A Start Toward Peace

By George J. Mitchell and Warren B. Rudman
Thursday, January 22, 2009; 6:07 PM

Editor's Note: This column was originally published on May 21, 2001. Obama has named Mitchell a special envoy to the Middle East.

Violence in Israel and the Palestinian territories escalates in a terrible, vicious and demoralizing cycle. In just the past few days, more than 20 people have been killed and scores injured. At risk is the progress the parties have made over the past decade in their search for lasting peace, justice and security. The fact-finding committee on which we serve has presented its findings to President Bush. Our report, to be made public today, includes recommendations we hope will help the parties break the cycle of violence, rebuild mutual trust and return to negotiations aimed at a just resolution of the conflict. We believe those objectives can be achieved if the parties take decisive action.

Our committee was formed by President Clinton following the October summit at Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. In January, Secretary of State Colin Powell endorsed the continued work of the committee on behalf of the Bush administration. Along with our colleagues -- former Turkish president Suleyman Demirel, Norwegian Minister of Foreign Affairs Thorbjoern Jagland and the European Union high representative for foreign and security policy, Javier Solana -- we are grateful for that support.

During our visits to the region, politicians, community leaders and ordinary citizens on both sides told us of their growing despair over the violence, their frustration over the seemingly intractable nature of the conflict and their worry about what the future holds for their children. Despite these concerns, nearly every one of them acknowledged that Israelis and Palestinians are destined by history and geography to be neighbors, in peace or in conflict. And despite the rising anger in both communities, we have no doubt that most Palestinians and Israelis want to live in peace.

The immediate aim must be to end the violence. In the past seven months, more than 500 people have been killed and more than 10,000 have been injured. Although most of those have been Palestinian, in both societies the spiral of violence has been intensely personal. Just about everyone in both societies has a link to someone who has been killed or seriously injured. We visited families of Palestinian and Israeli victims. Both expressed their feelings of loss and grief in the same words.

It is time for political leaders to act decisively. In our report, we call upon the parties to implement an immediate and unconditional cessation of violence. Part of the effort to end the violence must include an immediate resumption of security cooperation between the government of Israel and the Palestinian Authority aimed at preventing violence and combating terrorism.

Along with taking immediate action to end the violence, the parties need to rebuild mutual confidence. We recommend more than 15 steps the parties can take to restore trust. These include efforts by the parties to condemn and discourage incitement and to protect holy places sacred to Jews, Muslims and Christians. We call on the Palestinian Authority to prevent gunmen from firing upon populated Israeli areas, and we ask Israeli security forces to adopt and employ non-lethal responses to unarmed Palestinian demonstrators.

In addition, we call upon the Palestinian Authority to make clear through concrete action that terrorism is reprehensible and unacceptable and that it will attempt to prevent terrorist operations and will punish perpetrators operating in its jurisdiction. The perception among Israelis that the Palestinian Authority is not doing all it can to prevent terrorism erodes Israelis' trust in Palestinians as partners in peace. We also recommend that the government of Israel lift the closures of Palestinian areas and permit Palestinian workers who had been employed in Israel to return to their jobs. The Palestinian Authority must in turn cooperate with Israeli authorities to ensure that workers employed within Israel are free of connections to organizations and individuals engaged in terrorism.

Another confidence-building recommendation is that the government of Israel freeze all settlement construction in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Expansion of settlements undermines Palestinians' confidence in Israel's willingness to negotiate a resolution of the conflict that provides for a viable Palestinian state. Our view that settlement construction is an obstacle to resolution of the conflict is consistent with U.S. policy over the past quarter-century. Our report, in fact, cited statements to that effect from the administrations of Presidents Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton and Bush. Twenty years later, the words of President Ronald Reagan remain relevant: "The immediate adoption of a settlement freeze by Israel, more than any other action, could create the confidence needed."

We believe that all of these measures will help the parties restore mutual confidence and resume purposeful negotiations. But no single measure should be seen as linked to or as a precondition of another. Because of the high level of hostility, tension and mistrust between the parties, the timing and sequence of these confidence-building steps are crucial. This can be decided only by the parties, but we urge them to begin the process immediately.

A halt to the violence, a resumption of security cooperation and steps to restore mutual trust cannot be sustained absent a return to serious negotiations to resolve the underlying causes of the conflict. We were not charged with prescribing an agenda for negotiations or with recommending how the obstacles to a lasting peace should be overcome. The parties must rekindle a spirit of compromise, reconciliation and partnership, notwithstanding the searing violence of the past seven months.

Israelis and Palestinians are staring into an abyss, facing the prospect of a future marked by years of bloody conflict, political instability and economic stagnation. The United States and others can help them step away from the abyss and find a way back to the negotiating table by insisting on an immediate and unconditional cessation of the violence and by supporting Israeli and Palestinian leaders in taking the courageous and politically difficult steps toward peace. It will not be easy, but it can and must be done.

Former senator Mitchell (D-Maine) is chairman and former senator Rudman (R-N.H.) is a member of the Sharm el-Sheikh Fact Finding Committee.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company