After former Sen. George Mitchell ended his role as Middle East mediator, he told a Maine audience the failure of Israel and the Palestinians to sign a peace agreement was yielding increasingly negative prospects for both of them.
The Palestinians were losing territory, he said, and Israel was losing friends.
In 1947, the United Nations had proposed to divide Palestine between Israel and the Palestinians. The partition would have had the divided territory of both new countries meet at a single point on the map. Neither would have to cross over the territory of the other.
The founders of Israel accepted the proposal, but the Palestinians and surrounding Arab countries rejected it, believing they could take over all of Palestine by military force.
A few months later, Israel, supported by the United States, the Soviet Union and others, won the war. Its territory was larger than the U.N. had proposed.
Some Palestinians could not accept the existence of Israel and resorted to terrorist acts in hopes of wiping it off the map. As their acts became extreme, Israel responded with increasing force.
Successive Arab attacks on Israel led to successive setbacks. More territory came under Israeli control. It began building settlements in territory it had gained so that, even if a Palestinian state came into existence, Israel would be able to dominate it.
If the failure of some Palestinians to accept Israel caused their territory to shrink, Israel found that its settlements policy, punishing the Palestinians and making it more difficult for them to accept an imposed peace, began reducing its support in world opinion.
The only reliable friend of Israel turned out to be the United States. But even American policy questioned the continued creation of settlements in the territory of the would-be Palestine.
Mitchell’s analysis and forecast turned out to be the most succinct and accurate view of the Middle East situation. By leaving his role as mediator in 2011, he seemed to say that the situation had no chance of improving in the reasonably near future.
Not only did the settlements complicate the outlook, but so does a divided Palestine. In the land between Israel and Jordan, the Palestinian Authority, led by President Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah Party, control. In Gaza, a separate area along the Mediterranean near Egypt, the terrorist Hamas Party is in charge.
In Israel, Arab terrorist attacks have abated, thanks partly to Abbas. Prosperity has grown and people have increasingly focused on their own lives and less on making a deal with the Palestinians. The prospects for peace have become more remote, and settlement building continues.
Recently, Hamas has lost support from war-torn Syria. And the Egyptian military government has cut off many of its sources of supply.
Last week, Fatah and Hamas announced they would form a unified government and then hold elections. Abbas issued a statement strongly condemning the Holocaust, which had cost the lives of six million Jews and had stimulated the creation of Israel.
Both events seemed like possible good news. Both were rejected by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The United States stepped back in its efforts to promote a peace agreement.
Have the Palestinians reached the conclusion that continued hostility toward one another only causes them literally to lose ground? If they succeed within the next few weeks to create a unified government, they can change the negotiating equation.
Netanyahu is undoubtedly correct that you cannot negotiate with someone whose objective is your disappearance. But, if Hamas, as part of a unified Palestinian government, accepted the existence of Israel, he could claim a degree of victory. If he would then continue to reject dealing with the Palestinian Authority, Israel could face even more isolation.
With problems in Iran, Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq pressing, the American focus on Israel and the Palestinians may be receding. Political candidates may keep up their strong support of Israel, but the practical effect may be less.
Of course, a mere willingness to negotiate, should that happen, does not ensure success. Terrorism from Palestinian territories must be controlled, while Palestine should gain all the attributes of a sovereign country. Israeli long-term security, its settlements, and the status of Jerusalem would have to be decided.
Both sides would do well to accept Mitchell’s wise advice, which until now they have resisted.
Why should Americans care? We spend billions each year to support Israel, the Palestinians, and Egypt. Aside from sharing the universal desire for peace, we have a right to expect honest efforts to end Middle East conflict in return for our investment.