Nothing in George Mitchell’s interview with PBS last week received more attention than the envoy’s implied threat to revoke American loan guarantees to Israel. That’s a pity — because far more worrisome is the goal he set for the negotiations, as highlighted by Aluf Benn in today’s Haaretz. “We think the way forward … is full implementation of the Arab peace initiative,” Mitchell declared. “That’s the comprehensive peace in the region that is the objective set forth by the president.”
The Arab initiative mandates a full Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 lines — every last inch of the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Golan Heights. It also demands a solution to the refugee problem “in accordance with UN General Assembly Resolution 194,” which Arabs interpret as allowing the refugees to “return” to Israel.
Later in the interview, Mitchell says this initiative requires “a negotiation and a discussion,” and that you can’t negotiate by telling “one side you have to agree in advance to what the other side wants.” Yet by saying his goal is “full implementation” of this initiative, he’s effectively saying, “You can have your negotiation and discussion, but Washington has no intention of being an honest broker: it fully backs the Arab position on borders, Jerusalem, and even (to some extent) the refugees.”
This is the administration’s clearest statement yet that it’s abandoning the position held by every previous U.S. administration: that Israel needs “defensible borders” — which everyone agrees the 1967 lines are not. Mitchell also thereby abandoned the position, held by every previous administration, that any deal must acknowledge Israel’s historic ties to the Temple Mount via some Israeli role there, even if only symbolic (see Bill Clinton’s idea of “sovereignty under the Mount”). The Arab initiative requires Israel to just get out.
And Mitchell effectively took Syria’s side on that border dispute: no Israeli government ever agreed to withdraw farther than the international border, whereas the Arab initiative mandates the 1967 lines — i.e., including the territory Syria illegally annexed pre-1967.
Even worse, the Arab initiative addresses none of Israel’s concerns, such as recognition as a Jewish state or security arrangements. That means Mitchell just announced support for all Arab demands without obtaining any parallel concession to Israel. Under those circumstances, why would the Arabs bother making any?
And his repeated demand that Israeli-Palestinian talks deal with borders first indicates that this was no slip of the tongue. After all, the only thing Israel has to give is territory; having once ceded that via an agreement on borders, it has nothing left to trade for, say, security arrangements — which, as a veteran Israeli negotiator told Benn, has actually proved one of the hardest issues to resolve in previous rounds of talks. Borders first, an Israeli minister summed up, is “a trap. We only give, we don’t get anything.”
George Bush’s Road Map viewed the Arab initiative as merely one of many “foundations” for talks. Mitchell’s adoption of its “full implementation” as a goal thus represents a deterioration in U.S. positions that ought to worry all Israel supporters.