The publication of the Mitchell Committee report and recommendations on the current Israeli-Palestinian fighting, coupled with US Secretary of State Colin Powells announcement Monday that he would send a special envoy to the region, provide an important opportunity to wind down the current mini-war and return to diplomatic negotiations as the preferred means of resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict. This will not be easily achieved, however, because important elements in both Palestine and Israel are locked into a military posture that they cannot quickly shed without showing substantial gains in return.
The Palestinians have already accepted the Mitchell report and all its recommendations, while Israel has accepted it with reservations, especially on the call for a total freeze on building new settlements or expanding existing ones. We will probably find ourselves in the situation where the Palestinian leadership accepts the reports recommendations to stop fighting, freeze settlements, and resume security cooperation and diplomatic negotiations, while important segments of Palestinian public opinion may not accept this as a fair trade-off. On the other side, the majority in Israel is likely to accept the reports recommendations, but the government of Ariel Sharon will be hesitant to implement a freeze on settlements (in a public opinion poll last week, 62 percent of Israelis said that Israel should freeze all settlement building in return for a cease-fire).
The Mitchell Report recommendations highlight the two key issues that concern both sides: the Palestinian concern about Israeli settlements and the continued colonization of occupied Palestinian land in Gaza and the West Bank, and the Israeli concern about Palestinian military attacks against Israeli civilian targets within Israel and in the occupied territories. By linking the two issues together and also with an immediate and unconditional cease-fire, the report provides both sides with an opportunity to stop the current fighting and return to a diplomatic quest for a comprehensive peace accord.
The total freeze on Israeli settlement expansion and colonization has emerged in recent months as the single most important issue for the Palestinians. For the continued Israeli colonization of occupied Palestinian lands makes the emergence of a single, contiguous Palestinian state virtually impossible, and highlights the unbalanced nature of the peace process that was launched at Oslo — one in which Israel continued its colonial expansion in occupied Palestinian lands while the Palestinians themselves could only watch helplessly.
It now remains to be seen whether Palestinian grassroots political forces driving the intifada will accept the settlements freeze as a sufficient victory or gain from their resistance struggle since last September. A total settlements freeze, backed by the international community, including the USA, seems to me a very important gain that should be immediately seized and locked in by the Palestinians and Arabs. Given that a large majority of Israelis does not support the settlers, this is an important opportunity for the Palestinians to promote a change in domestic Israeli political sentiments and power flows. An agreement to freeze settlements would be backed by a majority of Israelis, which would send a powerful signal to the settlers that, in their current status as symbols of military conquest and the last gasp of 19th Century European-style colonialism, they have no future in Palestinian lands. As peaceful neighbors they are welcome, as armed colonialists they are not.
If Israel and the Palestinians implement a cease-fire, a settlements freeze, and security cooperation to prevent attacks against civilians on both sides, and then resume implementing the Sharm esh-Sheikh agreements of last October, we would quickly return to the situation that prevailed some eight months ago, in which both sides fervently sought a permanent, comprehensive peace accord. But such a peace accord that ends the conflict will be impossible to achieve with the current Israeli government headed by Ariel Sharon, which refuses to remove any settlements or to share Jerusalem, and only accepts to return about 42 percent of the occupied territories to the Palestinians.
So the Arab side should respond to the current opening offered by the Mitchell Report and the gingerly US re-engagement in Mideast diplomacy by calculating both immediate and longer-term gains. The immediate gain of a total settlements freeze and a resumption of movement towards Palestinian statehood is attractive. Even more attractive is the promotion of an international consensus and a political dynamic within Israel that isolate the Israeli settlers and colonists as a small minority whose days are over, and in turn spell the imminent end of the Sharon government and its equally antiquated, colonial attitudes from centuries past.