Former US Senator and US Special Envoy to the Middle East George Mitchell

The Path to Peace exchange, part 1: Why is this the time to talk about the peace process?


George J. Mitchell served as a Democratic senator from Maine from 1980 to 1995 and Senate majority leader from 1989 to 1995. He was the primary architect of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement for peace in Northern Ireland, chairman of The Walt Disney Company, US Special Envoy for Middle East Peace, and the author of the Mitchell Report on the use of performance-enhancing drugs in baseball, as well as the books The Negotiator and A Path to Peace. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1999.

Alon Sachar has worked to advance Middle East peace under two US administrations. He served as an adviser to the US Ambassador to Israel, Daniel B. Shapiro in Tel Aviv from 2011-2012, and to President Obama’s Special Envoys for Middle East Peace, George J. Mitchell and David Hale, from 2009 to 2011. In those capacities, Alon participated in negotiations with Israelis, Palestinians, and Arab states. From 2006 to 2009, he served in the State Department’s Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, focusing on the US bilateral relationships with Israel and the Palestinians as well as Arab-Israeli relations.

The following exchange will focus on Senator Mitchell and Mr. Sachar’s new book A Path to Peace: A Brief History of Israeli-Palestinian Negotiations and a Way Forward in the Middle East (Simon & Schuster).

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Dear Senator Mitchell and Mr. Sachar,

I’d like to start this exchange with a somewhat obvious, but inevitable introductory question:

The Middle East is currently in flames; Gaza is great big mess; the Palestinian Authority’s post-Abbas future is unclear; Israel is being led by an unapologetically rightwing government, and even the staunchest supporters of the peace process don’t really see a way out of the current stagnation. Why is this the time to publish a book about the Israeli-Palestinian Peace process?

Yours,

Shmuel

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Dear Shmuel,

Our primary goal in writing this book was to underscore the importance of reaching a two-state solution, based on history and our own experiences. Much of the book is dedicated to providing a concise but comprehensive overview of the conflict from the events leading to the collapse of the Ottoman Empire during World War II to the present day. There are many volumes dedicated to that history, but we’ve found them inaccessible to the general reader trying to get a basic understanding of the conflict. We conclude, among other things, that partition between Israelis and Palestinians is inevitable; the question is not if, but when, how, and on what terms.

Demographics are important, but the focus by some on when, if ever, Arabs will outnumber Jews in the region is somewhat misplaced. From our perspective, demographics are significant in the sense that there are two proud nationalities in one small land. Palestinians, like Israelis, are determined to achieve self-determination. If they are deprived of a state, they will inevitably look to express their identity and nationalism within and through Israel. Expecting Palestinians to permanently give up on that conviction is as misconceived as expecting Israelis to give up on theirs. As we know too well from human history, ethnic competition within one government can have tragic consequences for everyone. Indeed, civil strife, inter-communal violence and political fatigue were the very reasons the land was partitioned in the first place.

On both sides, interests will be best served by not letting it reach the point where withdrawal or partition happens without an agreement or in haste. In Gaza and south Lebanon extremists filled the power vacuum, to the detriment of the local population as well as to Israel’s security. A well-planned, coordinated, phased, and internationally backed agreement is critical.

As your question indicates, there is fatigue on all sides resulting from decades of unrealized hopes, failed negotiations, and violence. The reluctance of Israeli and Palestinian leaders to move forward is understandable, but that reluctance is contrary to the immediate and long-term interests of the people they represent. And the “right time” may never come, given the turbulence and upheaval that exist in the region and are likely to continue for decades. Absent an Israeli-Palestinian agreement, there is a real risk of a deterioration of stability in the West Bank and an end to close and effective Israeli-Palestinian security cooperation. That security cooperation is integral to the current and sustained calm in the West Bank. No one should take it for granted or become too comfortable with the status-quo. Absent a path to Palestinian statehood, security cooperation is increasingly unpopular among Palestinians.

We recognize the daunting difficulty of finding a resolution to the conflict, as the long litany of past failed efforts demonstrates. But lapsing into despair at the difficulty and avoiding action only ensures continued conflict and violence. That’s why, in the final pages of our book, we present what we believe to be a realistic path to peace through a two-state solution. At the very least our hope is to stimulate debate and to renew serious and substantive negotiations. All of us who care about the people of the region must do whatever we can to advocate and work for an end to that conflict.

 

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