With pressure mounting on the Bush administration to help stop Mideast violence, Secretary of State Colin Powell is turning to three diplomatic veterans to explore American options.
The administration on Monday endorsed the report of a five-man commission led by former Sen. George Mitchell that investigated the past eight months of Israeli-Palestinian violence. Powell said his three appointees will examine how the United States can contribute to ending the violence.
The United States’ role may become more visible than it has been in the first months of the Bush administration, but analysts see Powell’s announcement less as a change in American policy than an expansion of current doctrine – encouraging other countries to serve as mediators, with the United States playing a role only when the parties specifically ask it to do so.
Powell announced that he was appointing William Burns, the designated assistant secretary for Near East Affairs, as a special assistant to try to renew stalled Israeli-Palestinian security talks. He also called on U.S. Ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk and Ron Schlicher, the counsel general in Jerusalem, to increase their work with regional leaders toward implementing the report.
Powell said he was encouraged that both Israel and the Palestinian Authority have announced their support for the Mitchell Commission report to one degree or another.
“It is their report,” Powell said. “They have commented on it and found it to be an acceptable report, and they should take action on that with which they helped commission and which they have found acceptable.”
The report outlines a three-pronged approach to rebuilding relations between the two sides – ending violence, rebuilding confidence and resuming peace negotiations. It recommends a “cooling off period” and urges both sides to condemn incitement.
“Fear, hate, anger and frustration have risen on both sides,” Mitchell said in a New York press conference. “The greatest danger of all is that the culture of peace, nurtured over the previous decade, is being shattered. In its place there is a growing sense of futility and despair, and a growing resort to violence.”
The report calls for the two sides to implement an immediate cease-fire and carry out previously- signed agreements. It calls on the Palestinians to “make a 100 percent effort to prevent terrorist operations and punish perpetrators,” and demands that Israel completely freeze settlement activity in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, including expansion of settlements to accommodate “natural growth.”
Mitchell and Powell emphasized that an end to violence should not be linked to the settlement freeze or any other proposals in the report.
“We should end the violence, and none of the confidence-building measures – or all of the confidence-building measures together – are not linked to ending the violence,” Powell said. “It’s a very clear sequence in my mind.”
Both sides have expressed at least pro forma support for the Mitchell Report. Still, the Israeli government objects to the call for a settlement freeze, though it has said it will not build new settlements.
The Palestinians say they support the report in full, and reject any Israeli attempt to amend the report or accept only parts.
This creates a difficult situation for the United States.
Powell “wants to create an atmosphere in which leaders can reach out to each other without losing face at home with key constituencies,” said David Makovsky, senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Makovsky said he believes the Bush administration wants to be seen as helping to implement a proposal backed by the United Nations, European Union and other international players, rather than pushing its own agenda in the conflict. The Bush administration has been very critical of the intensely hands-on manner in which former President Clinton tried to bring Israel and the Palestinian Authority to a final agreement.
Samuel Lewis, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel, said the Bush administration has a lot to lose by wading deep into the Middle East conflict early in its tenure. Lewis said an unsuccessful U.S. attempt to pressure Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to freeze settlement activity could send a message to the Arab world – including Iraqi President Saddam Hussein – and to leaders in hot spots like Russia and China that the United States cannot even control its closest ally.
“That’s not a message, I would submit, that George Bush wants to send at this stage in his administration,” Lewis said. “It would be easier to send it much later, if you were ever going to send it. “
Yet ignoring the Middle East could hurt Bush in the long run.
“Particularly new administrations are often confronted with things they didn’t anticipate having to deal with,” Lewis said. “But if they don’t take seriously multilateral possibilities, we end up in a very unilateral mess a bit later on.”
Lewis also noted that Middle Eastern players often gauge the importance an American administration gives to the Middle East by the degree of the president’s personal participation.
“We have managed to spoil the players in the Middle East over the years, sufficiently so that it’s very hard to convince Israelis or Arabs that the U.S. is serious unless the American president is visibly involved in something,” he said.
Shibley Telhami, a professor of peace and development at the University of Maryland, said that U.S. endorsement of the Mitchell report is important, but the Bush administration should not get bogged down enforcing specific items.
“The worst thing that the U.S. would do is to actually take up the issue of settlements,” Telhami said. “The danger here is to start breaking this issue down, because it’ll blow up in every Arab and Palestinian’s face, and it’ll blow up in the U.S.’ face.”
Lewis said that the U.S. endorsement, on its own, will not change the situation in the Middle East.
“It’s got to have the muscle and the energy of a U.S. administration deeply involved in flogging it over the next six or eight months, along with other players, but with our energy behind carrying it out, not just endorsing it,” Lewis said. “And that, I suspect, is not very likely.”