report as a guide to get a little bit of movement — because the immediate challenge is to get the downward spiral going the other direction.

What are his chances of success?

Very small. The Mitchell report is no breakthrough, merely a glimmer. But it's all we have to hold on to right now, and it provides some cover for the Bush administration to change tack and become more involved. The administration has been told to not just stand there, but do something. But there may not be all that much it can do.