An Open Letter to George Mitchell

Dear Mr. Mitchell,

Welcome. Arriving here today as President Obama's Middle East envoy, you're likely to be greeted with tired indifference or polite hostility by leaders on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

So I'd like to let you know that I'm glad you're here. The president's choice of you as his diplomatic alter ego was a pleasant surprise: The agreement you brought in Northern Ireland, in a conflict that looked as bitter and irrational as our own, means that you come carrying evidence that it's possible to negotiate peace. Though you were part of the Clinton team, you aren't associated with the failure of the Camp David summit in 2000. The choice of a former Senate majority leader also shows that Mr. Obama wants someone with prestige and seniority -- and someone who can go to Capitol Hill to explain the need for aggressive, even impatient, peace-making. When AIPAC tries to line up votes for knee-jerk resolutions to undercut your work, this will matter.

Most of all, your arrival is a statement of conviction by the new administration that diplomacy can make a difference, that conflict is a choice rather than fate, that last year's mistakes are not inevitably the dress rehearsal for next year's madness.

For as I'm sure you know, in coming here from America now, the biggest difference you'll experience is not the weather, language, or religion. You are coming from a land of new hope to the countries of despair. The collapse of the Oslo process and the playacting of the Bush administration's Annapolis initiative have erased belief among Israelis, Palestinians, and our neighbors that negotiations can achieve anything. The al-Aqsa Intifada and Ehud Olmert's inconclusive wars in Lebanon and Gaza proved that we will not moderate each other's positions by blowing each other up.

The mood, on both sides, is extraordinarily grim. If leaders don't tell you that honestly, you should change into a cardigan, put a tourist's day pack over your shoulder, and slip into a Tel Aviv or Ramallah café, where anyone sipping coffee will tell you the truth. Your task, Mr. Mitchell, includes changing the public mood and -- even if you must avoid ever saying so publicly -- encouraging a change in leadership.

You and your boss have little time to create a new dynamic. Five years ago, when Ehud Olmert announced his support for partial withdrawal from the West Bank, he warned that the two-state solution had a limited shelf life. "We are approaching a point where more and more Palestinians will say … 'there is no place for two states between the Jordan and the sea. All we want is the right to vote,'" said Olmert, then vice prime minister. In other words, Palestinians would seek a single state between the Jordan and the Mediterranean, and that would be the end of Israel.

(What Olmert didn't bother saying was a single state would be unstable and probably plagued by violence. There's never been a significant liberation group here founded on a South African-style Freedom Charter, aimed at cross-ethnic comity.)

Since then, confidence that a two-state solution is possible has indeed slipped precariously. Even before the Gaza war, a poll by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research showed that 70 percent of West Bank and Gaza residents regarded the chances of an independent Palestinian state in the next five years as "slim to nonexistent."

Meanwhile, Israelis on the left and center are doubtful that evacuating settlements is possible. The number of settlers in the West Bank -- not counting annexed East Jerusalem -- has risen from 236,000 when Olmert gave his warning in 2003 to around 300,000 today. The right's rationale du jour for rejecting a two-state solution is Palestinian political weakness and division. "Palestinian society is caught in … a civil war between radical Islamists and nationalists, neither of which truly seeks establishment of a small Palestinian state living peacefully alongside Israel," writes Ephraim Inbar of Bar-Ilan University's BESA center.

What runs through these variations is dismay with leadership. Olmert's popularity was destroyed by corruption charges and his hasty decision to go to war in Lebanon in 2006. Besides that, he has not stopped settlement growth, has not fulfilled his reckless campaign promise of a unilateral pullback in the West Bank, and has not produced a negotiated pullback by talking with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

The war in Gaza ended with a fragile ceasefire, hastily put in place before President Obama's inauguration. By yesterday, it was coming undone. As trenchant Israeli columnist B. Michael has written, the war did not "educate" Hamas to stop attacking Israel: "Death and destruction do not educate nations. … More than 1,000 Israelis were killed in the second Intifada, yet this didn’t quite turn us into peace-lovers."

So when Israelis vote in two weeks, they are likely to return Benjamin Netanyahu to the premiership. This isn't an affirmation of Netanyahu but a rejection of Olmert's Kadima party, now headed by Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni. Netanyahu was a catastrophic prime minister in the late 1990s. But pain experienced is worse than pain remembered. Swing voters, forgetting how much they disliked Netanyahu, are swinging back to him.

Your arrival, Mr. Mitchell, probably comes too late to affect the election. True, Livni argues that Netanyahu will clash with a U.S. administration that pursues peace. She's right, but voters here haven't yet absorbed that the Bush era is over. Besides, Netanyahu is pretending moderation, promising Tony Blair, "I have no intention of building new settlements in the West Bank."

As you know, this is a con. No Israeli government has officially established a new settlement since the mid-1990s. Instead, they've unnaturally subsidized "natural growth" of existing settlements. Your 2001 report on the outbreak of the second intifada stated that Israel must "freeze all settlement activity, including the 'natural growth' of existing settlements."

You need to insist on this publicly in the months ahead. Trying to satisfy both Washington and the hardliners that dominate his Likud party , Netanyahu will zigzag and crash, just as he did in his first term. Tension with Washington is unpopular here. And muscular American peace efforts change Israeli public expectations of what's possible. Old parties split; politicians adopt new positions. Such ferment brought the election of Yitzhak Rabin in 1992 and Ehud Barack in 1999 on peace platforms. Feed the ferment, Mr. Mitchell.

On the Palestinian side, the war did not end Hamas rule in Gaza. It did complete the delegitimization of Abbas. Abbas' promise of independence through diplomacy has brought Palestinians nothing. He is now merely a placeholder, marking the space where a Palestinian leader should be.

To get Israel and the Palestinians to negotiate, you'll have to get Palestinians to negotiate with each other on creating a unified government that can represent them and claim popular support. That will mean quiet, indirect contacts with Hamas. It will require a new American policy that gives the organization an incentive to moderate its position. American diplomacy has also pushed Palestinian groups to change direction in the past, starting with the PLO's decision to seek a seat at the table during the negotiating flurry after the 1973 war.

Yes, I'm recommending that you encourage political unity among Palestinians and disunity in Israel. The difference is simple: Israel is a functioning state, where the party in power speaks for the polity as a whole. The Palestinians have a fragmented movement seeking independence. Only if the major factions join forces can they negotiate in the name of their nation.

As you know, some Israelis are rereading your 2001 report with deep concern. It's not just that you put freezing settlement on the same level as stopping terror. You rejected the Israeli narrative of how the second intifada began, along with the Palestinian narrative. In effect, you rejected each side's view that the other entered negotiations deceitfully, intending to force its position on the other. Your report has challenged the comfortable despair that nothing can be done. Back here, back on the job, you need to challenge that belief again and again, publicly. Leaders will only make peace when they think that their people can believe in it.

Truly, Mr. Mitchell, you've been given a job that makes Timothy Geithner's look easy. But like him, you will only succeed if you aim high. Those of us who still keep the contraband called hope are with you.


Gershom Gorenberg

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