President Barack Obama's appointment of former senator George Mitchell as his Middle East envoy has aroused praise. Many point to Mitchell's past involvement in peace negotiations (the 1998 Northern Ireland Good Friday agreement) and the Israeli/Palestinian hostilities (heading an investigative panel which produced the April 2001 Mitchell Report
) as evidence of his qualifications for this exacting job.
But this "evidence" is highly questionable.
Mitchell's experience in the very different Irish case may actually be a drawback: he now believes that "there is no such thing as a conflict that can't be ended." Yet the IRA, unlike the Palestinian movement, never sought the other side's elimination, its violence is not religiously-inspired and negotiations followed its military failure, none of which applies here.
Moreover, Mitchell's role in Northern Ireland was smaller than usually imagined. It consisted in part of putting his name to ideas which, if proposed by the parties, would have been bogged down. As Ed Moloney, the Irish journalist and historian of the IRA observes, "If Obama has chosen him because he believes that he performed the role in Northern Ireland ascribed to him, then he has made a mistake."
More importantly, a perusal of the Mitchell Report reveals precisely how Mitchell understands this particular conflict and the result is anything but reassuring.
The Mitchell Report displays four serious defects. It:
- assumes that Palestinians accept Israel;
- holds both Israelis and Palestinians equally responsible for the conflict and violence;
- regards Jewish communities in the West Bank as the main problem preventing peace; and
- rationalizes Palestinian violence.
When the Mitchell Report appeared, Ehud Barak's offer of Palestinian statehood in 92 percent of the territories, including a capital in eastern Jerusalem, had just been violently rejected by Yasser Arafat. Yet the Report never even mentioned Palestinian non-acceptance of Israel as the root of the conflict.
It is this refusal to accept Israel that lies behind the PA's failure to this day to adhere to its signed commitments under the Oslo agreements to fight and prevent terrorism and end incitement to hatred and murder against Israel and Jews in its media, mosques, schools and youth camps. In such circumstances, Israel yielding half of the West Bank and all of Gaza to Palestinian control brought nothing but an exponential rise in terrorism.
Instead of recognizing this and seeking a way to deal with it, the Mitchell Report called for both sides to "act swiftly and decisively to halt the violence" – rather than calling on the PA to end the terrorism to which Israel was responding. Above all, it asserted, contrary to abundant polling evidence (then and since) that Palestinians seek peace with Israel.
As a result of these blindspots, the Mitchell Report recommended rewarding Palestinian terror by demanding concessions from Israel that it had never undertaken in its past agreements with the PA – a freeze on all housing construction in Jewish communities in the territories; and the lifting of security measures that had been introduced solely because of Palestinian resort to terror in the first place.
Even worse, in asserting that "Israel has a responsibility to rebuild confidence, a cessation of Palestinian-Israeli violence will be particularly hard to sustain unless Israel freezes all settlement construction activity," Mitchell implied that Jews living and building homes in the territories were an understandable basis for Palestinian terrorism. Still worse, he accepted explicitly the idea that PA action in fighting terrorism was largely conditional on further negotiations and relaxation of Israeli security measures, rather than being binding international obligations under Oslo that the PA must carry out, with or without further talks, but had never discharged.
Since the Mitchell Report's misdiagnosis, polls continue to show Palestinian rejection of Israel: 54 percent of Palestinians reject a 2-state solution in historic Palestine (September 2008, An-Najah National University Poll); 58 percent of Palestinians reject statehood alongside Israel (An-Najah National University poll, May 2008); 75 percent of Palestinians don't think Israel has right to exist (NEC poll, February 2007).
When Mahmoud Abbas' tells an Arab audience that "it is not required of Hamas, or Fatah, or the Popular Front to recognize Israel" (PA TV, October 3, 2006), then it is clear that the PA's formal recognition of Israel is simply fraudulent.
Yet, only last month, Mitchell said, "The Palestinians … want … an independent, economically viable and geographically integral state; that is their overriding objective." Apparently, little or nothing has changed in Mitchell's understanding of the conflict.
Such shortcomings of insight, indifference to evidence and disregard for logic suggests that George Mitchell makes a dubious choice for Mideast envoy. A plan for renewed negotiations that requires ignoring the Palestinian goal to eradicate Israel and which demands more Israeli concessions before the PA has fulfilled its Oslo obligations is bound to fail and make the conflict worse. All indications are that Mitchell will pursue something along precisely such misconceived lines.