Mitchell fails to understand Palestinian goals

Quoted in Steve Rosen’s blog, a snippet from an interview with US Mideast envoy George Mitchell:

George Mitchell: …Israel annexed Jerusalem in 1980….for the Israelis, what they’re building in, is in part of Israel. Now, the others don’t see it that way. So you have these widely divergent perspectives on the subject. …The Israelis are not going to stop settlements in or construction in East Jerusalem. They don’t regard that as a settlement because they think it’s part of Israel….

Charlie Rose: So you’re going to let them go ahead even though no one recognized the annexation.

GM: When you say let them go ahead, it’s what they regard as their country. They don’t regard — they don’t say they’re letting us go ahead when we build in Manhattan or in the Bronx or —

CR: But don’t the international rules have something to do with what somebody can do to define as their country?

GM: There are disputed legal issues. .. And we could spend the next 14 years arguing over disputed legal issues or we can try to get a negotiation to resolve them in a manner that meets the aspirations of both societies. [my emphasis]

This is remarkable, both because Mitchell appears to understand and appreciate the Israeli position, and because he doesn’t spout the usual rubbish about ‘settlements are illegitimate’ that we’ve heard from both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.

But unfortunately, Mitchell understands the Palestinians less well. Here’s some more, and we can see where his understanding goes off the rails (the full transcript of the interview is here):

GM: Keep this in mind, the Israelis have a state, a very successful state.  They want security, which they ought to have… The Palestinians don’t have a state, they want one, and they ought to have one.  We believe that neither can attain its objective by denying to the other side its objective.  The Palestinians are not going to get a state until the people of Israel have a reasonable sense of sustainable security.  The Israelis on the other hand are not going to get that reasonable sense of sustainable security until there is a Palestinian state.

Mitchell seems to think that the Palestinian objective is a state in the territories. There are at least three really good arguments that this is false:

  1. They had numerous opportunities, the most recent and advantageous being Olmert’s 2008 offer, to have such a state and they refused to take them.
  2. They continue to put obstacles in the path of negotiations that would lead to a state, such as insisting on preconditions like a construction freeze in Jerusalem.
  3. When they speak in Arabic, they do not say that they want a state in the territories, they say that they want to replace Israel with their state. Here’s just one of many possible examples.

It often happens that one fails to understand as a result to listening to words and ignoring actions, or vice versa. But if one doesn’t pay attention to either actions or words and makes judgments based only on what one wishes were true, then misunderstanding is guaranteed.

Here’s a good example of what Barry Rubin often talks about, the Western propensity to think that everyone shares your goals and priorities. Who wouldn’t see a peaceful state and economic progress in their interest, suggests Mitchell:

CR: Why do you believe [a two-state solution is] possible?

GM: Because it’s in the best interests of the people on both sides… Despite the horrific events of the past half century, all of the death, all of the destruction, all of the mistrust, and all of the hatred, a substantial majority on both sides still believes that’s the way to resolve the problem.

It all depends on how you define best interests. If you ask most Palestinians, they will say that carrying on the war for as long as it takes for them to get ‘their land’ back is much more important than a stable, peaceful state and economic prosperity without ‘their land’. And Mitchell is quite wrong about what a majority of Palestinians think: in 2007, 77% of Palestinians said that “the rights and needs of the Palestinian people cannot be taken care of as long as the state of Israel exists” (Pew survey, 6/27/07). And their attitudes, if anything, have become more hardened since then.

So I don’t think Mitchell’s approach is going to work, and his vaunted persistence will not help so long as he doesn’t see that there is no middle ground between Israel’s security and Palestinian aspirations:

The latter  preclude the former.

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2 Responses to “Mitchell fails to understand Palestinian goals”

  1. Shalom Freedman says:

    The problem with admitting the truth about Palestinian Arab intentions is that this leaves one without any real hope of finding a negotiated peaceful outcome. The U.S. cannot somehow face the reality that there is no answer in the direction that they want to give.
    You would think a new Administration would have learned the lesson of so many previous ones. But they don’t.

  2. salomon says:

    The problem Mitchell faces is in trying to reconcile two incompatible objectives: Israel cannot be secure with the kind of state the Palestinians say they want, and the Palestinians do not aspire to the kind of state that would satisfy Israel’s security.

    Yet, for the past 17 years, otherwise intelligent diplomats have been turning in circles. Paraphrasing Saul Bellow, a great deal of their intelligence is invested in ignorance since their illusions run deep.

    The crux of the matter is: one can either be pro-Israel or pro-Palestinian, as the term “Palestinian” is being understood. It is time to take a stand.