The US can't lead from behind when it comes to the Middle East

Former Sen. George Mitchell is universally acknowledged for his tenacity and commitment in seeking solutions to some of the world's most intractable conflicts. His signature achievement was the 1998 Good Friday Agreement that brought peace to Northern Ireland.

Over the course of three weeks, Mitchell, who also served as U.S. Special Envoy to the Middle East, wrote a series of lengthy opinion pieces in The Boston Globe, expounding a 100-year overview of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and linking it to broader Middle East issues, including the rise of extremist groups. The thrust of his series is to make a case that the United States has an interest in and obligation for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through a two-state solution.

Six of Mitchell's points warrant commentary.

U.S. influence: Mitchell writes that while the United States cannot "control events" because they are "products of history," the U.S. has "unequalled power to influence them." Here, the senator regards U.S. influence as a positive force. He neglects, however, to mention negative U.S. historical influence in the Middle East and the tremendous consequences that resulted. The CIA-inspired coup of the democratically elected Iranian government in 1953 (and the subsequent installation of the Shah) and the 2003 invasion of Iraq are two events that have changed the course of history in the Middle East and have been critical and major contributors to the instability we experience today.

Omissions: Mitchell provides a long, historical overview of the Middle East from 1914 until the present day that is comprehensive and scholarly. But he neglects to mention a key point: The Balfour Declaration and the Sykes-Picot agreement also set in motion the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the artificial Arab state structure that is disintegrating today.

Timeline for the 1948 Arab-Israeli War: When he arrives at the 1948 war, Mitchell makes a key omission when he notes that the Arab-Israeli war broke out in May 1948. True, this is the date of the outbreak of hostilities between Jewish and Arab forces from neighboring countries. But the Jewish irregular military groups -- the Haganah, Irgun and Lehi -- were well on their way to implementation of Plan Dalet, a series of military operations to expel Palestinians from their towns and villages, culminating in the Deir Yassin massacre of 100 Palestinian civilians in April 1948.

The goal of Jewish irregulars was to effect a "transfer" of the Palestinians with the objective of creating room for arriving Jewish refugees. In fact, by May 1948, more than 200 Palestinian villages had already been emptied, resulting in 175,000 Palestinian refugees.

Failure of the Oslo Accords downplayed: Mitchell glosses over the Oslo Accords, even though they were the first time Israel and the PLO signed an agreement to recognize each other and seek a negotiated solution to the conflict. The raising and consequent dashing of expectations among the Palestinians resulting from the failure of Oslo to translate into progress toward their independence directly resulted in the outbreak of the second intifada in 2000.

Diminishing two-state option: Mitchell emphasizes how the continued Israeli-Palestinian conflict feeds into larger Middle East tensions and the rise of extremist groups. He reiterates that despite the complexity of the conflict, the two-state solution remains the only option, reviewing first why it's in the interest of Israel and then why it's in the interest of Palestinians.

The senator's main point regarding the Palestinians is that as what has been offered has become less and less attractive, they have continuously rejected chances for statehood. Palestinians cannot accept a state that is a state in name only. Any future state has to be based on the 1967 borders, be truly independent and contiguous, and be sovereign over its land, airspace and borders.

U.S. disengagement not an option: Mitchell concludes by noting that isolationism is an obsolete ideology, and consequently, the U.S. must reassert its role as a world leader, including remaining "engaged in seeking peace in the Middle East." Otherwise, there is potential for more blowback, like the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and 9/11, against the U.S. both at home and overseas.

The senator's conclusion is prescient, but peace will require more than engagement. The United States must define the endgame clearly, build an international coalition in support, and apply the pressure only it can to both Israelis and Palestinians in order to reach a solution that addresses Israeli security and integration into the Middle East and, in the full sense of the word, an independent Palestinian state. Sitting back and just prodding the sides is only a recipe for increasing and continued conflict.

[Jesuit Fr. Drew Christiansen is former editor of America magazine and a professor of ethics at Georgetown University. Ra'fat Aldajani is a Palestinian-American writer and commentator.]

Join the Conversation

Send your thoughts and reactions to Letters to the Editor. Learn more here