Why the Half-Baked Mitchell Report Looks Mighty Tasty

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The fanfare that greeted the Mitchell Report is a sign of just how desperate all of the major stakeholders in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have become. After all, the decision last fall to mandate the former U.S. senator to investigate the causes of violence was really just a device invented by the Clinton administration during the Sharm-el-Sheikh emergency talks to bypass the apportioning of blame and get on with the vain pursuit of a cease-fire.

Senator Mitchell and his panel of European statesmen duly went about their business, even though the context in which they were mandated changed — the Sharm el Sheikh cease-fire never took hold, the peace process was fully eclipsed by the violence and significant strategic shifts occurred both in the U.S. and Israel after Bill Clinton and Ehud Barak left office. And what they came up with was really no more than a list of truisms: Both sides need to take concrete steps to reduce the level of violence and undertake confidence-building measures to create an atmosphere for renewed negotiations.

The fact that the Palestinians and the U.S. government enthusiastically endorsed the report and the Israelis gave it lukewarm approval — the proposed Israeli settlement freeze on the West Bank and Gaza remains anathema to Ariel Sharon, although not necessarily to the majority of his countrymen — suggests that leaders on all three sides may be clutching for straws.

Here's an assessment of the players'....

  • The Bush administration had hoped to stay out of a direct mediating role, at least until the two parties were more inclined to make peace themselves. But the escalation of violence has begun to threaten U.S. interests throughout the region, particularly its short-term objective of building Arab support for a revised sanctions package against Iraq. Yet Washington has no easy answers, and getting more directly involved carries little prospect of success but plenty of political dangers. Still, the situation has deteriorated to such an extent that Secretary of State Colin Powell believes the U.S. has no option now but to launch a new diplomatic initiative to broker a cease-fire.

  • Yasser Arafat is in danger of being eclipsed as a factor in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict if the conflict continues to escalate. His political authority has diminished considerably since the start of the uprising, and the longer it continues to weaker he becomes. He's stuck between the hammer of an Israeli military campaign targeting his security structures and the anvil of Palestinian rage. It is not Arafat, but the radicals of Hamas, Hizballah and even his own Fatah organization that hold the Palestinian political initiative as long as there is no peace process, and their interests coincide with Arafat's only as long as he avoids brokering new deals with the Israelis. Arafat faces immense political dangers if he tries to implement the Mitchell Report's proposals, because these would require him to deploy his security forces firmly and decisively against the radicals — and there is little enthusiasm either in his own ranks or on the Palestinian street for locking up Palestinian terrorists in order to make Israelis safer. And yet, like Washington, his situation will only deteriorate if he does nothing at all.

  • Ariel Sharon, tough-guy pose notwithstanding, has reason to be feeling a little panicky too. His decision last week to bomb the West Bank with F-16s signaled desperation — the desperation of a heavyweight with a cut above his eye swinging wildly for a knockout punch because he's worried about the outcome if the bout goes the distance. Instead of knocking out his enemies, though, the air strike brought universal condemnation and unprecedented domestic political criticism — Israelis could see more clearly than anyone that it weakened Israel's diplomatic position without achieving any gains in security. And, of course, it played precisely into the hands of the men who'd sent the Netanya suicide bomber: one of the objectives of such a terror strike is to provoke a heavy-handed response that drives more Palestinians into the camp of the perpetrators. But Sharon has reason to worry. After three months in office steadily ratcheting up Israel's military responses to the Palestinian uprising, it's becoming palpably obvious that military means can't deliver the security Sharon promised Israelis. And that's a major problem, because while Israel has won all of its conventional wars it has lost its wars of attrition. The Palestinian militants are betting that by following the playbook of Hizballah in Lebanon, they can force the Israelis to withdraw troops and settlements from the West Bank and Gaza through inflicting a slow but steady stream of casualties. While he's not interested in the sort of comprehensive peace deal Barak discussed with Arafat, Sharon needs a cease-fire as much as the Palestinian leader does.

    But as much as Sharon and Arafat need a cease-fire, neither may be able to do what it takes to get one. The Palestinian leader will be reluctant to go after the radicals in the absence of significant concessions from the Israelis — a point recognized in the Mitchell Report's proposals for a freeze on all Israeli settlement activity in the West Bank and Gaza, and proposals for lifting the siege on Palestinian towns. But Sharon remains implacably resistant to a settlement freeze, both as a long-term advocate of the settlement movement and because he sees it as rewarding Palestinian violence. And the current stalemate on that question may be symbolic of the wider problem — Secretary Powell says the violence must stop before political negotiations can resume, and yet it is because political negotiations failed that the violence began. The conflict snapped back into a violent mode last fall because the parties had failed to settle their differences in a decade of dialogue. And despite the political crisis facing leaders on all sides of the conflict, it may take more than the Mitchell Report's reprising familiar cease-fire recipes to break the cycle.

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