Mitchell's Middle East hope

As violence escalates in the Middle East with no end in sight, a ray of hope appears with the publication of the Mitchell Report, which has given the Bush administration an opportunity to activate new diplomatic initiatives.

Most analysts are appropriately focused on the report's important recommendations, especially the call to end the violence and freeze Israeli settlement activity. The hope is that these may provide a way out of the crisis.

But what's missed is equally important: the commission's explanation for the violence. Its verdict is substantially at odds with the conventional interpretation of the American political mainstream, which has contributed to a passive US approach. This credible report - named after former Sen. George Mitchell, who led the international committee that examined the eruption of Israeli-Palestinian violence - should ignite a change in the narrative and in the policy.

Conventional wisdom in Washington has been that the violence that started last September after then-opposition leader Ariel Sharon visited the Temple Mount-Haram al Sharif area in Jerusalem was deliberately started by the Palestinians to pressure the Israelis to give them more than what Prime Minister Ehud Barak offered them at Camp David last July. The brunt of the blame for the escalation since was aimed at the Palestinian side, providing seeming understanding on the part of the US for Mr. Sharon's harsh measures.

The administration's own assumption - that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat was largely responsible for the violence - has led to the closing of the door for an early meeting with Mr. Arafat. This position seemed to accept the argument that a meeting with President Bush would be a "reward" for violence. The Mitchell Report provides significant reasons for reassessment.

While the report concludes that Sharon's visit "did not cause [the] Al-Aqsa Intifada," it states clearly that this visit, which was accompanied by "over a 1,000 Israeli police officers," was poorly timed and that the "provocative effect should have been foreseen. Indeed, it was foreseen by those who urged that the visit be prohibited." It also makes clear that for the first few days after the visit, Palestinian demonstrators were unarmed, and that Israel used lethal force leading to many deaths, sparking Palestinian passions.

The report clearly states that both Israel and the Palestinian Authority have been guilty of not doing enough to avert an escalation. But this is significantly different from the simplistic and intellectually lazy explanation that blames all on an easy target for a villain: Yasser Arafat. Both sides have paid a heavy price in the current cycle, and Israelis have endured the horrifying suicide bombings against innocent civilians. For their part, the Palestinians have suffered five times the number of casualties that Israel has suffered, and the Palestinian areas, which do not have the benefits of statehood, are devastated economically and fragmented physically.

The shortcomings of their leaders cannot justify ignoring the Palestinians' legitimate plight or give license to what are surely "excessive and misdirected" Israeli measures, to use UN Secretary General Kofi Annan's appropriate words, any more than persistent Palestinian suffering can justify bombing innocent Israeli civilians.

This balanced report also takes issue with those who assert that there was a "deliberate plan by the government of Israel to respond with lethal force," even as it also states that there is no evidence that Israel made consistent efforts to use nonlethal means to control demonstrations of unarmed Palestinians. It demands steps from both sides to end the violence and begin implementing several confidence-building measures that it identifies as essential, including a call for the Palestinian Authority to make a "100 percent effort to prevent terrorist operations," and for Israel to freeze all settlement activities, including those intended to accommodate "natural growth."

These recommendations will be tough enough for the Bush administration to help implement, but they will be impossible to carry out if they do not have broad support in Washington. The place to begin is with a reassessment of the existing Washington narrative. The Mitchell Report provides such a beginning. It was prepared by a credible international commission that was sponsored by the US, set up to its liking, and headed by a prominent American. It has worked for months to find answers.

The report's explanation of events in the Palestinian territories provides the most objective assessment that we are likely to get in this difficult and emotionally charged Middle East environment.

Its credible narrative should replace the armchair verdict about the causes of violence that has taken hold in Washington, and energize constructive efforts to put an end to a cycle of violence whose outcome is sure disaster for both sides.

Shibley Telhami is the Anwar Sadat Chair for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland, College Park, and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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