A Small American Step

Washington – The spin doctors, here and in the Middle East, will be very busy in the next few days interpreting the Mitchell Report – and the US endorsement of it – in as many ways as possible, to convince their audiences of the validity of their viewpoints.

But whatever is said and done, the bottom line remains that any movement towards a Palestinian-Israeli settlement will depend on Israel’s readiness to accept an immediate halt to the ongoing Israeli settlement construction, if not expansion, on occupied Palestinian land. This essential first step, if undertaken honestly and forthrightly, may ultimately pave the way for a dismantling of these settlements and an evacuation of Palestinian land in compliance with UN resolutions and the precepts of the Madrid conference, a land-for-peace settlement. And only then we can hope for peace and security in the region.

The Mitchell Report has succeeded in making two points crystal clear: It highlighted the destructive role of the settlements and thereby rekindled hope that the Bush administration may revert to the long-held US view, shared by the international community, that they are illegal. American vacillation in recent years had only described them in colourless language as “unhelpful” or an “obstacle” to peace.

Second, the report underlined the impossibility of attaining security, as Israel’s Sharon promised, by military means, as was evident when he deployed last week his American-supplied F-16 fighter planes to rain havoc on Palestinian residential areas. If anything, the escalation has led to “fear, hate, anger and frustration” on both sides as the report aptly noted.

Additionally, the Bush administration was dealt a serious blow, compelling it to reverse its lackadaisical stance against deep involvement in the peace negotiations, as was the case with the Clinton administration. In the months since he came to office, Secretary of State Colin Powell has been acting more like a frustrated parent or schoolteacher who insists that the children must stop their bickering before they can settle their squabble. What he failed to realise was that the bully – in this case Israel – was stepping with both feet on the other’s toes.

In other words, there seemed to be no end to Israeli occupation and the settlements were expanding – 15 new settlements were actually built in the West Bank since Ariel Sharon was elected prime minister on Feb. 6, according to the Israeli Peace Now Movement which, it said, calls into question the sincerity of the current Israeli diplomatic efforts to finesse the Mitchell Commission’s call for a complete freeze on Israeli settlement construction, including expansion to accommodate “natural growth”.

But when the secretary of state announced the Bush administration’s endorsement of the report by the Sharm El Sheikh Fact-Finding Committee, as the Mitchell team is officially known, he, however, took great pain to underline the absence of any “linkage” between cessation of the hostilities and the freeze on construction or expansion of the illegal Israeli settlements in the Palestinian areas.

This was in sharp contrast to the urging of former Senator Mitchell who called on Israel and the Palestinian National Authority “to implement our recommendations” – a two-pronged approach that covered several steps for ending the violence and rebuilding confidence.

It was very pitiful to watch a senior American official writhe for fear that his remarks may be construed as offensive to Israelis despite the maniacal actions of the Barak and Sharon governments in the months that followed Sharon’s visit to the Al Aqsa Mosque and the killing of several Palestinian demonstrators in Jerusalem during the first few days after that “provocative” act.

The Bush administration also backtracked on the question of naming a successor to Dennis Ross, the controversial special Mideast negotiator, who avoided in an op-ed article last Sunday to address the issue of continued Israeli settlement expansion to accommodate “natural growth.”

The administration’s volte-face was further underlined by its selection – a step it has religiously avoided so far – of a new negotiator, Arabic-speaking US Ambassador to Jordan William J. Burns who recently told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that “active American engagement in the Middle East is a necessity, not an option”. Burns, who worked for Powell under the previous Bush administration at the National Security Council, has yet to be confirmed as assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs.

Despite these small steps, the American response remained regrettably guarded, probably because of past American frustrations with Israel over the issue of settlements. Mitchell, who is of Lebanese origin, was obviously mindful of that, but he chose not to go further in last Monday’s op-ed article which he co-authored with fellow commission member, Senator Warren B. Rudman: “Our view that settlement construction is an obstacle to resolution of the conflict is consistent with US policy over the past quarter-century. Our report, in fact, cited attempts to that effect from the administrations of Presidents Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton and Bush. Twenty years later, the words of President Ronald Reagan remain relevant: `The immediate adoption of a settlement freeze by Israel, more than any other action, could create the confidence needed’.”

Neither Powell nor Mitchell, a former judge, chose to go beyond their initial step and remind his fellow Americans that the acquisition of territory by force is not permissible.

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