(May 15) - Once again, it seems, the Israelis are being obstructionist. Yasser Arafat said he will accept the Mitchell Committee's conclusions about the ongoing violence "100 percent"; Colin Powell termed the report "excellent"; and Ariel Sharon is raising objections.
Yet a look at the international fact-finding committee's report reveals solid grounds for Israel's reservations. To its credit, this document is considerably fairer than similar reports produced by bodies such as the UN Human Rights Commission. But in their effort to be evenhanded, the authors have produced a document that not only whitewashes Palestinian violence, but even rewards it.
Israel's official response actually minimizes the report's flaws, as it objects only to some of the conclusions. Yet one of the document's gravest failings, which underlies all the rest, is its discussion of the intifada's causes. Properly, the authors dismiss the fiction that the violence was sparked by Sharon's visit to the Temple Mount. Instead, they present a list of Palestinian grievances as the root causes of the violence.
Yet they inexplicably fail to mention one salient fact: that then prime minister Ehud Barak offered the Palestinians a deal that would eliminate most of these grievances, and Arafat rejected it.
Barak's proposal would have given the Palestinians over 90 percent of the West Bank plus part of Jerusalem, and would also have uprooted the majority of the settlements. Yet not only were the Palestinians unwilling to accept a mere 95% of their demands, they were unwilling even to try to negotiate over that last little bit. Instead, they chose the path of violence.
To admit that the Palestinians chose violence even when they had a nonviolent option is to confess that the Palestinians were to blame for the current conflagration. But the Mitchell Committee, apparently reluctant to cast blame, chose instead to whitewash the truth. And in so doing, the committee has made future violence more likely - because now that Arafat knows he can plunge negotiations into violence without so much as a reprimand from the rest of the world, he will have no incentive not to do so again.
Perhaps even worse, however, was the committee's attempt to make its recommendations for the future evenhanded.
The report, again to its credit, criticized the Palestinian Authority's failure to combat acts of terrorism, especially when committed by troops in PA uniform.
But the authors apparently felt it was important to criticize both sides equally, even if their crimes were not equivalent. They therefore declared that halting the violence was no more important than halting "all settlement construction activity," because "the kind of security cooperation desired by [Israel] cannot for long coexist with settlement activity." They even recommended that Israel consider unilaterally dismantling some settlements.
This equivalence - to which Israel rightly objected - is very disturbing on the moral level. Though the committee's authors are certainly entitled to disapprove of settlements, to say that building houses is the moral equivalent of blowing up a schoolbus full of children is outrageous. Construction activity, however undesirable, is not murder. Yet that is exactly the equation the committee drew: Unless Israel halts settlement activity, it said, the Palestinians cannot reasonably be asked to halt terrorism - or in its words, to provide "the kind of security cooperation desired" by Israel.
Equally disturbing, however, are the political implications of this equivalence. First, it whitewashes the true core of the conflict. After all, Barak offered a deal that would have gotten rid of most of the settlements peacefully, but Arafat rejected it - indicating that the settlements are not really what is bothering him.
In fact, the issue over which the talks collapsed was Arafat's demand that hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees be allowed to resettle in Israel rather than in a Palestinian state - and the Mitchell Committee is hardly increasing the chances of successful negotiations by pretending that this issue, which it carefully never mentioned, does not exist.
Even worse than this whitewash, however, is that the committee's proposal would actually reward Arafat for the violence. In the original Oslo Accords, the fate of the settlements was explicitly declared a matter to be determined in the final-status negotiations. But the committee is now demanding that Israel unilaterally concede this issue, with no diplomatic quid pro quo, in order to entice Arafat to halt violence that, under the terms of the agreements he has signed, he should never have started in the first place.
It is not hard to see why Arafat is so pleased with this conclusion. But Sharon is absolutely right to demur - because if the current round of violence pays off so handsomely for Arafat, what conceivable incentive could he have for not resorting to violence again the next time he believes that Israel is offering him too little in negotiations?
©2001 - Jerusalem Post