The farcical Middle East peace process.

How you look at things.
April 3 2002 6:26 PM

Tenet to Mitchell to Chance

The farcical Middle East peace process.

The Middle East is going to hell. Palestinians are blowing up Israelis. Israelis are shooting Palestinians. What is the United States doing about it? Belatedly sending U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell back to the region to create an impression of involvement, but otherwise not much. But don't worry, says Powell. Eventually, the Israelis will pull out of the West Bank, "and Tenet and Mitchell will be waiting for them."

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If you don't know what Tenet and Mitchell are, you need a lesson in the three languages of the peace process: Hebrew, Arabic, and bureaucratic bullshit. Officially, Mitchell refers to an April 2001 list of recommendations for conducting peace talks, and Tenet refers to a June 2001 list of security measures each side must take to halt violence so that talks can proceed. Unofficially, Mitchell and Tenet, like Zinni, Oslo, and Madrid, are buzzwords designed to create an impression of progress where none exists.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

The theory put forward by Powell, President Bush, the U.N. Security Council, and other peace process exponents is that Zinni will lead to Tenet, which will lead to Mitchell, which will lead to Oslo, which will lead to peace. But the history of the invention of these steps suggests the opposite. Mitchell was created because Oslo failed. Tenet was created because Mitchell failed. Zinni was created because Tenet failed. The peace process is growing ever more complicated not because each stage leads to the next but because it doesn't.

In principle, all Middle East peace agreements accomplish some good. They build momentum toward reconciliation. They get people in the habit of talking to each other. They put both sides on record endorsing compromise and self-restraint, thereby creating the prospect of embarrassment for whoever reneges. When carefully drafted, they create a structure for proceeding.

But if you read the agreements, you'll notice several troubling patterns. First, they tend to repeat each other. The Oslo Accords, for instance, declare that Israel and the Palestinian Authority will "abstain from incitement" against each other. The Mitchell report says the two governments "should resume their efforts to identify, condemn and discourage incitement." The Tenet plan says that "the PA will stop any Palestinian security officials from inciting, aiding, abetting, or conducting attacks against Israeli targets." Why must the pledge against incitement be repeated? Because the incitement persists.

Second, each agreement includes pledges to honor previous agreements. The Mitchell report says the parties should "reaffirm their commitment to signed agreements and mutual understandings." Specifically, the report says, "The parties should abide by the provisions of the Wye River Agreement prohibiting illegal weapons." The Tenet plan begins with a pledge by both sides to "reaffirm their commitment to the security agreements … embedded in the Mitchell Report." Why are the parties repeatedly asked to agree to honor past agreements? Because they repeatedly ignore them.

Third, the agreements are ambiguous. The important thing about the Mitchell report, according to Bush, is that by signing onto it, the Palestinians agreed that security cooperation must precede political talks. In fact, however, the report is ambiguous on that point. "We acknowledge the PA's position that security cooperation presents a political difficulty absent a suitable political context," says the report. "We believe that security cooperation cannot long be sustained if meaningful negotiations are unreasonably deferred." This ambiguity allowed Bush, at a recent joint press conference with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, to describe the security steps and political talks as a sequence while Mubarak described them as a package deal.

The result of these flaws is an almost comical proliferation of agreements. Oslo was supposed to provide the framework to resolve all issues, including borders, the powers of the Palestinian Authority, and the status of Jerusalem. But two years ago, Palestinian President Yasser Arafat rejected Israel's best offer on those issues, violence erupted, and everything went to hell. So the United States put together the Mitchell report. Mitchell didn't attempt to resolve the big issues; it just proposed to get the parties back to Oslo, which in turn would resolve those issues.

The Mitchell recommendations began with a call for security cooperation and a halt to the violence. But the violence didn't stop. So the United States put together the Tenet plan. Tenet didn't attempt to set up the political talks envisioned in Mitchell; it just proposed to establish security conditions to get the parties back to Mitchell, which would get them to Oslo.

The Tenet plan began with an "operational premise" that "the two sides are committed to a mutual, comprehensive cease-fire." The important thing about the plan, Bush explained in June 2001, was that both sides had "agreed" to it. But when the cease-fire failed to materialize, Bush began talking about a new push to "get the parties to agree to Tenet." That push became what Bush and Powell now call "the Zinni mission," referring to U.S. envoy Anthony Zinni. "We hope that the Zinni mission will help get to Tenet," Bush explained last month. That, in turn, "will then enable the Mitchell process to kick in."

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