Why Mitchell's Mideast Probe Is More Diplomacy Than Police Work

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Got 50 years, Senator Mitchell? President Clinton's favorite envoy to the world's trouble spots, George Mitchell, wants to know the causes of the current violence in the Middle East. But agreement on a satisfactory set of questions, let alone answers, may be as elusive as a peace deal itself. After meeting on Monday with Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak and with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, Mitchell on Tuesday led his panel of European heavyweights off to visit with Jordan's King Abdullah and Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak.

Right now the mission looks more like an exercise in diplomacy than in police work. And that's hardly surprising, since it can't operate without the cooperation of both sides, and the Israelis were reluctant to allow its investigation to begin while the Palestinian uprising persists. The Israelis want it to be confined to interviews with the Israeli and Palestinian leadership and documentary evidence provided by both sides; the Palestinians are looking for a more activist investigation that probes specific incidents of violence — an approach they believe will favor them diplomatically by showing that Israel is using excessive force in the West Bank and Gaza.

Right now, Mitchell & Co. appear to be mastering the art of diplomatic doublespeak in order to keep both sides happy. Mitchell's commissioners reportedly assured Barak they were in the region to help bridge the gulf between Israel and the Palestinians, rather than to act as any kind of court. "We are here to help," Mitchell reportedly assured the Israeli prime minister, and several of his commissioners added that their emphasis was on preventing future clashes rather than in focusing on past ones.

The Palestinians are more hopeful that the commission will keep its pledge of probing the root causes of violence by extensive investigation in the field, and that it will recommend remedies. That may be wishful thinking: Right now the commissioners are scheduled to spend only three days in the region, mostly meeting with senior political figures. Mitchell insists they will return as often as necessary, and that they won't rely exclusively on documentary submissions by both sides. Still, early indications are that it's more likely to sound out conditions for a cease-fire than it is to provide the war-crimes tribunal for which the Palestinians had hoped.

The commission, which includes former U.S. senator Warren Rudman, European defense supremo and former NATO secretary general Javier Solana of Spain, former Turkish president Suleiman Demirel and Norwegian foreign minister Thorbjorn Jagland, was created as a condition of October's failed Sharm el-Sheik peace agreement. It is due to report to the President of the United States in March.

"Our hope is that our work will be helpful to the parties in reducing the level of violence that has claimed so many lives and to help ensure an early return to the negotiating table," Mitchell said Tuesday. But with the violent clashes growing ever more bitter and public opinion on both sides more skeptical than ever of the value of negotiations, that too may be wishful thinking.