WASHINGTON, June 25 (JTA) The situation in the Middle East is grave, and both Israeli and Palestinian leaders need to make enormous sacrifices, say the authors of a U.S. plan for resuscitating the Middle East peace process.
While sticking strictly to the framework they have outlined before, former Sens. George Mitchell (D-Maine) and Warren Rudman (R-N.H.) offered some additional insight Monday at the National Press Club on what Israel, the Palestinian Authority and the United States should do to advance the process.
Rudman suggested that Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip are flash points for violence and that a settlement freeze could ease tensions. Such a freeze was one of the controversial recommendations of the international commission that Rudman served on and Mitchell chaired.
“If you really want to de-escalate the violence, just” start “taking away some of the causes of violence,” Rudman said. “I am not saying do away with them, but we are saying, for goodness sake, show some good faith and freeze them for now.”
Mitchell said it would be beneficial for President Bush to invite Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat to the White House, but said it would be presumptuous to suggest when that should happen. He said he believes the White House intends to invite Arafat eventually, when it believes the time is right.
Mitchell also said U.S. lawmakers should “back off” and not try to enact legislation that punishes the Palestinian Authority for violating its peace commitments. Such tactics which include adding the Palestinian Authority to the State Department’s list of terrorist groups and withholding funds from the Palestinians could hurt the White House’s mediation efforts, he said.
Mitchell was the only advertised speaker for the event, but it was Rudman, a guest of the former majority leader, who offered a franker view of the situation and the obstacles to resolving the ongoing crisis between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
“The leaders of these two groups are going to have an enormously difficult time politically in doing what has to be done,” Rudman said. “Arafat has factions within his organization that absolutely do not want peace, and the Israelis have a coalition government that could fracture so easily if the leadership in that government attempted to do something that a certain group opposed.”
Noting the large number of disgruntled young men in Arafat’s military, Rudman described the situation as “literally a ticking time bomb.”
Rudman also expressed concern about the increased role the European Union and United Nations are playing in the region, saying diplomatic mediation should be left to Secretary of State Colin Powell and William Burns, the assistant secretary for Near Eastern affairs.
“I think that too many cooks tends to spoil the broth,” he said. “And if the United States has a good, strong effort in the person of Secretary Powell, Ambassador Burns and, who knows, some day possibly the president himself, I think that that ought to be followed.”
He also gave a passionate response on the issue of Israel’s allegedly excessive use of force.
“It’s very hard to pass judgment on either side as to excessive force,” he said. “When you see your children or your grandchildren lying dead outside a shopping center, when you see your husband or your brother and your mother being buried and I apply this equally to Israelis and Palestinians it is hard for a third party to dispassionately state whether that was an excessive amount.”
Both men declined to delve into the final status issues dividing Israel and the Palestinian Authority, saying it was not part of the commission’s mandate.
President Clinton appointed Mitchell and Rudman as part of a five-man team to evaluate the causes of violence in the region after the Sharm el-Sheik summit last October on the understanding that the violence, which began in late September and is now in its ninth month, would have ended long before the commission began its work.
The commission included former Turkish President Suleyman Demirel, Norwegian Foreign Minister Thorbjoern Jagland and Javier Solana, the E.U.’s chief foreign policy official.
Their May report, which has become the basis for American diplomatic efforts in the region, was endorsed by the European Union and U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan.
Mitchell said the committee is “heartened” by the favorable international reaction the report received. Rudman said that because the report is the only serious plan currently on the table, it had become the “life jacket” for the Middle East.