Peace Making in the Middle East - Variations on a Theme / DR.Israel Bar-nir

The arrival of George Mitchell, President Obama’s special envoy, in the Middle East, raises again the question that accompanies the mission of every American mediator sent to the region - what exactly is he looking for there? Mitchell’s accomplishments in his previous involvement in the Israeli Arab conflict were not something to write home about. Einstein defined insanity as repeating the same experiment time and again, expecting different results. This article will discuss the likelihood of something different happening this time or whether it will be one more case of déjà vu all over again, as the famous baseball coach Yogi Bera would say.

A. Introducing George Mitchell

Mitchell is a typical American success story. From a humble start he rose and reached almost the top. He is of Irish descent. He grew up and was educated as a Catholic. His father was orphaned as a child and was adopted by a family of immigrants from Lebanon in the early part of the last century. Later he married a Lebanese who immigrated to the US in the twenties. George Mitchell, the youngest child of the two, excelled in his studies and in sport. He entered politics and got elected to the US Senate, where he eventually became the leader of the Democratic party, a position he held until his retirement in 1994. In the Presidential elections of 2000 he was one of the serious candidates to run for a vice President until Al Gore picked Joe Lieberman instead. After leaving politics Mitchell filled a variety of public offices. Among others, President Clinton sent him to Ireland to try to mediate a solution to the on going conflict there. The Irish mission was a success, and the deal Mitchell struck there holds. The terror there is practically non existent. Despite Mitchell’s accomplishment in Ireland being far more real than the Oslo accords, Mitchell was not awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. No need to exaggerate here. Mitchell is no Arafat.

B. George Mitchell in the Middle East - An Innocent Abroad

In July of 2000, President Clinton hosted in Camp David a summit meeting between Arafat and Barak, the Israeli Prime Minister at the time, That meeting ended in resounding failure which echoed around the world. The questions as to why it failed and who was responsible are beyond the scope of this article. The only point worth mentioning is that Barak’s offers to Arafat went far beyond any offer made by any previous Israeli government. Thus, Arafat upon returning home, would be justified in saying One More Failure like this and We’ve Won.
Arafat who had refused to consider Barak’s offers even as a starting point, opened two months later, in September of 2000, what was known at the time as the “Oslo War” (eventually the official name was changed tp the “The Second Intifada” - the association of Oslo and war was deemed to be politically incorrect).

These developments were incomprehensible to people of rational Western logic, and even the Israeli radical left was at a loss of words. For President Clinton, who relied on making peace in the Middle East as a means to restore his tarnished image that had been badly damaged by the Monica Levinsky affair, the Camp David fiasco and the ensuing war was a major setback. In an attempt to regain control of the situation, Clinton sent Mitchell to the region, hoping for a repeat of the Ireland success.

C. Why Mitchell?

On the face of it Mitchell appears to be the ideal candidate for such a mission. His success in Ireland, where a terror campaign had been going for decades, gave rise to the hope that he would be able to achieve the same in the Middle East. His family background, described above, was another factor, perhaps even more decisive, in his favor.

The view from Washington, however, is deceiving. Things look differently on the ground in the Middle East. Lebanon of the 1920s is not the Lebanon of today. Familiarity, even a close one, or family relations with Christian Lebanese that emigrated from the region 90 years ago, does not render one a maiven of the Muslim Arab mentality of today, let alone that of the Palestinians. Mitchell’s father was fluent in Arabic and French. Mitchell is not. As for the Irish experience, it is totally irrelevant. In Ireland both sides speak English and both are products of European civilization. Also, the Catholic - Protestant schism does not resemble even remotely the religious chasm between Israel and the Arabs. Mitchell’s mission was doomed to fail before he even set a foot in the region. The results or, rather, lack of, speak for themselves.

D. Mitchell in the Middle East - Loss of Innocence

Mitchell’s assignment was not to “mediate”. The commission (together with Mitchell there was another ex Senator - Warren Rudeman), was asked to “determine the causes” that brought about the outbreak of the war. It was a “fact finding” commission. It was explicitly asked to refrain from “blame assignment”. The problem is that the last requirement is in fact a “mission impossible”, since determination of causes is by definition blame assignment. In order to overcome this quandary, the conventional approach is to regard “no blame assignment” as synonymous with “blame sharing”. Thus, share the blame between the two sides, or resort to “even handed” mediation. It is not as straightforward as it sounds, because what do you do when the situation is clear cut with one side bearing all the blame? When that is the case, you look for something to pin on the other side so that he can be made to bear part of the blame. And if you don’t find such a “something”? If that is the case then you try harder. And if you still can’t find the missing “something”? If that is the case you invent it. This is what is known among professionals as “creative balancing”. It was not easy, but Mitchell showed his mettle, and lived up to the task. After a lot of effort and time, he managed to find the elusive “something” that made it possible to have Israel share the blame for the war waged by Arafat. What did Mitchell find? He found the [Israeli] settlements.

Until Mitchell, the Israeli settlements were a non issue. In the Oslo accords they are barely mentioned (there may have been “understandings” and/or verbal agreements between Beilin and the Arabs, but verbal agreements are worth no more than the paper they are written on). In Oslo II, as presented by the late Rabin to the Israeli Knesset, there were no limitations whatsoever on construction of settlements old or new. There was a loosely worded declarative statement that the “fate of the settlements would be determined in the final agreement between the sides” (I don’t guarantee the precise wording). This phrase is open to interpretations and Israel is definitely not obligated to follow the interpretation of the Shalom Achshav movement.

In any case, the Arab never made a big deal of this issue. All the disputes and arguments about the settlements were among the Israelis, and between Israeli governments and the various US administrations. Mitchell’s creative balancing turned the settlements issue from irrelevance into the major issue of contention between the sides. It was in fact one more nail in the coffin of Oslo, since the Arabs could not appear to be more forthcoming than the “honest broker” - the US. That story is repeating itself nowadays, in a more extreme version, with Obama’s raising the settlement issue to become the only issue. It is indeed déjà vu all over again.

The Mitchell commission started working in October of 2000, a short time after the outbreak of the war. Seven months later, in May of 2001, it produced a report, a tome full of findings, conclusions and recommendations. When the report was published, it was a different world. A new tenant occupied the White House, and Barak has been ousted from the premiership by the Israeli electorate. A discussion of the Mitchell report is beyond the scope of this article. It is enough to read what the pundit in chief of the New York Times, Tom Friedman, had to say about it: Take all the Copies of the Mitchell Report, Make a Big Pile out of Them, and Set Them Ablaze into a Gigantic Bonfire. It Would Surely Generate Enough Heat, and Light, to Make a Small Contribution to the Bush Energy Plan (NY Times, May 22, 2001). No one would blame Tom Friedman for harboring pro Israeli sentiments.

I have no idea whether President Bush used to read the New York Times, and if yes, whether Tom Friedman’s column was included in the material selected for him by his aides. As regards the Mitchell report, however, President Bush did follow Friedman’s advice, though he stopped short of setting it on fire. With hind sight, maybe he should have done it. Mitchell himself was moth balled.

E. The Quest for Peace - A Road Map

With the dawn of a new era, priorities change. At the start of his tenure, President Bush did not perceive the Arab Israeli conflict to be a critical issue and did not deem it important enough to get personally involved. His attitude did not change even after the 911 attack, which brought the war on terror to the top of his priority list. During all that time the war in the Middle East did not abate. In fact, it intensified. Repeated suicide bomber attacks that shocked the world forced the Bush administration to reconsider its stand vis-à-vis the Israeli Arab conflict. The month of June of 2002 marks the revelation of President Bush’s apocalyptic vision for peace in the Middle East. President Bush’s innovative idea called for the establishment of “two states for two people”. To add a realistic flavor to his proposals President Bush’s envisaged plan included a call to the Palestinian leadership to have its leadership replaced by one “not contaminated by terror” and, more important, a time table and a road map. The first was never meant to be taken seriously and the other two became an inseparable part of the Middle East peace glossary.

Follow the road map, was the message, and in due time - end of 2005 was the original target date for the establishment of a Palestinian State - peace will reign on Earth, or at least in the Middle East. As it says in the good book: Nation Shall Not Lift up Sword Against Nation, Neither Shall They Learn War Any More (Book of Isaiah, 2;4, KJV).

President Bush’s initiative was lauded by one and all. In old memories, however, there was a faint tone of discord - two states? Was not that what the UN partition plan of 1947 was all about? Was not that what the British Mandate authorities proposed in 1938 (The Peel plan)? Once more déjà vu all over again.

With the exception of adding two new terms to the glossary - the “two states” solution and the road map, nothing changed. In the absence of clear markings of North and South, every attempt to use road map turned into an exercise in futility.

F. Mitchell Strikes Again

Times go by, but life cannot wait for things to happen. The new tenant of the White House, the messenger of Change, looks to the future with the Audacity of Hope, and takes it upon himself to succeed where all his predecessors had failed. Obama’s temperament is not suited to the rate of progress, or rather lack of, of the negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. Obama expects results and he expects them immediately. To get things in motion he recalls Mitchell and assigns him the task of restarting the stalled peace process.

For the moth balled Mitchell it was a case of “After I Am Waxed Old Shall I Have Pleasure” (Book of Genesis, 18;12, KJV). For whatever reasons, in the post modern world, peace making has turned into a very attractive occupation. It has all the characteristics of an addictive obsession. The Middle East version is even more so. Like drug addicts, for those afflicted with the peace-process-itis virus, no amount of peace making is enough. The appetite is always there. Even after almost ten years in the cold Mitchell did not lose his.

For the uninformed - peace-process-itis is an ailment which is characterized by a systemic denial of reality. It is not yet listed in medical books. I picked it up from an article in the Commentary magazine.

Mitchell was sent back to the Middle East. This time, however, with an expanded mandate. This time, rather than a mere “fact finding” mission, Mitchell came to the region to perform real mediation - a task he had been successful at in Ireland. This time, moreover, no more Mr. Nice Guy, and arm twisting was part of the mandate. As for “creative balancing”, Mitchell was instructed to go easy on the balancing.

After more than a year of efforts, the only real accomplishment Mitchell could point at was a significant increase of his frequent traveler miles account.

G. Proximity Talks - Separate But Equal?

The gap separating Washington from the Middle East is much wider than seven time zones. In the alleys of the Middle East bazaars things appear different than they are perceived when viewed from the halls of power in Washington.

In his handling of the Middle East Obama employed the same tactics that helped him pass unpopular domestic legislation. As regards the Middle East, however, he found himself in the situation of a driver of a car who, when stuck in a rut, presses the throttle all the way, not realizing that for the car to move he has to engage the gear as well. When it finally dawns on him that the car is in neutral, he puts the car in reverse.

Thus, these days, in the month of May, 2010, the negotiations between the Palestinians and Israel are back where they were before Anapolis, before Camp David 2000, before the Wye Agreements, before Oslo and before Madrid. This time it is déjà vu all over again and again and again and again.

The touted proximity talks about to take place between the Palestinians and Israel, are not real negotiations. They are “let’s pretend” negotiations. Warren Christopher, the first Secretary of State during the Clinton administration, stated recently that such talks are a recipe for failure. His futile attempts to conduct such talks between Israel and the Syrian dictator Assad (the father) taught him something.

In proximity talks each side negotiates with a third party - the US in the present case - from whom it tries to squeeze the best deal for himself. Ostensibly the third party is an honest broker who conveys to each side what the other side wants and attempts to bridge the differences between the two. The reality is that the third party has an agenda of his own which by definition makes his “honesty” tilted.

Borrowing from a term that was in wide use during the segregation era, the proximity talks are Separate But NOT Equal.

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