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Last Updated:05/23/11

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Envoy Mitchell Sent on Israeli Tasks that Proved Impossible

By Landrum Bolling
May 19th, 2011
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President Barack Obama's "Special Envoy on Middle East Peace," former Sen. George W. Mitchell, has resigned his high diplomatic post and given up on the great hope of putting an end to one of the oldest, most dangerous, most destabilizing, most intractable conflicts to afflict our world in the past half century.

But not a day too soon.

Despite his well-deserved reputation as one of the most skilled and successful negotiators the United States has ever had to work on international conflict problems, his assignment, from the beginning, could have been described as a foolish errand. What the so-called Middle East experts who advised President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton could have had in mind in recommending the course of action laid out for Mitchell defies common sense and all credible imagination.

He was asked to do two things: a) get peace talks between the highest Israeli and Palestinian officials started up again; and b) persuade the Israeli prime minister to promise a temporary halt in the construction of Jewish settlements on confiscated (or "disputed," as the Israelis prefer to call them) Arab lands on the West Bank.

More "talks"? The Israelis and the Palestinians, at every level, including those at the very top, have been talking together -- off and on, and on and on -- for 40 years. They have discussed in the greatest detail every issue of the past, the present and the future that could concern either party, or both. They are fully acquainted with all the claims and the demands, the hopes and the fears that are involved. By now, they know each other's minds intimately. They know what the points of live-and-let live agreement are -- and what red lines cannot be crossed. What more can they possibly say to each other that has not already been said many times? But they dutifully went through the Washington-proposed exercise of more direct talks -- in Sen. Mitchell's presence and in his absence. For a time, they did "proximity" talks -- indirectly through Mitchell, not face-to-face. Did they make any significant progress toward peace? Apparently not.

The second objective: an Israeli promise to halt settlement construction. Why bother? The Israelis have repeatedly promised (or were assumed to have promised) to suspend work on the building of Jewish settlements on Arab lands -- but went right on building. President Jimmy Carter, at the end of his historic Camp David Summit of September 1978, thought that he had received from Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin a firm commitment to cease the construction of Jewish settlements on Arab lands, but Mr. Begin insisted that he had promised only to delay further construction for 90 days. Similar "misunderstandings" about settlement issues have cast a shadow over other later peace initiatives.

Palestinian demands that settlement construction be stopped as a confidence building pre-requisite for serious peace talks have been generally supported by the U.S. government. But the Israelis have declined to comply, or have tied their agreement to "escape clauses" that allowed them to continue work on projects in the planning and early stages -- and never really stopped. Even George W. Bush, the most accommodating to Israel of all U. S. presidents, found it impossible to persuade Israeli leaders to alter their policies and practices concerning the settlements. Nor has Sen. Mitchell had any success on this issue, either.

What American political leaders and peace activists of whatever party have seemingly been unable to learn and to accept is the simple reality that the Israeli authorities and most of the Israeli people are determined to maintain control of all the land between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan Valley. That means all of what most of the world has long called Palestine, and the Israelis call Eretz Israel. Not all Jews and not all Israelis hold these views, but many believe that the "home for the Jewish people" that the British promised Zionist leaders in the Balfour Declaration of 1917, and was later implemented by UN resolution, gives recognition to the rightful historic Jewish claim to all of this land. Building Jewish settlements throughout the whole of the West Bank -- now numbering about 150 with a total population of approximately 300,000 -- is the surest way to prevent the creation of a Palestinian state.

The irony is that most people (most Israelis and Palestinians and many Middle East specialists) are still saying that the only peaceable outcome has to be a division of the land. The most commonly accepted formula: 78 percent to the state of Israel and 22 percent to a new state of Arab Palestine. That would mean accepting as permanent the so-called Green Line, the boundary established with UN blessing in the truce that ended the first Arab-Israeli war of 1948.

I have long been among the many observers and interested parties who have supported this so-called Two-State solution. Yet, from my most recent visit to the area, and extensive talks with many Israeli and Palestinian friends, I have found increasingly strong convictions that the two-state dream is virtually dead. Nevertheless, there is a widespread belief that when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu comes soon to the United State to speak to AIPAC, the ardently hard-line pro-Israeli lobby, and to a joint session of the Congress, he will pull a rabbit out of his hat that might look like some kind of a two-state deal. But the skeptics are saying that whatever he proposes will still not be acceptable to either side. Who knows?

Stay tuned.


Landrum Bolling is a senior fellow for National Security at the Center for International Policy, a former president of Earlham College, and now works with Mercy Corps.


Copyright, 2011. Orginal article published here.

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