US Starts Review of Mitchell Report
The US administration on Wednesday began an internal review of the Mitchell Commission's investigation into the escalation of violence in the Palestinian territories, reported Haaretz newspaper on Thursday.
President George Bush chaired a session of the National Security Council devoted to the report.
According to the paper, US Secretary of State Colin Powell coordinated preliminary American reviews of the report, which calls for a settlement freeze, an end to Palestinian violence, a period of confidence-building, and resumption of peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
Israel rejects the settlement freeze portion of the report, as well as criticism of Israeli force used against the Palestinians.
Powell has said the report is an "excellent" basis for a new diplomatic initiative in the region.
Sources in Jerusalem suggest that the US will not adopt the report in its entirety, and will seek a solution to what Israel regards as the most problematic issue - the call for a freeze on settlements, including any "natural growth" development, said the paper.
Meanwhile, the Palestinians have formally accepted the report in its entirety - and insist that it be implemented as a package deal, without any changes, said reports.
In the discussions Powell held prior to Wednesday’s session of the NSC, two possible solutions were raised. The first was to adopt Foreign Minister Shimon Peres' formula, which says that no new land will be expropriated for settlement growth, and natural growth would be measured by demography, meaning births and marriages, rather than geography, meaning physical expansion.
The second option raised in Powell's discussions was a total settlement freeze for a set period of time, possibly three or six months, as a confidence-building measure by Israel, said Haaretz.
But a source close to the US administration said Washington would more likely choose the "Peres formula" because it was unlikely Prime Minister Ariel Sharon would accept any freeze, and Washington is not interested in a confrontation with Sharon at this stage.
Israel opposes a settlement freeze, sticking to the government guidelines that explicitly state there will be no new settlements built, but that "the ongoing current needs" of the settlements must be taken care of. According to the Israeli approach, the settlements can only be discussed in final status agreement talks.
The Bush administration is considering stepping up its involvement in the peacemaking efforts with a visit by Powell to the region next week after his African tour.
But inside the administration, there is reportedly concern that a Powell visit at this stage may be wasting the ammunition of his prestige when the region is so troubled, the paper added.
Palestinian sources said that Powell would meet with Arafat next week in Paris.
A second US option is to send a lower-ranking official to the region.
One possibility is former US senator and Northern Ireland mediator George Mitchell himself, sources told the paper. Mitchell headed the international commission established by the Sharm Al Sheikh Forum in October 2000, which originally convened to try to halt the “violence” in its early days.
But the Bush administration is wary of Mitchell, a Democrat and a close associate of former president Bill Clinton.
Another possible envoy might be Edward Djerajian, the former American ambassador in Damascus and Tel Aviv, now a senior fellow at the Baker Institute at Rice University.
But the paper said that the former ambassador had already turned down a full time position as Powell's assistant on Near East affairs, and may not want to immerse himself in a job that holds out little chance of gratitude from anyone.
A third option is a reconvening of the Sharm forum - Israel, the PA, the US, the EU, the UN, Jordan and Egypt - but at a lower working level than the last time the forum met, in order to begin negotiations about implementation of the Mitchell report.
MITCHELL DENIES ‘SETTLEMENTS-TERROR EQUATION’
The paper added that Mitchell on Wednesday vehemently rejected accusations that the report made an equation between “settlements and terrorism.”
In a letter to Abraham Foxman, head of the B'nai B'rith Anti-Defamation League in Washington, Mitchell rejected Foxman's accusations, which echoed Israeli charges, that the Mitchell report had equated Israeli settlements to terrorism, or even drew a link between them.
"We recommended more than 15 steps for the parties to take to rebuild confidence between them," wrote Mitchell. "But there is no mutual connection between our recommendations and we believe that the timing and arrangements of the steps should be determined by the parties."
Referring to Foxman and others' charges that the report draws a parallel between the settlements and terrorism, Mitchell, and former senator Warren Rodman, the other American on the international panel, wrote to Foxman that they "categorically reject any attempt to attribute to us an opinion we do not hold and does not appear in our report," the paper quoted him as saying.
According to the two former senators, "the immediate goal must be a cessation of violence. Our recommendations call for the sides to reaffirm the existing agreements between them and...unconditionally end the violence."
"Our view that the settlements are an obstacle to a solution to the conflict," say the two senators, has been part and parcel of successive US administrations "for the past 25 years."
In another development, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan wrote Wednesday to President Bush calling on Washington to adopt the Mitchell Report, including the call for a freeze on settlements, said the paper.
In his letter, Annan wrote that he appreciated the emphasis the report put on the need to cease all settlement activity, the call for a maximum effort to restrain the violence, as well as the report's emphasis on "the economic and social crisis" in which the Palestinians find themselves.
Annan called the Mitchell Report "fair and balanced" and called for "full implementation of the recommendations, which together with the Jordanian-Egyptian initiative could help build a bridge back to the negotiations for a comprehensive, just and lasting peace in the Middle East," based on UN Security Council resolutions 242 and 338 – Albawaba.com
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