Senator George Mitchell, the newly appointed Obama Administration Special Envoy to the Middle East will arrive this week in Israel and Palestine. He will present his credentials to get an update on the status of the negotiations, focusing on the aftermath of the war in Gaza. Mitchell is not new to the region or to serving as an official mediator of conflicts for an American president.
Mitchell’s last attempt at mediating between Israel and Palestine began in the end of October 2000 following the outbreak of the second intifada. The Mitchell report which investigated the reasons behind the intifada and what steps should be taken to revert back to a non-violent peace process was published in May 2001, some eight months after the violence erupted and three months after Ariel Sharon was sitting in the Prime Minister’s office. By that time (beginning in February 2001), Hamas and other terror groups had begun the barrage of suicide attacks inside of Israel and the mantra of “no partner for peace” was heard on both sides of the green line.
The Mitchell report concluded that:
“we have no basis on which to conclude that there was a deliberate plan by the PA to initiate a campaign of violence at the first opportunity; or to conclude that there was a deliberate plan by the Government of Israel to respond with lethal force. However, there is also no evidence on which to conclude that the PA made a consistent effort to contain the demonstrations and control the violence once it began; or that the Government of Israel made a consistent effort to use non-lethal means to control demonstrations of unarmed Palestinians. Amid rising anger, fear, and mistrust, each side assumed the worst about the other and acted accordingly.”
ON THE night of October 1, 2000, I initiated a meeting to try and put an early end to the initifada. The meeting took place in Ramallah, with the knowledge and permission of Prime Minister Ehud Barak with West Bank Preventive Security Chief Jabril Rajoub and two MK’s from Meretz – Avshalom (Abu) Vilan and Mossi Raz. Abu Vilan had served as an officer under Barak in an elite unit and despite his affiliation to Meretz maintained a very close relationship and friendship with Barak. In preparation for the meeting, Vilan spoke with Barak who conveyed a message for Yasser Arafat. Until that point there had been no direct contact between Barak and Arafat from the beginning of the intifada. Rajoub called Arafat and delivered Barak’s message: Netzarim and Joseph’s Tomb are yours in negotiations, but if we are shot at we will defend those places and all others.
In Barak’s name, Vilan asked Rajoub to ask Arafat what were his terms for a complete cessation of all the violence. Arafat responded with six conditions, and I wrote them down on a napkin that was on Rajoub’s desk. They were: an end to the closures; a return of all forces to their positions of September 27, 2000; a removal of all the extra Israeli police forces from Jerusalem, the Old City and around the Temple Mount/Haram al Sharif; a reopening of all of the crossing points – Allenby Bridge, Rafah crossing, and the Gaza airport; an end to the siege of the Palestinian cities; an international investigation of the events of the past four days. Vilan called Barak, who was at his home in Kochav Yair. Barak responded that he was having the information cross-checked from another source. Fifteen minutes later Barak’s military attaché confirmed that they had received the same information from another source. Arafat, through Rajoub, suggested that he and Barak meet that evening to work out the details. Barak requested some more time. Jabril Rajoub instructed his people to prepare for a meeting in his office between Barak and Arafat. Arafat was in Ramallah. After half an hour, Barak’s military attaché informed Vilan that another channel of communication had opened and that Barak preferred that channel.
The other channel was Yossi Ginosar, former deputy director of the GSS, emissary of Rabin and Barak to Arafat and business partner to Arafat’s chief businessman, Mohammad Rachid.
About fifteen minutes later Barak’s military attaché informed Vilan that Barak would agree to conditions 1-5 and that 6 was out of the question. He further informed Vilan that he would not agree to see Arafat that evening. After nearly three hours with Barak on one phone and Arafat on the other, our meeting came to an abrupt end. We were escorted out of Ramallah by Rajoub himself and his troops. Later that evening, a meeting took place between Ginosar and Arafat that was a catastrophe and ended up as a screaming match between the two. Ginosar was sent by Barak to inform Arafat that if he did not put an immediate end to the shooting, Israel would assassinate him. Arafat threw Ginosar out of his office.
All who were present at that meeting were convinced that the intifada could have ended that evening. Barak, who refused to agree to an international investigation of the intifada out of his concern that the process should not be “internationalized” was forced to agree to that investigation at the Sharm el Sheikh summit that took place on October 17, 2000, just some 16 days later. By the end of October there were already 134 Palestinians killed and over 7000 wounded. The Israeli casualties also began to build up, including 77 soldiers and civilians killed and hundreds wounded from September 28, 2000 until the time the Mitchell Report was issued.
MUCH HAS happened since the time of Mitchell’s last assignment here. When Mitchell begins his new assignment he will be backed by a different approach in Washington. General Jim Jones as National Security Advisor has already developed his own plan (under President Bush) for a new security concept in the region. Reports have indicated that the “heart” of Jones’ plan is increased international involvement including the introduction of international forces on the ground in the West Bank and probably in Gaza as well. In his many military assignments Jones was never based in the Middle East, but Israel was within his command area as head of US European Command from 2003-06. It has been said that through that experience, Jones has come to think of NATO as a potential source of international troops for the region. The multilateral approach to resolving regional problems held by President Barack Obama will very likely bring about a closer working relationship between the US, Europe, the UN and even Russia. Although France no longer holds the presidency of the EU, President Sarkozy’s proactive (some say hyperactive) foreign policy advances have already indicated a willingness to send French troops to the regional within a wider international force.
The negotiations taking place in Egypt between Israel and Egypt, Hamas and Egypt, and Fatah and Hamas with Egypt’s help, may very likely also produce its own plan for a wider international presence in the region. Phase I of this plan might be in Gaza along the Rafah border with the introduction of a Turkish role alongside of the renewed EU monitors who will return if Fatah personnel regain a foothold at the border. That model could be expanded to other parts of Gaza as well as to the West Bank.
Israel’s traditional position, expressed by Barak on October 1, 2000 and many times since, then has been to avoid the internationalization of the conflict at all costs. The last thing that Israel wants is European troops in Gaza who would prevent the possibility of a new version of a Cast Lead mission if rocket fire resumes from Gaza.
Nonetheless, the most likely outcome of the war in Gaza, just like the war in Lebanon, is an international presence, starting in Gaza, and maybe later on in the West Bank.
It would be very judicious for the next government of Israel to plan a positive response to international pressure and US assurances for an international presence on the ground.
Rather than taking a knee-jerk negative response, the new government of Israel would be wise to plan a strategy for renewing a serious peace process predicated on more international involvement. Israel and Palestine as well as Israel and Syria and Israel and Lebanon have failed to do it on our own. Senator Mitchell, General Jones and whoever else President Obama sends our way should be greeted with open arms and full If they succeed, we will all succeed.
Gershon is an advisor to Israeli, Palestinian and International Prime Ministers on the Middle East Peace Process and the founder and director of IPCRI, the Israeli-Palestinian Public Policy Institute. He was the initiator and negotiator of the secret back channel between Israel and Hamas for the release of 1,027 prisoners – mainly Palestinians and Arab-Israelis of which 280 were sentenced to life in prison for planning and perpetrating various attacks against Jewish targets that resulted in the killing of 569 Israelis in exchange for one Israeli soldier, Gilad Schalit. Gershon is actively involved in research and advocacy concerning topics such as social policy, environmental security, political strategy, peace education, economics, culture and in the development of affordable solar projects with the goal of providing clean electricity for 50 million people by 2020.