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George Mitchell

May 7, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT
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GWEN IFILL: When the Israeli/Palestinian peace process was coming apart again last fall, President Clinton created an international committee to investigate what happened and to find out if the peace process can be saved. Former U.S. Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell led the five-member group, which also included former Senator Warren Rudman and three European leaders.

The group’s report sent to President Bush but not yet officially released, calls for a freeze on Israeli settlements in occupied territories and a Palestinian crackdown on terrorism. Joining us now is the committee chairman, Senator Mitchell.

Welcome, Senator Mitchell.

GEORGE MITCHELL: Thank you, Gwen. It’s a pleasure to be here.

GWEN IFILL: Your report seems to find that this latest uprising, which happened after the collapse of the Camp David Sharma Sheikh talks is not either side’s fault but that both sides – Israeli and Palestinian – have been acting in bad faith. Could you please explain?

GEORGE MITCHELL: Well, I wouldn’t call it bad faith. And we certainly don’t use those words. A series of events occurred and with the deep mistrust that existed on both sides, it spun out of control to create the current violence. We were asked originally to look at it on the assumption that it would be over and we would merely recommend how to prevent its recurrence. Of course, it isn’t over. It’s gotten worse. And so we shifted our focus to three objectives: How to end the violence, how to rebuild confidence, and how to get the parties to resume negotiations. And those are the objectives of our report and our recommendations.

GWEN IFILL: Today the State Department condemned what it termed a serious escalation that occurred by the Israeli Army entering Palestinian-controlled territories today. So it seems, as you just pointed out, that the balance is getting worse. What is missing in the process?

GEORGE MITCHELL: I think there has to be an immediate cessation of violence on both sides, a recommitment to the principles to which they have already agreed, both at the summit to which you referred in October of 2000 in Sharma al- Sheikh in Egypt — the summit that occurred in the same place the previous year September of 1999 and agreements going back to Oslo in 1993; a recommitment to those principles. And there has to be a series of further steps taken to rebuild the confidence that has been so badly shattered on both sides.

GWEN IFILL: Now, you know that before your commission even began work, that Ariel Sharon called it a “historic mistake.” He expressed his skepticism that you could make a movement early on. And now it’s being received – a large part in the Israeli community – as being fairly harsh on Israel. What is your reaction to that?

GEORGE MITCHELL: Well, I don’t know where you get your figure “large part of the Israeli community” I don’t believe that to be the case. We accepted many of the recommendations made to us by the Government of Israel and various groups, as we did on the other side as well. But the fact is that according to polls published just this week, two-thirds of the people of Israel, by margin of 62-36 percent, support the recommendations we’ve made. So I think it’s just the opposite. I think a large part of the people of Israel agree with the recommendations that we’ve made.

GWEN IFILL: Well, let’s distinguish between popular opinion and what the Israeli leadership is saying. Shimon Peres here on the NewsHour last week said that he thought that settlements, for instance, that you suggest in this report should be frozen, can be expanded nationally, and the ones that exist now should be allowed to expand. You in this report say that should not be allowed.

GEORGE MITCHELL: The problem is that there’s been a lot of dispute over whether so-called natural growth has in fact been limited to that. The Palestinians strongly deny that, and even in Israel, it’s a subject of some contention, one of the most influential newspapers, H’arretz has editorially urged that there be a freeze on settlement construction because of its very controversial nature. Obviously we recognize that there are differences of opinion and we didn’t expect that either side would simply accept all of the recommendations. That is, of course, what has happened. Both of them agree with the recommendations that coincide with their previous positions, and tend not to agree with those recommendations with which they previously disagreed. That’s understandable. The question now is not whether it’s received unanimously with support on both sides. It’s whether they are willing to get together to take the steps necessary to end the violence, rebuild confidence and resume negotiations.

GWEN IFILL: So where are we now in this very difficult process? Is it about stopping the escalation of violence just in the first – at the first step, or is it about ending – reaching a great, larger peace?

GEORGE MITCHELL: Well, the first step must be an end to violence. I don’t think there can be serious and sustained negotiations during a high level of violence such has existed. That’s not just true in the Middle East; that was my experience in Northern Ireland. I think it is true elsewhere. There has to be an end to violence. There has to be, on the Palestinian side an unequivocal renunciation of terrorism. We call it in our report reprehensible and unacceptable. And there has to be a crackdown on those who are engaged in terrorism who are within the jurisdiction of the Palestinian Authority. There have to be corresponding steps on the Israeli side to try to create a sense of confidence that both are acting in good faith; that they are in fact partners in the pursuit of peace. I think it will take sometime but absolutely the first step must be an end to violence.

GWEN IFILL: Well, here’s the cycle which I guess you’ve been coping with for the last six months. Israel feels if it takes a move first, it’ll reward violence. And the Palestinians think if they move first, that they’ll be rewarding occupation. Where do you find a middle ground in that?

GEORGE MITCHELL: Well, I think there must be a willingness on the political leadership to move forward and a process by which they can have some reasonable assurance that if they take a step, the other side will take a step. Gwen, when I was called back to Northern Ireland by the prime ministers of Britain and Ireland in 1999, after the peace process there appeared to be in collapse, I spent three months. It only took a couple of weeks to figure out what steps had to be taken. Most of the time was consumed by developing a choreography of how and when the steps were going to be taken to give assurance to each side, in effect, the building of enough confidence to enable them to go forward. Now, in the Middle East has to be done by the party. We say that in our agreement; that’s not for us to decide. The timing, the sequence – but they have to begin that process. They have to create a reasonable assurance on each side, if I do (A), you’ll do (B); that I’ll do (C); and you’ll do (D).

GWEN IFILL: Based on your experience in Northern Ireland and your experience now coming back from the Middle East on this report, what do you think is the fundamental difference between the leaders on the other side of the table in this dispute?

GEORGE MITCHELL: Well, of course, there are huge differences, and I don’t think it can be summed up in any one single or fundamental difference. I do think that what they have in common hasn’t gotten any attention but it’s really much larger and more important – and that is a genuine desire to have a peaceful resolution to conflict and to live side by side in peace and eventual prosperity. That’s why I think there’s going to be a resolution, primarily because the conflict now going on, which we call in our report, grinding, demoralizing, and dehumanizing – and believe me, it is all of that and more – I think that is unacceptable an the alternative difficult steps of negotiation to peace will prove less unacceptable than the current conflict.

GWEN IFILL: I hear you saying that both sides – either side has to be willing to step up to the plate, but there seems to be a cycle of blame, which goes unbroken here every time violence is renewed. How do you break that cycle of blame, or begin to?

GEORGE MITCHELL: Well, we tried to do that some in our report. Originally, we were asked to look at the past, but the members of the committee reached a decision that if we were to have any positive effect, we had to look at the future. We didn’t ignore the past; we did discuss it; we analyzed it, but by far the bulk of our report looks to the future. And ultimately that’s what the political leaders in that region have to do. And we stated specifically we are asking the political leaders to do something that is very difficult to lead when they’re not sure how many were followed. I believe though that the public on both sides in the majority – not all – there are elements there who really don’t want peace and who want continued conflict but I believe in the majority want a peaceful resolution so they can lead more normal lives and have the kind of peace and prosperity that I believe can come to that region.

GWEN IFILL: You and Senator Rudman and the three European observers who made up your commission are clearly the outsiders who came in and looked at this and tried to tell them what they could begin to do. One of the suggestions was that an international kind of a permanent international observer group come in and help to broker some of this. Israel didn’t want it; the Palestinian Authority did. Why didn’t you include the recommendation?

GEORGE MITCHELL: Because we agreed with the presentations made by the Government of Israel that such a force could not be effective unless it was supported by both sides. Your earlier mentioned that some say it is a little harsh on Israel. In fact that was the principal point of dispute. The parties spent more time on that subject than anything else. And in the end, we accepted as valid, the arguments of the government of Israel. You can’t send a force in of that type if it’s not supported by both sides. Otherwise I believe they’ll become too deeply embroiled in the conflict and will create a new point of friction. Such forces have worked when they were acceptable to both sides in the Middle East. And if the Government of Israel at some future point decides to accept it and the Palestinians still want it, then they can work it out. But right now we don’t think it will be a positive step.

GWEN IFILL: When you took on this task, President Clinton had just finished being very hands on, being very involved in trying to resolve this process. Since then, a new President has taken over who has resolved not to be quite as hands on. Do you think that the United States has a role in trying to make peace in the Middle East?

GEORGE MITCHELL: Yes, I do. I don’t think there can be peace in the Middle East without an active role by the United States. And I think the administration is acting on that premise as well. Secretary of State Powell has been very active. I’ve talked with him on several occasions. In fact, on the day after January 20, on the day after President Bush took office, I contacted Secretary Powell and went to see him and offered to let the administration withdraw the support of this committee if they wanted to since it was created under the previous administration. No, he said — we want you to continue; go ahead and complete your report. Obviously, they’re not committing themselves to supporting the report, and they are now reviewing it. But I think Secretary Powell has been extremely active. I think the administration will increasingly be active and I think they recognize there can’t be peace in the Middle East that durable and sustainable without active American participation and continued support.

GWEN IFILL: And what do you anticipate will now happen to your report, both the U.S. reaction, the Palestinian reaction, and the Israeli reaction?

GEORGE MITCHELL: Well, they have been given until May 15 to send in their comments. Look, it’s human nature. They’re going to say they like the parts that agree with their positions and they dislike the parts that don’t agree with their positions. That’s what I fully expect will occur. The real question will then come how can this or some other initiative be used as a basis to end the violence, rebuild confidence and bring the parties together. If that happens, this report will have served its purpose. That’s the principal basis on which members of the committee acted and the principal purpose of the report.

GWEN IFILL: Senator Mitchell, thank you very much for joining us.

GEORGE MITCHELL: Thank you, Gwen.