When the smoke clears, take another look at Mitchell

In the aftermath of brutal Palestinian terrorist bombings in Jerusalem and Haifa on December 1 and 2, and in anticipation of a massive Israeli military response, the only step United States envoy Anthony Zinni can take in the near term is to exercise massive pressure on Rais Yasir Arafat to shut down the Palestinian terrorist organizations. If this portrays Zinni as the point man for one-sided American pressure on Arafat, rather than as a neutral mediator, then so be it. Arafat’s behavior leaves little room for neutrality.

In light of the likely Israeli response and the additional casualties to be expected, and assuming the Palestinian Authority leadership is still in place when the smoke clears, it behooves Zinni also to explain once and for all to the Palestinian leadership the issue of moral equivalency. It is illogical, insulting and immoral to equate the deliberate targeting of Israeli civilians by Palestinians with the deaths–however large scale and however tragic–of Palestinian civilians who get caught up, willingly or not, in the violence, and are inadvertently killed by the Israel Defense Forces. The first constitutes terrorism; the second, usually termed euphemistically “collateral damage,” is terrible, whether it happens when American bombs drop on a hospital in Afghanistan or Israeli fire hits innocent Palestinian women and children. But it is not terrorism, and it is not the moral equivalent of terrorism. It is what happens, tragically, when people are obliged to defend themselves against terrorism.

Nor is it terrorism when Israel assassinates a Palestinian terrorist activist that Arafat was supposed to have incarcerated. This is why Israelis–those who still consider Arafat, however flawed, to be preferable to chaos or to an even more extreme Palestinian leadership–continue to feel justified when they demand that he first make serious and sincere efforts to cease the violence before the Tenet-Mitchell process can commence.

Yet we all know that this important distinction is not the only obstacle to a ceasefire, and that a ceasefire is Zinni’s task. To discuss how he might eventually succeed, we must make two problematic assumptions. First, we must assume that Arafat is indeed capable of making and carrying out the strategic decision to cease Palestinian terrorism and low-intensity warfare. Secondly, we must assume that Zinni has more authority to pressure both sides than did his predecessors, Mitchell and Tenet. If, and only if, these assumptions are accurate, then the question becomes one of carrots and sticks and how to apply them. But if either or both assumptions are not accurate, then Zinni is wasting his time.

To facilitate his task, Zinni must take another look at the Mitchell Commission recommendations–beyond Palestinian and Israeli ‘spin’- -and note the following: There is no hard and fast sequencing in these recommendations. Nowhere is seven days total absence of violence stipulated as a condition for commencing the process. Nowhere is the cooling-off period fixed at six weeks. Nowhere are the Palestinians guaranteed a political payoff for ending violence. Demands like a cessation of humiliating IDF roadblocks and Israeli settlement-building are nearly as high on the Mitchell list as are demands regarding Palestinian violence. While Israeli settlement construction is also definitely not the moral equivalent of Palestinians killing Israelis, it is nevertheless wrong, it violates American policy, and it can justifiably be made a cardinal issue in Zinni’s dealings with Israel.

Whatever reasons George Mitchell and his colleagues had for leaving their timetable and sequencing arrangements ambiguous, this cannot be compensated for by unilateral Israeli or Palestinian determinations. Nor is the Tenet ceasefire plan sufficient to catalyze the ceasefire process, limited as it is to strictly military security issues.

When the smoke has cleared, Zinni must tell Prime Minister Sharon and Rais Arafat that their strategies, for peace and for war, have failed. They are leading the region into chaos, wherein they are liable to be replaced by even more extreme leaders. With the full backing of President Bush, Zinni must present the two sides with a new and far more accelerated timetable that makes clear to the Palestinians that a serious and concerted effort on their part to enforce a ceasefire, including the incarceration and disarming of terrorists, will be reciprocated immediately and progressively with a series of Israeli gestures involving reduced closure, a cessation of all settlement construction, and a rapid transition to new political negotiations. Zinni’s telescoped timetable must recognize that the phasing of agreements as a means of building confidence has failed abysmally in the Israeli-Palestinian context, from Oslo all the way to Mitchell.

The overall strategy should be to separate the two sides, militarily, politically and demographically, as quickly and effectively as possible.

Yossi Alpher is the author of the forthcoming book “And the Wolf Shall Dwell with the Wolf: The Settlers and the Palestinians.”

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