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Former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell negotiated the peace accord in Northern Ireland and chaired the Mitchell Committee that recommended steps back to the negotiating table in Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. He spoke with Global Viewpoint editor Nathan Gardels on Dec. 5.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has named the Palestinian Authority a "terrorist-supporting entity," no different from a Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, and likened Yasser Arafat to Osama bin Laden. Is the terror problem there the same or different from in Afghanistan?

GEORGE MITCHELL: Let me put it this way: The emphasis in our report was how to end the violence that started 15 months ago and restore some modest degree of confidence that had been completely shattered so as to encourage a resumption of negotiations.

We explicitly called for an end to terrorist activity, defined as any deliberate killing or injuring of civilians in an effort to terrify or demoralize a society. We condemned such actions not only as morally reprehensible and unacceptable but, and I believe this profoundly, counterproductive, particularly in the Middle East context.

Our first recommendation was for an immediate and unconditional cessation of violence, with terrorism mostly in mind. Clearly, there is no way back to the table as long as violence continues.
Contrary to the public impression, we did not specify a time frame for this sustained cessation of violence. We did not recommend how long a cooling-off period should be. That time frame has been suggested by the parties.

Despite the bleak outlook today, I believe there can and will be a resumption of negotiations for one overriding reason -- the war weariness of the people. This is as true in the Middle East as it was in Northern Ireland, where the parties at conflict agreed to peace after 25 years of war and thousands killed. People are sick of death, destruction, sick of seeing those small white coffins at the funerals of innocent children.

When I was last in the Middle East, both Sharon and Arafat said to me, separately, in almost identical words, "Life has become unbearable." And that was before the last round of violence. This state of mind is the precondition for peace.

There is sure to come a realization that the only way to make life bearable again is to return to negotiations. The ratcheting up of the violence on both sides only creates more misery. It is a fantasy for either side to think that the other can be totally vanquished. Such an fantasy will not lead to security for Israel, nor to a state for the Palestinians.

GARDELS: The problem is that Hamas and the Islamic Jihad are not war weary. Indeed, hasn't the question gone beyond the idea of a "cooling-off period" with no violence to a demand, by the United States and Israel, for the complete dismantlement of these organizations?

MITCHELL: There was no specific requirement in our report about any particular organization. But we said the Palestinian Authority must make a 100 percent effort to arrest and punish those who engage in terrorist activities from within the area it controls. And it has to make a 100 percent effort to stop gunmen from firing on areas populated by Israelis.

So, Arafat faces a very difficult situation. He has not so far made an active, aggressive effort to arrest and punish Islamic Jihad and Hamas in order to prevent terrorist activities. To do that is a painful choice because it will be resisted. But he must know, at the same time, that the alternative is the continuing devastation of the Palestinian economy, which has probably contracted about 70 percent in 15 months, and the continuing impoverishment and humiliation of the Palestinian people.

Difficult as the choice may be, to not crack down on terrorism is in no way in the interest of the Palestinians -- it won't get them a livelihood, it won't get them a state. It will only get them more misery. The right choice is to crack down on terror, to make a maximum effort.

This does not mean Arafat can achieve 100 percent success. The fact is that he does not have complete control. But there is nothing new or surprising about that. President Bush doesn't have complete control over the United States of America.

In Northern Ireland today, there are still dissidents on both sides committed to violence. There are still killings and bombings. There are those who say "my way or no way." But the vast majority are focused on the future, and the scale of killing has gone way down. That is what is needed in the Middle East.

It is simply an unreal simplification to say that either Arafat has total control or no control. That is not the way reality is, in the British Isles or the Middle East or anywhere else.

GARDELS: Some in Israel want to get rid of Arafat altogether. But can there be any peace process without him?

MITCHELL: A lot of Israelis don't like Arafat, and a lot of Palestinians don't like Sharon. If America stands for anything, it is self-determination. For better or worse, Arafat and Sharon are the chosen leaders of their people, and we all have to live with that unless their own people want to make a change. To achieve peace, these two men need to be back on the opposite sides of the negotiating table.

If Arafat is gone, we are likely to get someone out of Hamas who will not be open to dialogue and not influenced by the United States and Europe, much less in a compromising mood with Israel. That would be a worse, not a better, situation.

GARDELS: Can the United States still be an impartial mediator when it has so clearly taken Israel's side in the current crisis?

MITCHELL: Well, the United States is indispensable to the process, something accepted and affirmed by both sides. Arafat has said to me on several occasions, "We want the Americans involved; we need the Americans." They recognize there can be no resolution without American leadership. That has not been altered by the events of the past few days or months.

On one side it is said the United States is too close to Israel. But there are also those who complain that Bush has sided with the Palestinians by envisioning a state.

GARDELS: Who is to judge whether Arafat is making a 100 percent effort? Sharon?

MITCHELL: Clearly there is the need for American involvement here as a referee. But that role is not just vis a vis Arafat's actions, but Sharon's as well. You can also be sure that if the Israelis started to shut down settlements, the Palestinians would say, "That is not enough."

What you really have to do is more than this -- to make the parties take the first leap, which is to recognize they can't achieve their principal objectives through the current course of violence and retaliation.

That takes courageous political leadership, something particularly difficult in a climate of violence. Compromise is impossible in a moment of high violence and high emotion. That is why an immediate and unconditional cessation of violence is the precondition for everything else.

I used to think that the endgame of a final settlement would be the most difficult. Now I know the opposite: the first step of changing course from violence to negotiation is by far more difficult.

GARDELS: If you were called back to the Middle East once again to salvage the path back to negotiations, what further would you recommend that you didn't after the violence began 15 months ago?

MITCHELL: Clearly, there is a heightened sense of urgency because events today risk spiraling completely out of control.
In Ireland, too, the process collapsed some 15 months after the initial agreement. I was called back to a "second tour of duty." It took me two days to figure out what had to be done, but three and half months to get the parties to agree to it. I literally sat down with pad and pencil and wrote out a precise description of what had to be done, who had to say what and when.

The problem was that so much mistrust had crept into the process that neither party would take a step unless absolutely sure that it would be followed by a step taken by the other side that they knew already in advance.

The same thing needs to happen in the Middle East. There is no confidence. Each side assumes the worst of the other. There is total mistrust.

Beyond this, any new steps to rebuild a path toward peace must include an economic dimension. Tremendous economic damage has taken place. The Palestinian economy has ceased to grow altogether. Tourism, a huge source of income in Israel, has crashed. They are losing more than $200 million a month. Some kind of economic aid would be an important inducement for both sides to get back to the table.

GARDELS: A final word?

MITCHELL: I have spent a lot of time in the Balkans and Ireland as well as the Middle East. There is not a conflict that can't be brought to an end. Conflicts are created and sustained by human beings. They can be ended by human beings.

What is needed is a recognition that conflict will not produce the desired result. Violence will not bring security to Israel. It will not bring an independent, viable, contiguous state to the Palestinians.

(c) 2001, Los Angeles Times Syndicate International, a division of Tribune Media Services
For immediate release (Distributed 12/6/01)