The Mitchell Report and Israeli Maneuvers

On 2 June 2001, President Yasser Arafat accompanied by both the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Germany and the United Nations Special Coordinator and Representative to the Palestinian Authority, held a press conference and made a statement, in which he stated that "we exerted, and we will exert now our utmost efforts to stop the bloodshed of our people and the Israeli people, and to do all that is needed to achieve an immediate and unconditional real and effective cease-fire through joint effort, in order to go back to the negotiating table, and to see to the implementation of the Mitchell Report and the Egyptian-Jordanian Initiative." In the same statement, President Arafat repeated his condemnation of the bomb attack that took place in Tel Aviv the night before killing 20 Israelis.

This was a courageous step taken by the Palestinian leadership, which represented a change in their previous position. Up until that point, the Palestinian leadership insisted on the implementation of the recommendations of the Sharm El-Sheikh Fact-Finding Committee (Mitchell Report) as a package, calling for an agreement on a specific timeline to implement those recommendations, beginning with the steps to control violence and reverse all hostile Israeli measures, as well as an agreement on the freeze of all settlement activity.

The Israeli side, on the other hand, was trying to apply various methods in order to escape serious commitment to implementing the Reportís recommendations. Immediately after the issuance of the Report, the Israeli government declared that it does not accept the freeze on all settlement activity, and it also rejected the criticism in the Report directed at the Israeli army. In essence, rejecting the Report in spite of the lip service it gave to it. At a later stage, the Israeli government sensing international pressure in favor of the implementation of the Report changed its public position and started to speak of general acceptance of the Report. But nevertheless, claiming that the Report specified separate "stages" for the implementation of the recommendations, in which the issue should be an end to violence, followed by a "cooling off period" and only after that would there be measures to rebuild confidence. This, of course, was a complete invention on the part of the Israeli government, since in fact the Report never spoke of separate stages, although logically the implementation of the recommendations should start with steps to end violence.

In actuality, the Report says specifically that "security cooperation can not long be sustained if meaningful negotiations are unreasonably deferred, if security measures "on the ground" are seen as hostile, or if steps are taken that are perceived as provocative or as prejudicing the outcome of negotiations." Furthermore, the "cooling off period" mentioned in the Report is the same period for rebuilding confidence and taking the necessary measures in this regard include the freeze on all settlement activity.

The international media failed completely to mention two important recommendations to the Israeli government in the Report. One recommendation made to the Israeli government was that it should give "careful consideration to whether settlements, which are focal points for substantive friction, are valuable bargaining chips for future negotiations or provocations likely to preclude the onset of productive talks." This clearly means a recommendation to the Israeli government to remove such settlements, instead of waiting to reach the conclusion of negotiations between the two parties on the fate of all Israeli settlements.

The second recommendation to the Israeli government is for it to "make it clear to the Palestinian Authority that a future peace would pose no threat to the territorial contiguity of a Palestinian State to be established in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip."

This clearly means that the Committee recognizes that dealing with the situation on the ground can not be done in isolation from the future final settlement between the two parties. One thing that is very clear is that the Report has never contemplated and can never be used as a basis for an Israeli position, calling for the stopping of the violence first, and deferring agreement on the implementation of the rest of the recommendations to a later stage.

It must be mentioned that the United States unlike the European Union was not clear in its position regarding the position taken by the Israeli government. At some point, it seemed as if it was trying to strike a path in the middle between the Report and the Israeli position. For instance, Secretary of State Powell on one hand said that he is sending his newly appointed personal assistant for the Middle East to the region to help the parties reach an agreement on the timeline for the implementation of the recommendations. On the other hand, the special assistant in his discussions with the Palestinian side appeared to be pushing for steps related to ending the violence without a timeline for the implementation of the recommendations as a whole.

On 23 May 2001, the Israeli government took the smart step of declaring a unilateral cease-fire, apparently with the aim of directing the focus of the international community to the issue of violence, irrespective of an agreement on the implementation of the Mitchell Report. Nevertheless, the Israeli occupying forces never exercised that so-called cease-fire and even started to give it a different description other than a cease-fire, such as self-restraint. In reality, although the Israeli occupying forces did refrain from launching large-scale military actions against Palestinian targets, many military actions still persisted, resulting in Palestinian causalities and large losses. More importantly, the Israeli occupying forces remained in their positions which already imposed severe restrictions on persons and goods, making the lives of the Palestinian people unbearable.

Amidst these circumstances came the Tel Aviv bombing and the position of President Arafat which made the step all the most important and courageous. The Israeli government did not respond with a military strike after the bombing and after the Palestinian declaration on a cease-fire, but nevertheless, it took additional draconian measures against the Palestinian people, including the tightening of all kinds of closures on the entire Palestinian people.

Moreover, the Israeli occupying forces repeatedly violated the cease-fire even after the Palestinian side declared its own. The occupying forces repeatedly encroached into the areas under full Palestinian control, shot at demonstrators and even allowed illegal settlers to go on a rampage against the Palestinian civilian population. Equally important were the Israeli political actions, which at times sounded as if they were looking for a reason to escape "restraint" and to go for what may be and all out strike against the Palestinian Authority and other targets.

The situation has become very volatile and dangerous and no one can tell for sure where it is heading from this point. The Palestinian side is undertaking serious efforts in contributing to bringing the situation on the ground under control. The Palestinian side is calling for an agreement on a timeline to implement the recommendations of the Mitchell Report as a package, to be followed by negotiations on a final settlement covering all pending issues in accordance with the Egyptian-Jordanian Initiative. These efforts might succeed, or else we could still be faced with an Israeli position that refuses to undertake its part including measures such as withdrawal of Israeli tanks and other Israeli weaponry, as well as refusing to cease all illegal settlement activity. In that case, God forbid, the situation will get much worse and who knows to what extent.

Furthermore, full commitment by Israel, the occupying Power, to the implementation of the Mitchell Report and the Egyptian-Jordanian initiative will largely depend on the efforts of the international community. The European Union has been playing a very active role and is taking the necessary political positions in order to ensure such commitment. Russia is largely doing the same as well as the United Nations Secretary-General and his personal representative. There is a need, nevertheless, for more United States engagement- one that is reasonable and more balanced than the positions presented up until now. There are signs for more engagement, although it remains to be seen whether the positions will be more balanced.