All This Mitchell-Tenet Business

The government of Israel apparently breathed a collective sigh of relief once it realized that the U.S. plan for establishing a Palestinian state would first have to cross a very tricky minefield.

The government of Israel apparently breathed a collective sigh of relief once it realized that the U.S. plan for establishing a Palestinian state would first have to cross a very tricky minefield. According to the vision of U.S. President George W. Bush, the creation of a Palestinian state must follow the formula outlined in the Mitchell and Tenet reports, which, together, have become a sort of air-raid shelter providing protection from, or, perhaps, even serving as a braking mechanism for any new diplomatic initiative in the Middle East.

In line with the Israeli interpretation of the present state of affairs, the recommendations contained in the Mitchell report (which was submitted in April) and those contained in the Tenet document (which was submitted in June) require the Palestinians, and only the Palestinians, to observe a complete cease-fire. Furthermore, according to the Israeli view, only after such a cease-fire goes into effect, can there be any progress toward meaningful negotiations.

Thus, according to the Israeli perception, if even one shot is fired from an unidentified source, Israel can always claim that the Mitchell report's recommendations are not being complied with and that it is not obligated to enter into negotiations with the Palestinians.

However, the two sets of recommendations appearing in the Mitchell and Tenet reports respectively stress the importance of a total effort to put an end to the shooting, yet fail to stipulate that a level of 100-percent success must be achieved through this effort. The Mitchell report contains a long list of confidence-building measures that must be implemented equally by Israel and the Palestinians. For example, the report calls on the government of Israel to "freeze all settlement activity, including the `natural growth' of existing settlements." Another recommendation in the report states: "The government of Israel should ensure that the Israel Defense Forces adopt and enforce policies and procedures encouraging non-lethal responses to unarmed demonstrators, with a view to minimizing casualties and friction between the two communities."

As for the Palestinians, the report recommends: "The Palestinian Authority should prevent gunmen from using Palestinian populated areas to fire on Israeli populated areas and IDF positions."

Can anyone possibly imagine Prime Minister Ariel Sharon declaring a freeze on the settlements today? Or ordering the dismantling of ad-hoc settlements? Will the IDF suddenly begin appointing commissions of inquiry each time a Palestinian is killed, as the Tenet report recommends? Has any significant measure been taken so far to reduce the quantity of lethal gunfire aimed at demonstrators?

Granted, since a cease-fire was declared unilaterally in early June by each of the two sides, there has not been a single day on which all shooting has stopped. Nonetheless, as noted in both the Mitchell and Tenet reports, progress in peace talks cannot be conditioned on the existence of a total cease-fire.

An even more serious point, from Israel's perspective, is that the Mitchell report explicitly states the following: "We also acknowledge the PA's fear that, with security cooperation in hand, the government of Israel may not be disposed to deal forthrightly with Palestinian political concerns. We believe that security cooperation cannot be sustained for long if meaningful negotiations are unreasonably deferred ...."

The members of the Mitchell commission knew very well with whom they were dealing on either side, and they thus compiled a report that could not be used as an air-raid shelter to "protect" either side from embarking on a diplomatic solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

These intentions have, it would seem, proved a complete failure. Today, the route outlined by the Mitchell and Tenet reports is seen not as an interim station along the road to a successful culmination of the peace process, but rather as the final destination. Israel is using the two reports as a defensive wall to "protect" itself from making any progress in the diplomatic process, while the Palestinians are using them as a source for raising arguments against Israel.

At most, each side is checking which side is complying more fully with the Mitchell recommendations - that is, which side is behaving more properly. This examination is being conducted not for the purpose of advancing any particular substantive issue, but is, at best, being used for each side's public relations campaign. Thus, the two reports, which were originally intended to create an effective context for consolidating the cease-fire and imposing a freeze on the settlements, on the one hand, and stabilizing military cooperation between the Palestinians and the Israelis (not as an end in itself but rather as a means for advancing the peace talks), on the other, have become, within a matter of only a few months, weapons that are being used by each side to bash the other.

It is quite possible that in the new situation that has been created - not only in the world as a whole, but also on the West Bank and in the Gaza Strip - and especially in view of the futility in clinging to reports that so far have not delivered the goods that were anticipated, it would be wise to seriously consider a third way that would skip over the recommendations of both the Mitchell and Tenet reports and would lead immediately, even under fire, to direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.