The appointment of Senator George Mitchell as Middle East envoy for the new Obama administration was generally received positively in Palestinian political and intellectual circles. The public, which judges developments only by their results, remained indifferent.
The appointment confirmed President Barack Obama's declared intention of early engagement and thus contributed to building some credibility for the new administration. This is all the more true since Mitchell's appointment avoided the usual names that were being floated around as possible alternatives.
Mitchell, who was familiar with the situation during his last mission in 2001, will be facing a dramatically changed reality, however. His previous mission--that ended with the famous Mitchell report, which formed, in a distorted way, the basis of the roadmap--created an impression that he understood the fundamental and legitimate concerns of both the Palestinian and Israeli sides.
In his report, Mitchell called for an immediate and complete cessation of all Israeli settlement expansion in the occupied Palestinian territories, with no exception for "natural growth". In parallel he called for simultaneous and effective Palestinian measures to stop any kind of violence. The essence of his report was that the two parties were expected to fulfill their respective obligations together.
The Bush administration, however, distorted Mitchell's findings to instead apply pressure on the Palestinians to fulfill their obligations as a prerequisite for any Israeli action, particularly regarding settlement activities. That order of obligations, which was enshrined in the roadmap, enabled Israel to freely continue its policies and practices that have simply served to alter the reality on the ground, consolidate the occupation and preempt the prospect of a two-state solution on the basis of the 1967 borders.
During his recent visit, Mitchell renewed the American commitment to a two-state solution. He did not, however, give any indication as to how he would go about changing the current dynamic, which contradicts the two-state solution. The main challenge for Mitchell this time will be to bring to bear American pressure on Israel to stop the expansion of settlements, which was the primary factor that caused the current political deterioration, including the radicalization process in Palestinian public opinion.
The second challenge Mitchell will face is the dramatic change that has occurred to the respective political realities in Palestine and Israel since his last visit. The Palestinian reality no longer includes Yasser Arafat, while the national consensus for a negotiated solution with Israel for which Arafat stood has been replaced by a political division resulting from the growing strength of Hamas, which promotes the idea of armed resistance as the only workable approach to reach probably the same legitimate objective as Arafat strived for.
Israel has also witnessed further radicalization in public opinion. It is approaching an election where public opinion polls show Labor, which during the mid-1990s was the main proponent of the two-state solution, languishing in fourth place. Above Labor are Kadima, which was formed by Ariel Sharon, who tried to unilaterally impose a solution on the Palestinians; the rightwing Likud Party, which was always opposed to the Oslo process; and Yisrael Beitenu, the ultra-rightwing party that advocates the population transfer of Palestinians from Israel.
It has been concluded in these pages before that radicalization on both sides is a direct result of the failure of the peace process, subsequent Israeli unilateralism and an extremely biased American mediator. Whether Mitchell agrees is up to him, but the only glimmer of hope in this situation is precisely the absence of the previous administration, which was a very negative factor for the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and for stability in the region in general.
Should it be prepared to engage this conflict even-handedly, the Obama administration will not be alone. The EU and other European states as well as regional and particularly Arab states, are ready to play a constructive role in a strong American-led effort to secure the implementation of the relevant resolutions of the United Nations Security Council in order to ensure a settlement to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict that corresponds to international legality.- Published 2/2/2009 © bitterlemons.org
Ghassan Khatib is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications. He is vice-president for community outreach at Birzeit University and a former Palestinian Authority minister of planning. He holds a PhD in Middle East politics from the University of Durham.
AN ISRAELI VIEW
The Mitchell paradox
by Yossi Alpher
It is too early to evaluate the direction the Mitchell mission is taking. Mitchell's preliminary visit, immediately after the war in Gaza and just days before Israel's elections, can only be defined as an orientation tour. Hence at this early date, we can address the Mitchell mission only in terms of the direction George Mitchell appears to be headed.
Based on this first foray into the region, Mitchell's mission can already be characterized as enveloped in a paradox: he is not addressing all those Middle East actors who will have to be addressed if progress is to be achieved and if the principles laid out by President Barack Obama for dealing with the Middle East are to be honored.
Here we must recall the backdrop to Mitchell's appointment and examine the course of this first visit. Back in 2001, it was Mitchell who coined a certain equation linking cessation of both Palestinian violence and Israeli settlement expansion. In the ensuing years, US President George W. Bush and Israeli PM Ariel Sharon managed to address that equation in rather unique terms: total rejection of Palestinian violence, a wink and a nod at settlement expansion, but also--the removal of all the settlements from the Gaza Strip.
This, and Hamas' takeover of power in Gaza, put the focus on the West Bank, where President Mahmoud Abbas and PM Salam Fayyad have resolutely worked against Palestinian violence despite the absence of movement by Sharon's successor, Ehud Olmert, on the settlement issue. Now the legitimacy of the Abbas/Fayyad duo is called into question by the expiration, several weeks ago, of Abbas' term of office. In parallel, Egypt is renewing efforts to establish a Palestinian unity government, which will almost certainly lead to Palestinian elections as well.
So Mitchell is really waiting for not one but two very relevant governments to resolve the issue of their composition. For this reason, and because of the humanitarian aftermath of the war in Gaza, the practical focus of his first visit was on the need to formulate and implement new arrangements for Gaza: prevention of weapons smuggling on the one hand, but facilitation of reconstruction aid on the other.
One additional background factor is relevant here. Mitchell excelled in his mediation role in Northern Ireland because of his legendary patience and readiness to listen to all parties to a conflict and include them in its resolution. (A second background factor, the fact that Mitchell differs from most of his predecessors in the Middle East role in that he is of Arab rather than Jewish background, is of doubtful relevance. He can be expected to promote American interests, just as his Jewish predecessors did.)
Here we arrive at the paradox of Mitchell's mission, at least as manifested in his first visit. Mitchell ostensibly represents both Obama's readiness to talk to America's Islamist adversaries as well as his own legacy of including all combatants. In addition, he concentrated during this visit on ways to channel reconstruction aid into the Gaza Strip. Moreover, his mandate presumably includes not only Israeli-Palestinian but Israel-Syria issues as well.
Yet Mitchell did not attempt to talk to Hamas or even visit the Strip during the visit. Like many others in the West and the Arab world, he appears to believe it is possible to rebuild Gaza yet ignore its (Hamas) government. His itinerary took him to Ramallah, Cairo, Amman and Riyadh--but not to Damascus. He cancelled a visit to Turkey after a high-level Israeli-Turkish clash at the Davos World Economic Forum--as if this somehow rendered Ankara's own Middle East mediation efforts, past and future, less relevant.
A Mitchell visit to Gaza, Damascus or Ankara would not in any way have betrayed Israel or the administration's basic undertaking regarding Israel's security. On the contrary, it would have served them. If Obama and his emissary for Arab-Israel affairs intend to represent a new and refreshing departure in America's approach to the Middle East, Mitchell's first visit was not characteristic of this approach. It seemed to reflect attitudes regarding the identity of America's interlocutors that characterized the Bush era.
Let's hope this is not a harbinger of things to come.- Published 2/2/2009 © bitterlemons.org
Yossi Alpher is coeditor of the bitterlemons.org family of internet publications. He is former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University.
A PALESTINIAN VIEW
New salesman, same old merchandise
by Khader Khader
The Middle East peace process never depended on the personality of the occupant of the White House. Had it, we might have seen some progress over the past few decades. Some presidents have tried to solve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict; others have ignored it under various pretexts. All have one thing in common: no one ever tried to impose a solution, and the current president, Barack Obama, is no different.
The period between Obama's official inauguration and the present moment has not yet witnessed any developments in terms of US policy on the peace process. Although Washington was quick to dispatch its new envoy, George Mitchell to the region, the statements and foreign policy principles declared so far reveal a lot and confirm the above-mentioned paradigm.
The first indicator can be seen in the new US administration agenda as published on the White House webpage under "Foreign Policy--Renewing American Diplomacy". This states that on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, "Obama and Biden will make progress ... a key diplomatic priority from day one. They will make a sustained push--working with Israelis and Palestinians--to achieve the goal of two states, a Jewish state in Israel and a Palestinian state, living side by side in peace and security."
To see the new US administration state from the start that it intends to assist and work with Israelis and Palestinians toward a Jewish state in Israel and a Palestinian state reflects clear US support for the Israeli position against the right of return of Palestinian refugees to their homes and properties inside Israel. Such an agenda also undermines the presence and rights of Palestinians already living in Israel. Living in a Jewish state will not be easy for any Muslim or Christian Palestinian and facts on the ground show that Israel, without yet being formally recognized as a Jewish state by the world, is already acting like one, offering no equal rights to its non-Jewish citizens.
The second alarming point lies in Obama's inaugural speech where he addressed the Muslim world and didn't mention the Middle East at all. Geopolitically and demographically, one cannot satisfactorily classify the Middle East simply under the "Muslim world". The current Middle East and all its peoples are divided into two main blocs: one moving within the sphere of the United States and another moving outside it. Each bloc includes Christians, Druze, Shi'ites and Sunnis (Lebanon and Palestine are the best examples) and in some cases even Jews. The polarization in the region was never based on religion but on political positions regarding the Palestinian-Israeli and Arab-Israel conflict. Saudi Arabia and Egypt are Muslim countries but it is clear that Obama was not referring to them when he promised relations based on mutual respect with the Muslim world.
The third warning came in President Obama's interview with al-Arabiya TV. In several instances during that interview it became clear that Obama would not veer from US foreign policy constants in dealing with Israel, "a strong strategic ally", or the peace process. Thus, for example, the recent visit of George Mitchell would, according to Obama, see Mitchell talk to "all the major parties involved". But Mitchell did not visit Gaza or Turkey, both crucial players in the current situation.
Vis-a-vis the Saudi peace initiative, Obama also did not diverge much from the line of his predecessor. He said that while the initiative was a positive step, "I do not agree with every aspect of it." Why not? Yet no Arab regime dared question President Obama at this delicate moment in time, for fear of closing all potential signs of hope this new administration might bring.
Most importantly, however, Obama has adopted the position of his predecessor, George W. Bush that, "ultimately we cannot tell either the Israelis or the Palestinians what is best for them. They are going to have to make some decisions." But the Palestinian side has clung to the Palestinian national constants throughout all phases of negotiations with the Israeli side and it is clear that the Israeli side will never accept them even after 100 years of negotiations. This leaves outside intervention, read US intervention, as the only hope for the sides to reach agreement.
The last point deals with the meeting that took place between George Mitchell and Israeli PM Ehud Olmert who reportedly revealed to Mitchell his comprehensive peace plan last Wednesday. The plan denies the right of return to Palestinian refugees and would maintain the large settlement blocs (similar to the assurances Bush offered former Israeli PM Ariel Sharon in his famous letter). Mitchell didn't make any comment on the plan, leading one to believe that the plan had his quiet acquiescence.
Thus, even after only 12 days in office, it appears clear that Obama will follow his predecessors' lead on the peace process. This leaves Palestinians to at least another four years of suffering and humiliation under Israeli occupation. Dispatching Mitchell so quickly was only an attempt to put a new face to the old sales pitch.- Published 2/2/2009 © bitterlemons.org
Khader Khader is a media analyst with the Jerusalem Media and Communications Center.
AN ISRAELI VIEW
The situation and Mitchell
by Amnon Lord
Nothing represents the absurd reality on the ground in Gaza better than the scene that has unfolded two weeks after Operation Cast Lead ended. Hamas is still shooting rockets, the population is in anguish, Hamas activists have housed some of the homeless in relief tents--they are refugees, after all--and all the while hundreds of trucks loaded with food and supplies for the benefit of Palestinian society keep entering the Gaza Strip.
The United Nations is there, and the entire international community is trying to implement both a humanitarian aid operation and a blockade that stops the smuggling of weapons and especially rockets and long-range missiles. We are talking about one of the smallest semi-sovereign areas in the world: about 40 km long and 6 to 14 km wide. Gaza and its population are totally dependent on outside help in every aspect of life, from borders to UNRWA to food itself and electricity supplies. The entire international community is trying to nurse Gaza back to health and still all the forces in the world can't succeed in pressuring Hamas to stop the terrorist activity that has become a strategic threat to Israel.
This is the situation that greeted George Mitchell. He is the envoy of a president who made a commitment to Israeli-Palestinian peace, yet the situation has never been so unfavorable for a final settlement. Mitchell has reservations about Israel. It was his report after his first visit to Israel and the territories in 2001 that placed the blame equally on Israel and the Palestinians for the outbreak of the second intifada. Yet he himself described the current situation as very complex even before he came to the region.
Who wouldn't describe the situation as "complex"? Was there any other period in the past when "the situation" wasn't complex? Still, this time around it seems to reflect a hopeless set of conditions: Gaza is chaotic and completely at the mercy of Iran and the Damascus leadership, even as it is sustained by convoys of humanitarian aid. The West Bank ironically is in better shape on the ground than at any time in the past decade. Yet the Abbas regime is clearing holding on because of its cohabitation with Israeli security forces.
It could be argued that nothing will be gained by continuing to pursue the Annapolis framework and trying to negotiate a shelf agreement. Hence it might turn out that a new Israeli government led by the Likud after the coming elections will generate hope for a fresh start--this time not through an all-out final status track, but rather an attempt to set reachable goals and work sincerely toward implementing them. The notion that there are good Palestinians and bad Palestinians and that we should strengthen the good guys while engaging the bad guys and trying to unite them is exactly what it sounds like: mumbo jumbo.
In a report published last weekend by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, Dan Diker and Khaled Abu Toameh revealed explosive information. Salam Fayyad in his role as interior minister of the Palestinian Authority is paying the salaries of Islamic Jihad and al-Aqsa Brigade terrorists in Gaza and the West Bank as well as doling out PA money to somewhere between 6,000 and 12,000 operatives of Hamas security organizations. All this, in accordance with the otherwise defunct Mecca agreement for a unity government. The notion that the corrupt Muhammad Dahlan will again take control in Gaza is dangerous.
So the way forward that will open to Israel if a right wing government is formed is not to go for a freeze but to stay in control in the West Bank and prepare for another campaign in Gaza aimed at completely routing the armed forces of Hamas while leaving the ideological leadership intact. This will have to be done under worse conditions than Cast Lead. Hamas gained strength among the Palestinian public in both the West Bank and Gaza after Cast Lead. This means that Iran holds the Palestinians hostage while the Palestinians hold international public opinion hostage. Israel will have to adopt a diplomatic line that creates a clear linkage between pushing back Iran and making progress on the Palestinian track.
So is there going to be a clash between the Obama administration with its envoy George Mitchell and the coming Israeli government? Not necessarily. That's because of the reality we have described. President Obama said to al-Arabiya TV that in Israel there are also people who want peace. Unfortunately, he probably meant the shrinking political left. He may learn that left wing governments were the ones that caused the greatest instability, including two wars over the past two and a half years, while right wing governments have a proven ability to make good on their policies.- Published 2/2/2009 © bitterlemons.org
Amnon Lord is editor-in-chief of Makor Rishon daily newspaper.
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Bitterlemons.org is an internet newsletter that presents Palestinian and Israeli viewpoints on prominent issues of concern. Each edition addresses a specific issue of controversy. Bitterlemons.org maintains complete organizational and institutional symmetry between its Palestinian and Israeli sides.