May, 31 2001
On Tuesday, three Israelis - Gilad Zar, Sarah Blaustein, and Esther Alvan - were gunned down on the roads. In case anyone thought that terrorism could be confined to Judea, Samaria, and Gaza, a large bomb was also discovered and detonated on the main Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway. That such would be the response to Israel's unilateral cease-fire should be no surprise: Yasser Arafat does not even abide by the cease-fires he agrees to, let alone the ones he has not.
All of this is on the background to US special Mideast envoy William Burns's mission to the region to breathe life into the Mitchell Committee recommendations. Burns's goal might seem to be reasonable, given that both Israel and the Palestinians have publicly accepted the report. The US will quickly find, however, that the gap between "yes" and "yes" is not only large, but unbridgeable by any American attempt to "split the difference" between the sides.
The unbridgeable difference is over whether two simple words have meaning, or whether the Palestinians can get away with pretending they do not. The Mitchell report stated in the clearest possible terms that a cessation of violence be implemented "immediately" and "unconditionally." These words mean that the order of the three parts of the Mitchell report - cease-fire, confidence-building measures, and negotiations - is not coincidental.
Now the Palestinians are claiming that the Mitchell report has no sequence built into it. This claim makes a mockery of the report and twists both logic and language. To his credit, in Budapest on Tuesday, Secretary of State Colin Powell explicitly rejected the Palestinians' no-sequence line: "We are looking for that unconditional cessation of violence which we think is so essential... The Mitchell Commission report, I think, sequences very well. First, unconditional cessation of violence and meeting all previous obligations... then you get into confidence-building measures. And obviously when you are talking about confidence-building measures, you have to have a plan as to how and when and in what time sequence you will do that."
What now remains to be seen, given the Burns mission, is whether the US will stick with the plain meaning of the words "immediate" and "unconditional," or be dragged into the Palestinian attempt to dilute them. "Unconditional," for example, means that Israel should not be expected go beyond its general support for the Mitchell recommendations and engage in negotiations over a package of confidence-building measures before the shooting stops.
It is understandable, even admirable, that the Bush administration feels under pressure to "do something" as the slow march up the escalation ladder seems to continue inexorably. The "something" that should be done, however, should not be measured by the old standards of how often an envoy is sent, or whether the US is offering its own detailed plan.
At this point, the best and most effective thing the US can do is return to the principled stance that it took briefly and was unfortunately undermined just as it began to work. In March, President George W. Bush decided to veto a UN Security Council resolution designed to reward the Palestinian violence by sending an international force to "protect" them. Soon after, Bush made it clear that Arafat was not welcome in the White House unless he moved to stop the violence.
Within days of these two actions, plus the lack of serious US opposition to the military and economic measures Israel was taking in response to Palestinian attacks, it became clear that Arafat was facing a dead end. Opinion pieces and statements began to emerge from Jordan and Egypt saying that Arafat should call off his offensive, because it was causing suffering without producing any diplomatic fruit.
Then came the Palestinian mortar attack on Sderot and Israel's one-day foray into a few hundred meters of orchards in Gaza. Around nightfall Israel time, rattled by an officer's implication that Israel might not pullback for some time, Powell blasted Israel for taking a "disproportionate and excessive" response.
This three words were enough to give the Palestinians hope that, by escalating further, they could trap Israel between a rock and a hard place: The attacks could continue, but Israel could not ratchet up its responses without drawing dangerous diplomatic fire from the US. Powell's insistence on an unconditional cease-fire is an important step back toward putting the pressure where it belongs - on Yasser Arafat.
"Balanced" pressure is worse than worthless, because it rewards terrorism by putting it on the same moral level as Israel's self-defense. The real test will come, then, when Israel is forced to abandon its unilateral cease-fire and go after Arafat's military infrastructure. Arafat will only call off his offensive when the US and Israel join in proving its total futility.
©2001 - Jerusalem Post