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Former Senator George Mitchell

April 3, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: Now, our Newsmaker interview with former Senator George Mitchell, architect of the Mitchell plan for bringing peace between Israelis and Palestinians. He headed an international committee created by President Clinton when the peace process began collapsing nearly two years ago.

The committee’s recommendations, including a freeze on settlements and a crackdown on terrorism, were accepted a year ago by both Prime Minister Sharon and Palestinian Leader Arafat. They have also been endorsed by President Bush.

Senator, welcome.

GEORGE MITCHELL: Thanks, Jim, for having me.

JIM LEHRER: What’s your reading of just how bad this situation is right now?

GEORGE MITCHELL: It’s very bad in several respects. Of course, most immediately tragic is the tremendous loss of life and destruction of property that’s occurring as a result of the immediate violence.

But also, I think is a very real concern — the potential for the violence spreading. You’ve just shown scenes in Cairo and Beirut and other places, and the possibility of a regional conflagration drawing in other countries is real and dangerous and something, which I believe we must address.

JIM LEHRER: Is that the worst case scenario for you at this point? That this thing really could expand? Do you think that’s a real possibility?

GEORGE MITCHELL: I think it is possible. No one can assign numerical odds to it, but I think it is possible and I think it’s something that does concern the administration and is one reason why I think you’re seeing an intensification of American efforts in the region.

The governments there face a political problem. Indeed every government faces political problems, including our own, including the Israeli government and including the Palestinians.

But the Arab governments want, as a matter of their national interest and policy, to maintain good relations with the United States, and yet they confront very large majorities of their citizens who are angry and hostile to the United States because of what they perceive is our bias in the Middle East.

JIM LEHRER: So what you’re saying is if something don’t cool off pretty soon, the Arab nations may have to come in militarily on the side of the Palestinians?

GEORGE MITCHELL: Oh, I doubt they’ll want to do that. In fact I’m certain they all don’t want to do that but one can never predict the chain of events once violence is unleashed and one cannot rule out that possibility.

In fact, I’m certain that King Abdullah of Jordan and President Mubarak of Egypt, the Saudi rulers, the last thing they want is to get drawn into a regional war, particularly with a vastly military superiority… the vast military superiority which Israel has, but you can’t rule anything out in a situation as dangerous and volatile as this.

JIM LEHRER: Has it been as dangerous and volatile before — to your knowledge — while you’ve been dealing with this?

GEORGE MITCHELL: Not in recent years. Obviously there have been several cases of outright war but not in recent years, no. It’s very dangerous now.

JIM LEHRER: All right. In this context, does the Mitchell Plan, drawn as I just said two years ago, endorsed by both sides a year ago, does it still have relevance?

GEORGE MITCHELL: It does have relevance because it’s really pretty basic and simple and we think self-evident.

What we said is that the only way they’re going to resolve this is not by the use of force on either side but rather by ending the violence, rebuilding confidence through a series of reciprocal measures that require both sides to do things and then resuming negotiations.

JIM LEHRER: All right. Lay out briefly the reciprocal measures that each have to do under your plan to make this thing work.

GEORGE MITCHELL: Well, there are 18 of them, so do you want me to lay them all out?

JIM LEHRER: Give me some highlights.

GEORGE MITCHELL: You put one up on the screen — a freezing of all settlement activity by the government of Israel, which is a very, very critical issue to the Palestinians.

JIM LEHRER: Freezing meaning they don’t have to eliminate them, they may have to get rid of them, they just can’t build any new ones?

GEORGE MITCHELL: Stop construction. Stop building and expanding, even for so-called natural growth.

On the other side, we require a specific condemnation of the use of terrorism by the Palestinian Authority, by Chairman Arafat — major efforts to prevent terrorist activities, that is, to arrest, prosecute and punish those who are so engaged and to take affirmative action to prevent it.

For example, many of these incidents are triggered by individual Palestinian gunmen going into populated areas and firing on Israeli populated areas that are nearby. That induces a massive reaction by the Israeli military, which then induces the kind of cycle of violence you’ve seen.

Well, the Palestinians have to make a greater effort to prevent such gunmen from, in effect, initiating these activities. We called for a strong effort to cease incitement, hatred, the demonization of the opposition. We call upon the….

JIM LEHRER: How are they supposed to do that? How do you get somebody to quit demonizing the other?

GEORGE MITCHELL: Well, you stop doing it in schools. You stop doing it over television and radio that the government has an influence in. You ask those government officials who are within your authority to stop engaging in such activities. Those are some of the ways.

We also call upon the government of Israel to withdraw its military forces to the point that they were in in September of 2002 before this violence broke out; to lift the siege on the Palestinian areas; to pay to the Palestinians the taxes that have been withheld by the Israelis; to permit within the constraints of their own security needs some degree of commerce and employment.

What you have now is a devastating situation to both sides.

The Palestinian economy has been destroyed. It’s simply been destroyed. The Israeli economy, which hasn’t got that much attention, is also very badly hurt — huge expenses to its military operation — and almost total end of tourism — and a lot of other very difficult situations for them.

So, what we said is you’ve got to do something to arrest this downward spiral, this complete loss of confidence and this upsurge of hatred and mistrust and then get into negotiations.

JIM LEHRER: But it didn’t happen. Both sides said, “Okay, fine, great, great idea, George Mitchell,” but it didn’t happen.

Now, I don’t expect you to give us a complete history lesson , but why? Was it the two men? We had a discussion here last night that the animosity between Arafat and Sharon is such that it didn’t naturally lead to an accommodation. Are there other factors? How would you analyze what happened?

GEORGE MITCHELL: Well, I analyze it this way.

First, their objectives are not the same. The Israelis have a state; they want security. The Palestinians don’t have a state; they want a state — contiguous, geographically, economically viable.

The Israeli concern is that if they do everything that our report asks for– and they’ve said this to me, Senator, we’ll do everything you want and we’re likely to get six more suicide bombers in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem next week. In other words, their fear is that their actions will be seen not as gestures for peace but as signs of weakness that will only reward the past terrorism and encourage more in the future.

The Palestinian mirror concern is that they will do whatever we ask, stopping the violence, which now seems to be their only leverage, go through this whole effort of risking civil war by arresting their own people, and prosecuting them and so forth.

And what they will get is endless more years of discussion with a dramatic increase in settlements and settlers making the ultimate Palestinian state not only impractical but physically impossible because it cannot be geographically contiguous.

So those are their fears and that’s what has to be addressed. You have to figure out a way to create at least a modest amount of confidence that if you take a step, the other side is going to take another step.

JIM LEHRER: Whose responsibility is it to create this atmosphere you’re talking about, to take this step, take that step? What happens next, Senator, to make this work?

GEORGE MITCHELL: It can only be done by the United States.

JIM LEHRER: Only by the United States?

GEORGE MITCHELL: Only by the United States with the participation of the parties.

JIM LEHRER: The EU said today, forget it; the United States has failed.


JIM LEHRER: Russia, the U.N., Arab states need to get involved and the U.S. needs to kind of step aside. How do you respond to that?

GEORGE MITCHELL: In the making of peace, the first thing you must do is expunge the word failure from your vocabulary. It takes perseverance; it takes patience. And anyone can claim failure at any point short of success.

The peace negotiations in Northern Ireland, which I chaired, lasted two years. For the first 700 days, they could have been and were described as a failure. And on the 701st day we had a success.

So if you say things are going bad, it hasn’t worked, there are setbacks, so let’s quit, you’re in effect ceding the ground to those who want to engage in violence, who are unwilling to compromise in any way. And the fact of the matter is… and I respect Prodi — I know him.

JIM LEHRER: This is the EU executive director.

GEORGE MITCHELL: Right. He’s a former Italian prime minister. He’s a fine guy, but the fact of the matter is he knows, everyone in the Middle East knows, that only the United States has the capacity and the ability not just to create the conditions in which an agreement can be reached by the parties but to enforce an agreement once reached.

And that’s a very critical point. It’s one thing we learned in the Balkans and we’ve learned in Northern Ireland.

It’s hard to get an agreement; it’s much harder to implement an agreement.

JIM LEHRER: Now, it’s been suggested in the last 24 hours, Tom Friedman in The New York Times included said maybe we need to start thinking about a peace force in there. Once you negotiate and get an international peace force on the ground that’s the only way you’re going to keep these folks from killing one another.

Does that make sense to you?

GEORGE MITCHELL: It depends upon the circumstances. That was a very much-discussed issue before our commission.

The Palestinians asked us to recommend an international protection force. The Israelis opposed it. We concluded that if one or both sides does not favor the insertion of a force, it is almost certain to become itself entangled in the violence.

Now, we cited the fact that in the Middle East right now, there are third-party forces, including Americans, who are there with the consent of both and who are performing a useful function. But you have to have the right predicate for it.

JIM LEHRER: Let’s get back a step.

How does the… at what level, how does the United States now exert what you believe is the only power that can make this work?

GEORGE MITCHELL: I believe the president and the Secretary of State are well aware of what’s needed. You have seen in recent weeks a significant increase in the level and intensity of American involvement.

I think that is likely to increase even further in the days ahead. That plainly means direct intervention and action by the secretary of state and the president but only they can be the judges of when that should occur and under what circumstances.

They have to know that they’re doing something is going to produce a result, and I think they do know that and I think they’re going to go ahead and do everything possible to exert American leverage.

JIM LEHRER: Have you been in contact with… are you in contact with Secretary Powell or anybody at the State Department or anybody who is involved in this?

GEORGE MITCHELL: Yes, I’ve talked to Secretary Powell and others in the State Department.

JIM LEHRER: Do you get the feeling that they are… you do believe they are now aware it’s going to take some high- level action or this thing isn’t going to move?


JIM LEHRER: Have they asked to you participate in any way?

GEORGE MITCHELL: No, they’ve not other than to discuss it with them.

JIM LEHRER: If they did ask you to participate, would you?

GEORGE MITCHELL: I’m one of five members of a committee, former Senator Rudman was the other American. There were three Europeans, the former president of Turkey, the European Union in effect foreign minister, Javier Solana, and the then foreign minister of Norway.

Before we delivered our report to the president through the secretary of state we discussed this among ourselves and I was authorized to say to the president and secretary of state, which I did, that if they wanted us to, we would do anything further that we were asked to do under the circumstances.

JIM LEHRER: Does it make sense for something like… some group like yours to be involved in this at this point?

GEORGE MITCHELL: Well, I that I that the president and the secretary of state have to be given flexibility in this.

They have to be left to judge the right person, the right timing and the right circumstances. And I don’t think they should feel any necessity of saying it must be this group or this plan.

As I said earlier, if you read our plan, it’s basic common sense. It’s not rocket science. You could call it the Lehrer plan; you could call it the Joe Jones plan as well as the Mitchell plan.

What’s important is that it gets done.

JIM LEHRER: Senator, thank you very much.

GEORGE MITCHELL: Thank you, Jim.