From his first Middle East tour as President Obama's special envoy, George Mitchell must have found that not much has changed since his 2001 report. During his previous mission on the origins of the Second Intifada, Mitchell concluded that ending the Israeli settlement activity and violence are intertwined and remain the core impediment to meaningful negotiations. Mitchell has also said that conflicts that are caused by man can be resolved by man, and that negotiation is the singular most effective tool to solve disputes. His core beliefs and emphasis on diplomacy will certainly help him tremendously on his mission, but he may need more than that to pierce through this emotionally and psychologically laden conflict that has eluded all of his predecessors.
The proposition that if the Palestinians want a state they must forswear violence, and if Israel wants peace it must end the occupation, seems logical and practical though neither logical discourse nor practicality dictate this long and debilitating conflict. From the Palestinian perspective, ending violent resistance cannot be mitigated by anything other than ending the settlement activity and occupation, which are the source of humiliation and deprivation. As they see it, no Israeli government can do anything to obscure this basic reality. Many Palestinian moderates agree that acts of violence including firing rockets into Israel are inexcusable and Israel has the right to defend itself. But they also insist that the Israeli war on Hamas and future retaliatory attacks will have no moral sustenance and will not change the core of the problem as long as Israel fails to address the root-causes of violence in the first place.
Given that Israel is seen as an occupying power, it has been unable to capture the moral high ground even in self-defense. Instead of generating sympathy for being rained on with rockets, it was condemned by the international community for its incursion into Gaza. Israel might wish to separate Hamas from the Palestinian civilians, but Hamas' popularity grows in parallel to the settlement expansion activity, especially in light of the Palestinian Authority's inability to do anything about it. The Israeli contention that the settlements activity will not prejudice the final status agreement falls largely on deaf ears as the Palestinians witness the Israelis' daily encroachment on their land and the consequent hardships they endure. Calm will last only if there is a visible end to settlement expansion, even in settlement blocks that Israel is planning to incorporate into Israel proper by a land swap agreement with the Palestinians. Otherwise, ceasefires are no more than tactical moves serving immediate and limited objectives, and renewed violence remains just a matter of time.
From the Israeli standpoint, wanton violence against its civilians is unacceptable under any circumstances. Israelis recall with horror the violence at the break of the Second Intifada in late 2000 and the more than 110 suicide bombings that indiscriminately killed and maimed hundreds of innocent civilians. For most Israelis, the extent of Palestinian violence-especially following the peace proposals made at Camp David-was indicative of the Palestinians' rejection not only of any peace formula but of Israel's very existence. All the confidence building measures taken up through the summer of 2000 were shattered overnight leaving most Israelis baffled about any real prospect for peace. By making the cessation of hostilities a precondition to political and territorial concessions, continued occupation has become synonymous with national security. Palestinian extremists vowing to destroy Israel have provided it with further justification for taking extraordinary measures to protect the security of Israelis. Yet, targeted killings, arrests of would-be terrorists and the demolition of homes by Israeli security forces have provoked violent reactions casting a darker cloud on any credible political discourse or territorial concessions.
Given this uncertain climate, the settlements movement has made significant inroad into Israel's political establishment, usurping the political agenda while successive governments have openly supported expansion or the building of new outposts. Israel's unilateral withdrawal from Gaza and the subsequent use of the strip as a staging ground for attacks against Israel has disheartened most Israelis and alienated even the moderate camp. It has further played into the hands of right wing Israeli extremists who oppose any withdrawal, and deepened their conviction that peace with the Palestinians remains as illusive as ever. The Israeli public has reacted to the firing of rockets from Gaza during the past three years by further shifting to the right; a development that will make it most likely for Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu to become the next prime minister following the February 10th national election.
The Arab moderate states, especially Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Morocco and Egypt, who have condemned Hamas and tacitly supported Israel's stand against it are running out of patience. The Arab masses cannot reconcile the death of Palestinian civilians, especially women and children, with Israel's grievances about violence when the Palestinians are an occupied people and have an inherit right to resist. For the vast majority of Arabs, it is an anathema that Israel-a country presumably seeking peace-has refused to embrace the Arab Peace Initiative which offers exactly that: a comprehensive peace in exchange for the territories. Increased Arab militancy and violence are the inadvertent results steadily eroding the position of the Palestinian moderate camp in favor of militant confrontation.
This is the climate in which Mr. Mitchell will find himself when he returns to the region for his Herculean mission. Moreover, he will face a new Israeli prime minister who will likely be Likud Leader Benjamin Netanyahu -- a right of center leader who staunchly supports the settlements movement. And on the Palestinian side he may well have to deal with a Fatah-Hamas unity government that will too take a harder line in the peace negotiations. In addition, Mitchell will have to bolster and engage with moderate Arab leaders to ensure their direct engagement and perseverance, while coaxing Syria to enter into direct negotiations with Israel. This however, will not deter a skilled negotiator like Mitchell as there is also a silver lining here: both Israelis and Palestinians bestow greater trust on stronger and more unified governments who don't compromise their national interests. And the leading Arab states, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, are eager to see tangible progress on the Palestinian front and are thirsty for a genuine American active involvement. Damascus too is anxious for a direct dialogue with Washington.
Mr. Mitchell, with the full support of President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton can succeed where other administrations have failed. He must come equipped, however, with carrots and sticks for both sides, remain committed, actively involved and relentless, and be prepared for the United States to be a part of a long-term solution.
(This is part one of a two-part analysis on violence and the settlements in Israel and the Palestinian territories.)