U.S. Mideast envoy William Burns, also the current U.S.
ambassador to Jordan, has begun his difficult work of trying
to end Mideast violence and restart peace negotiations
between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, with a flurry
of meetings with the two sides. Appointed to try to get the
sides to implement the recommendations of the international
Mitchell commission, Burns met on Sunday with both Sharon
and Arafat, and again on Monday night (after Shavuos) with
Last week Israeli premier Ariel Sharon declared a unilateral
cease fire after the release of the Mitchell report. The
move apparently gave Burns an extra boost at the start of
his efforts, but the gesture was rejected by Palestinian
leader Yasser Arafat who told Burns on Sunday that he does
not accept the cease fire, and later left for Moscow without
giving any orders to stop the Palestinian attacks. Arafat's
frequent absences from the Palestinian Authority over the
last week have been interpreted by some diplomats as an
attempt to avoid making decisions on the Mitchell plan.
Israel proposes a formal cease-fire declaration, followed by
renewed talks on security coordination, as immediate first
steps toward implementing the Mitchell report. The
Palestinians are insisting that the cease-fire be part of a
package deal linking it with a settlement freeze and the
resumption of negotiations based on UN Security Council
resolutions 242 and 338.
The Israeli plan includes a detailed timetable for the steps
recommended by the Mitchell report: following a cease-fire,
security cooperation talks between the sides would resume
and a cooling off period of two months would begin. After
this, some confidence-building measures would be started and
talks about carrying out existing agreements would begin.
The steps outlined in this proposal would lead to renewed
peace process negotiations between the sides in about three
Under the Mitchell report provisions, Israel would declare a
freeze on settlement building as one of the confidence
building measures. Israel counter-proposes that the
settlements issue be deferred until the final status
negotiation stage. In the interim, Israel would start
implementing existing agreements -- Oslo 2 and the Wye
accords. It would carry out the "third phase withdrawal" on
the West Bank, which is mandated by the interim accords.
Israel has never carried out this third withdrawal. Former
prime minister Ehud Barak said it had died "a natural death"
after the Camp David summit.
In exchange for a third phase pullout, Israel demands that
the PA honor sections in old agreements which require the
arrest of terrorists, the collection of illegal firearms,
and an end to incitement.
During the meeting on Sunday with the American envoy, which
included Prime Minister Sharon, Foreign Minister Shimon
Peres and Defense Minister Ben-Eliezer, Sharon told Burns:
"Israel accepts the Mitchell report, including the outlines
it set out." However he noted that "Israel cannot exercise
restraint without end, and without an absolute end to
violence, we won't be able to move forward." Defense
Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer told Burns there had been 96
Palestinian terrorist attacks in this period, and a number
of Israeli casualties. This includes two car bombs in
Yerushalayim and another in Chadera, as well as several
shooting murders along the roads.
According to Sharon the first step is to convene the
Palestinian-Israeli security coordination committee. The
last high-level security meeting was held a month ago. The
Palestinians then wanted politicians, such as Saeb Erekat,
to participate. Israel wanted the discussions to concentrate
solely on security issues and not to seem as a backdoor
route to negotiations under fire. In the end, the meetings
did not include the politicians.
West Bank Preventive Security Service chief Jibril Rajoub
said the Americans are serious about pushing for the
implementation of the Mitchell report, since it was in their
interest to calm the entire region which is on the verge of
Burns will work with Palestinian Legislative Council Speaker
Ahmed Qurei who was charged by Arafat with working out the
details of a mechanism for implementing the Mitchell report.
Saeb Erekat and PA Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo
will also work with Burns's team.
A senior Palestinian security officer said that if there is
an agreement on the Mitchell report, rejectionists like
Hamas and Islamic Jihad will do their best to spoil it, but
the PA will do its part to prevent them. He admitted that it
will not be easy to calm the Palestinian street, since many
in Fatah are opposed to a cease-fire.
According to various economic estimates, the eight-month-old
Intifadah in the West Bank and Gaza Strip has cost the
Israeli economy some two billion dollars, which amounts to
two percent in annual growth. The two sectors of the economy
that have been hardest hit are construction and tourism. The
violence has also affected investments and exports, although
there the extent of the damage has been unclear due to the
worldwide tech bust and economic slowdown that has also
reduced Israeli economic activity in these areas.