The Settlement-terrorism Equation

Mitchell's return to the Mideast suggests that the settlements will return to the daily political agenda, not only because of the envoy's personal views but also because of the pressures on his boss.

One could dismiss George Mitchell, who will be back in Jerusalem today as Barack Obama's Mideast envoy, as yet another American busybody who is going to exhaust himself and his hosts in a futile effort to mediate between Israel and the Palestinians. One could also deride the comment Mitchell made when he was appointed, that "there is no such thing as a conflict that can't be ended." We could argue that his success as a mediator in Northern Ireland is not relevant to our conflict, and ridicule Obama, who was elected president on a platform of change, for merely recycling his predecessors' envoys to the Middle East.

But the truth of the matter is that Mitchell accomplished quite a few things in 2000 and 2001, when he led an international fact-finding committee to examine the second intifada. The committee did not try to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but to moderate it, and attributed responsibility to each side. It succeeded beyond expectations in setting a diplomatic agenda.

The committee's 2001 report established a clear link between settlements and terrorism, demanding that the Palestinians cease their attacks and that Israel completely freeze construction in the territories, except for natural growth in existing settlements. Israel was also asked to lift any blockades and avoid damaging Palestinian property.

The Mitchell plan, which was the basis for the road map, was not put into effect precisely as the committee chairman may have expected. Ariel Sharon and George W. Bush adopted Mitchell's agenda, even if they did not intend to do so from the start. They suppressed Palestinian terrorism and then turned their attention to the settlements - first by building a separation fence that left most of the settlements on the outside, and then by evacuating the settlers from the Gaza Strip. Israel was allowed to continue building within the settlement blocs enclosed by the fence, assuming construction was stopped elsewhere. The settlement wheel began turning backward.

It was actually under Ehud Olmert, who was elected after promising to evacuate the settlements outside the fence, that the settlement issue was essentially removed from the agenda. Olmert built extensively in the settlement blocs, mostly around Jerusalem, and did not bother the settlers east of the fence. His statements in favor of withdrawing from the territories and his talks with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas protected him from international criticism. The settlements disappeared almost entirely from the public discourse.

This sort of quiet was just a pause. Mitchell's return suggests that the settlements will return to the daily political agenda, not only because of the envoy's personal views but also because of the pressures on his boss. Obama needs to show the world that he is not Bush, who was seen as Israel's lackey (and if there was any doubt about that, Olmert did away with it when he said he pulled Bush out of a speech and told him how to vote at the United Nations, though the White House denied his claim). But Obama is also committed to Israel's security and will find it difficult to press Israel to leave the West Bank, out of concern that the end result will be rockets on Tel Aviv and Ben-Gurion International Airport. Palestinian weakness and the rift between Hamas and Fatah, along with the right-wing government that appears to be on its way to power in Israel, will make progress toward a permanent settlement difficult.

Under these conditions, Obama will have to turn to the well-tested method used by U.S. administrations when they want to distance themselves from Israel: pressuring Israel to freeze settlements and remove roadblocks and travel restrictions - just what Mitchell recommended eight years ago. Abbas and Palestinian negotiator Ahmed Qureia say they have fulfilled their part of the deal, by putting an end to terrorism in the West Bank (Gaza is not under their control), and carrying out reforms in the Palestinian Authority; they blame Israel for continuing to expand settlements. This is a claim that will be met with sympathy in the Obama administration. It can be assumed that Obama and Mitchell will show understanding for Israeli actions against terrorists, but not for the collective punishment of millions of Palestinians, or for the natural growth of settlements that Benjamin Netanyahu is promising to encourage if he is elected.

Politicians and research centers in Israel are proposing another evacuation of isolated settlements and outposts as an alternative to a permanent accord. This is the view supported by the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, which leans to the right; the Institute for National Security Studies is calling for the evacuation of outposts in line with earlier promises Israel made to Bush. It is fair to assume that a Netanyahu-led right-wing government will be better able to carry out such steps than the outgoing government. This is the agenda portended by Mitchell's appointment, and it will keep Israel and the United States busy after the election.