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."

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."

Now the Zinni mission itself is in dispute. "The Israelis accepted General Zinni's ideas; The Palestinians did not," Powell reported Tuesday. According to U.S. officials, Arafat is trying to "lawyer" the terms of Zinni's proposal. In other words, Arafat is negotiating the Zinni agreement to implement the Tenet agreement to implement the Mitchell agreement to implement the Oslo agreement. Bush and his aides, who used to talk about Mitchell as the road to peace, now talk about the road to Mitchell.

One problem with this backward road-building is that it fosters what Bush has called, in the context of education, the soft bigotry of low expectations. It makes it easy to say we're getting somewhere when in fact we're getting almost nowhere. For the past week, reporters have asked Bush and his spokesman Ari Fleischer what the Tenet and Mitchell plans have accomplished. Bush and Fleischer keep brushing aside these questions by talking about how close the Zinni mission has brought us to "getting a chance to get into Tenet." Getting that far, according to Fleischer, would constitute "success."

Another unfortunate consequence is that Bush and Powell have begun to fetishize the Mitchell and Tenet plans. They imagine that Palestinian terrorists and American citizens not only understand these plans, which they don't, but orient their thinking and behavior around them. "This great nation wants us to get into Mitchell as quickly as possible," Bush asserted two months ago. This week, Powell added that the bombers who have struck Israel in recent days "are trying to destroy the Tenet work plan and the Mitchell process." What Bush and Powell can't accept is that Mitchell and Tenet are neither loved nor hated; they're simply irrelevant.

The option to add new steps to the front end of the peace process also makes the viability of the process unfalsifiable. In an old joke, an economist, presented with the problem of opening a can of food on a desert island, begins his solution by stating, "Assume a can opener." The peace process works the same way: When the parties refuse to create the conditions for one stage of the process, you simply tack on a previous stage in which they agree to create those conditions. The Tenet plan, for instance, stipulates that the Palestinian Authority will prevent weapons-smuggling and that Israel won't attack the PA's police buildings. Both sides are thoroughly trampling those commitments. Does that mean the Tenet plan is dead? Not at all, says Powell. Like the parrot in the famous Monty Python sketch, Tenet is just "waiting" to be revived by the Zinni plan.

The principal cost of adding stages to the current peace process is that it blocks out alternatives. Bush talks about Mitchell and Tenet not in conjunction with other steps, such as speaking to Arafat or detailing his proposal for a Palestinian state, but as a pre-emptive substitute for them. "The first step toward any political solution has got to be the Tenet plan," he says. Then, perhaps, the outline of a Palestinian state can be discussed, "if we ever get into the Mitchell process." Tenet and Mitchell, conceived as a means to peace, have become an obstacle to it.

Bush ran for office on a promise to focus on results. In the Middle East, he's lost that thread. "Our focus is to get the parties into a process that the world agrees is a good process," Bush said last month. That's a fine epitaph for Bill Clinton's Middle East policy. If Bush isn't careful, it'll be his as well.