What was the Sharm El-Sheikh Fact-Finding Commission led by former US Senator George Mitchell?
The Sharm El-Sheikh Fact-Finding Commission, known as the “Mitchell Commission”, was conceived as a “committee of fact finding” at the October 17, 2000 Sharm al Shaykh conference. Its stated goal was to answer “What happened,” “why it happened,” and how the “recurrence of violence [could] be prevented.”
The five-member fact-finding committee, headed by former US senator George Mitchell, arrived in Israel on December 11, 2000 to begin its work, and then spent five months in the region before releasing its report in April 2001. The other members of the committee were European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana, a former NATO secretary general; former US Senator Warren Rudman, the Jewish leader best known for co-authoring deficit reduction law and cross-examining Oliver North during the Iran-Contra hearings; former Turkish President Suleyman Demirel; and Norwegian Foreign Minister Thorbjoern Jagland.
The report focused on three objectives: to end the violence, to rebuild confidence between the parties, and to encourage them to resume negotiations. The report included recommendations to help the parties achieve the objectives.
The committee bent over backwards to be fair and objective which had the unfortunate effect of blurring any distinction between good and evil. Each side's "perspective" is carefully considered and a balanced view then put forth as the committee's statement. The result includes quotes like these:
- Some Israelis appear not to comprehend the humiliation and frustration that Palestinians must endure every day as a result of living with the continuing effects of occupation, sustained by the presence of Israeli military forces and settlements in their midst ...
- Some Palestinians appear not to comprehend the extent to which terrorism creates fear among the Israeli people and undermines their belief in the possibility of co-existence ...
These statements seek to equate Israeli revulsion at terrorists killing their citizens with Palestinian discomfort over hardships associated with the so-called "occupation", ignoring the fact that there would be no occupation if not for Palestinian Arab aggression and terrorism against Israel. This brand of thinking is pervasive in the report.
Then, the report suggests a list of confidence building measures. Most of these are actions or policies that have already been the subject of agreements between Israel and the Palestinians through the Oslo Peace Process, agreements that have been repeatedly violated by the Palestinians. However, one measure proposed by the Mitchell Report is that Israel "should freeze all settlement activity, including the 'natural growth' of existing settlements." This is a shocking gift to Yasser Arafat from the committee. They put a new requirement on Israel, never agreed in negotiations with the Palestinians, while only asking Palestinian compliance with the Oslo accords, and with other commitments like Arafat's September 9, 1993 letter to then-Prime Minster Yitzhak Rabin in which he "renounce[d] the use of terrorism and other acts of violence." In effect, the report was recommending that Israel make new unilateral concessions, rewarding the PLO for the intifada violence of the previous seven months.
Finally, the report emphasized getting the two parties back to the negotiating table, a good idea in theory but one that ignores the important fact that negotiations over the eight year history of the Oslo process did not bring the parties closer to a settlement but, to the contrary, convinced the Arabs that Israel could be ground down through negotiations and that terrorist violence could be used to gain concessions whenever the negotiations stalled.
One favorable outcome for Israel was that the Mitchell Report did not recommend deployment of an international force to "protect" the Palestinians from Israel, something the Palestinians had been lobbying for.
The Mitchell Plan failed to take hold. The Bush administration then dispatched CIA chief George Tenet, who came to the region and issued a new report on June 13, 2001. Tenet's main goal was to put in place a cease-fire that would allow for implementation of the Mitchell report.