The long-awaited Mitchell commission report about Israeli-Palestinian violence was released yesterday, and now there is a debate over what to do with its recommendations. I have a suggestion. It's kind of a two-for-one deal. Take all the Mitchell reports, make a big pile out of them, and set them ablaze into a gigantic bonfire. It would surely generate enough heat, and light, to make a small contribution to the Bush energy plan.
Am I being unfair? Yes, just a bit. George Mitchell is a good man, and the central argument of his report is right, in the narrowest sense: If you want to stop the latest Israeli-Palestinian slide into the abyss, first there must be a cessation of all violence, and then confidence-building steps, including a settlements freeze and Palestinian security measures.
My problem with the Mitchell report is that it fundamentally ignores how we got into this abyss and the only real way out. It is not because of Israeli settlements. The settlements are foolish, and their continued expansion is a shameful act of colonial coercion that will meet the fate of all other colonial enterprises in history. The inability of American Jewish leaders or U.S. governments to speak out against settlement expansion -- which should be stopped under any conditions for Israel's sake -- is a blot on all of them.
But the settlements are not the core problem. The core problem right now is Yasser Arafat -- the Palestinian leader who cannot say "yes" and will not say "uncle."
President Bill Clinton and Prime Minister Ehud Barak put on the table before Arafat a historic compromise proposal that would have given Palestinians control of 94 to 96 percent of the West Bank and Gaza -- with all the settlements removed, virtually all of Arab East Jerusalem, a return to Israel of a symbolic number of Palestinian refugees and either the right of return to the West Bank and Gaza or compensation for all the others.
Not only would Arafat not take it, he would not even say: "Well, this was insufficient, but this is the most far-reaching and serious proposal Palestinians have ever seen. Now, I want to enter into a dialogue with the Israeli people and government to see if I can get them to 100 percent."
No, instead, Arafat launched this idiotic uprising. He did so because he is essentially a political coward and maneuverer who apparently has not given up his long-term aim of eliminating Israel and who was afraid in the short run that if he took 99 percent, he would be killed for the 1 percent he left on the table. Arafat has never been willing to tell his people he got them most of what they wanted and now is the time to end the suffering of as many Palestinians as possible and move on.
This truth is what the Mitchell "investigation" should be telling the world and the Palestinians. There was an Israeli leader, and a slim Israeli majority, for a fair historic compromise. But there was no Palestinian equivalent, and unless there is a Palestinian partner, and a Palestinian leader, for a historic compromise roughly along the Clinton lines, no cease-fire is going to hold.
The best Hebrew biography of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is entitled "He Doesn't Stop at Red Lights." Arafat's biography should be entitled "He Doesn't Go at Green Lights."
Now Sharon -- who was elected in the Israeli backlash against the failure of Camp David -- is trying to pummel Arafat into submission. That won't work either. Because Arafat is as afraid to say "uncle" to Sharon as much as he was afraid to say "yes" to Clinton. He fears he would be killed for saying uncle as much as he would be killed for saying yes to 99 percent. The Palestinians will never be bombed into submission. One hundred years of Palestinian history tells you that.
The real problem is that the Palestinians are leaderless today, and that is what the United States, the United Nations and the Arab world have to face up to. Deep down, they all know it, and they admit it to each other in private. There is no Palestinian leader right now willing or able to say yes to a fair historic compromise, and we simply fool ourselves with commissions that don't acknowledge that. Unless the Arabs can stiffen Arafat by supporting him in any grand compromise, or by creating a context in which an alternative leadership can emerge, this bonfire will rage on, and it will consume many, many others.