Starting Over in the Middle East

In exploring implementation of the Mideast report by former Sen. George Mitchell, the Bush administration is attempting to address two competing tendencies: The first is recognition, bolstered by insistent international pressure, that, without U.S. diplomatic intervention, Middle East violence will escalate, thus undermining U.S. interests.

The second is a fear of failure driven by both the doomed diplomacy of former President Bill Clinton and the assessment that progress in Palestinian-Israeli negotiations is not likely.

The outcome of these pressures was that the administration endorsed the report without adopting it, using this to increase diplomatic involvement while distancing itself enough from it in case of failure. As it gets more involved, the administration may find that distancing itself from the report too much, especially on the issue of Israeli settlements, could itself increase the chance of failure.

Here is the problem: The Mitchell report was not a negotiating document, or even a proposal for discussion. It sought to identify the minimal steps that will be required to end the violence and to return to the negotiating table.

Its starting point was an assessment of the situation on the ground. It thus precluded steps that the Palestinians believed were essential, such as the presence of international observers, on the grounds that they had little chance of success. Its conclusion was that ending the violence requires positive steps that assure the public on both sides that the other is serious.

The issue of a freeze on Jewish settlement in the occupied territories was framed in the report this way: “A cessation of Palestinian-Israeli violence will be particularly hard to sustain unless the government of Israel freezes all settlement construction activity.”

This is a “finding” more than it is a recommendation. In other words, it’s hard to see how Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat can effectively enforce cessation of violence without promising his people at least a settlement freeze, even if he were persuaded to try.

Psychologically, no issue has as much importance among Palestinians as the issue of settlements. Just as Israelis see Palestinian violence as a fundamental breach of trust that erodes their belief that peace is possible, Palestinians view settlements as the ultimate evidence that Israel is using negotiations to increase its hold on the West Bank unilaterally.

All attempts to find formulas and exceptions, such as “natural growth expansion,” are viewed as manipulations intended to legitimize settlement activity. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, as the champion of settlement building and expansion, raises Palestinian suspicions on the issue even more.

Secretary of State Colin Powell’s call for unconditional cessation of violence could be interpreted in two ways. The first is one of sequencing: Once violence ends and security cooperation resumes, Israel will freeze settlements as part of implementing the recommended confidence-building measures leading to negotiations.

The second is that the violence must end before the parties can agree on the confidence-building measures that will follow, including a settlement freeze. The first could allow both sides some leeway to negotiate, but the second would doom the diplomatic efforts before they commence.

Unlike conventional wisdom in Washington, the Mitchell report does not conclude that the Palestinian Authority started the violence deliberately or that it is singularly responsible for its continuation. While it chides both Israel and the Palestinian Authority for not doing enough to end the violence, it recognizes that both sides have significant forces at home with whom to contend.

How can Mr. Arafat go to his public, and to his security services, asking them to give up the Intifada and accept the status quo in the hope of negotiating with a prime minister who says he remains committed to settlements, who will not have accepted a freeze and who, under the best of circumstances, is offering the Palestinians considerably less than his predecessor did? He has no chance.

Realism begins with an honest assessment of the situation on the ground. To have a shot at getting back to the table, the Israelis will need an end to Palestinian violence, especially suicide bombings, and the Palestinians will need a settlement freeze. Mr. Arafat is considerably weaker today than he was only a few months ago, and his public is more defiant.

At Camp David, one of the mistakes made by the United States and Israel in July was to assume that Mr. Arafat had few redlines imposed by his public on issues like Jerusalem and that it was only a matter of persuading Mr. Arafat personally to accept a deal.

This turned out to be a costly assumption when the Jerusalem issue triggered a collapse of the negotiations. Going into the modest efforts that the administration is now undertaking with an assumption that violence can be brought under control without an effective settlement freeze would be a costly miscalculation.