May, 22 2001
- Now it's official. The report of the Mitchell Committee is out and everyone loves it. Following its partial embrace by Israel and the Palestinians, US Secretary of State Colin Powell has dispatched diplomats to work on the "timing and sequence" of the report in order to implement its recommendations. Yet the atmosphere of movement surrounding the release of the report is like cotton candy: It may look substantial, but there is little substance there.
Yesterday both former senator George Mitchell and Powell emphasized three points: Violence must end immediately and unconditionally, settlement growth must be frozen, and there is no connection between the first two points. Israel has properly responded to this with a resounding "yes" - along the lines of "we would be happy to discuss everything once the violence has stopped."
The problem with the Mitchell/Powell formulation is that the claim that there is no linkage between the proposed settlement freeze and the cease-fire is disingenuous. It is disingenuous because neither Mitchell nor Powell clearly paired a settlement freeze with the "confidence-building measures" expected of the Palestinians.
A "confidence-building measure" (CBM) is supposed to be either icing on the cake or an appetizer - not the main course. A settlement freeze is something beyond what was required of Israel in the Oslo Accords, and therefore could conceivably be offered in exchange for an equally significant Palestinian gesture that goes beyond the requirements of that signed agreement.
An argument can even be made that the Oslo Accords need to be improved by the addition of CBMs by both sides. What makes no sense, and what both Mitchell and Powell could not bring themselves to explicitly demand, is for Israel to diplomatically pay the Palestinians to stop the illegal and unjustified offensive they launched against Israel.
In essence, the US seems to be trying to have it both ways: avoiding being accused of rewarding violence, while strongly nudging Israel to make a concession that the Palestinians can claim as a victory for their eight-month armed offensive.
This sort of hedging will not work. A moment's thought indicates that even if Israel were to pledge not to build another house in Judea and Samaria, the Palestinian offensive would not end. The settlement issue is just a convenient place for the Palestinians to hang their hat, because it is the issue on which Israel and the US are most seriously divided.
As even the Mitchell report acknowledges, the Palestinian offensive was not caused by Ariel Sharon's visit to the Temple Mount. Nor was it caused by the natural growth of settlements, which continued throughout the entire Oslo period. The Palestinian attack was launched to force Israel to walk out of Judea, Samaria, and Gaza as it did out of Lebanon, or to improve on the offers the Palestinians rejected at Camp David and Taba.
The fundamental challenge, then, is not to devise a clever formula that the Palestinians can claim is a reward for their sacrifices and Israel can claim is not. The challenge is how to decisively punish the Palestinian resort to violence to deter its repetition.
Those who claim that such punishment cannot only be delivered militarily are right. Eroding the Palestinians' military capabilities should be a central goal, but it is not the primary means by which future violence will be deterred. The most effective punishment for blowing up the negotiating table will be the erosion, rather than advancement, of the Palestinian negotiating position.
Israel needs to say, clearly and with one voice, that its objective is the military defeat of the Palestinian offensive, followed by negotiations that will take into account the bitter lessons of the last eight months. The sooner the US backs Israel's position and its right of self defense, the sooner the Palestinian offensive will end, and the more lives on both sides will be saved.
©2001 - Jerusalem Post