Fact-Finding Commission Hopes To Promote Middle East Peace

By Julie Stahl | July 7, 2008 | 8:08 PM EDT

Jerusalem (CNSNews.com) - Despite the failure of world leaders to return Israel and the Palestinian Authority to the negotiating table, a U.S.-led fact-finding commission investigating two months of violence and terrorism says it hopes to help the two sides start talking again.

The five-member commission, headed by former U.S. Senator George Mitchell, on Monday met with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak in Jerusalem and with Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat in Gaza in its first trip to the region. It will also visit Jordan and Egypt.

"We have no illusions about the difficult nature of the task ahead," Mitchell told reporters after meeting with Barak.

"Our hope is that our work will be helpful to the parties in reducing the level of violence, which has claimed so many lives, and to help insure an early return to the negotiating table," said Mitchell, who masterminded the Good Friday agreement in Northern Ireland.

Both Israel and the PA have expressed their willingness to work with the commission, however they are both leery about whether or not the commission will be impartial.

In his meeting, Barak assured the members that Israel would give its "full cooperation and maximum assistance" to the commission, which was set up as a result of an Israeli-Palestinian understanding, mediated by President Clinton and other world leaders in October in Sharm e-Sheik, Egypt.

The prime minister briefed the committee on Israel's perspective of the diplomatic and security developments, which have taken place during the last five months, according to a statement from his office.

He emphasized what he called Israel's "diplomatic readiness" at the U.S.-sponsored Camp David summit this summer contrasted to what Israel sees as the violent path the Palestinians have chosen.

Relations between Israel and the PA sharply declined after the summit. Arafat was widely blamed by the international community for the failure of the summit to conclude an agreement because he rejected far-reaching concessions made by Barak.

Arafat accused Barak of not going far enough and frustrating the Palestinians to the point where they took to the streets in violent protest in September. The Palestinians accused Israel of using excessive force in dealing with the fierce clashes, which have left more than 300 people dead, most of them Palestinians and a quarter of them under the age of 18.

The PA has demanded that the commission probe the reasons behind the violence, which it considers to be Israel's "occupation" and non-compliance with international resolutions. It also has called for those it sees as responsible to be tried as war criminals.

However, according to European Union diplomat Javier Solano, such action would be beyond the scope of the commission.

"The commission is not a tribunal," said Solana, another member of the team. The purpose of the commission, he told reporters in Jerusalem "is to analyze the situation, with the two parties and see if we can make recommendations for the future."

The next step will be for both sides to submit reports on the events of the last few months as they see them to the commission for analysis.

Israel, which has already been condemned by the U.N. Security Council, the U.N. Human Rights Commissioner and various human rights organizations for its actions during the last two months, was reluctant at first to allow the commission to begin work.

According to Foreign Ministry Director General Alon Liel, Israel's fears were allayed in meetings with committee members prior to the visit, when Israel was assured that the "terms of reference" for the commission would be limited.

However, analysts at the Washington-based Center for Security Policy have said that they believe the commission will only serve the interests of the PA and not Israel in the end.

"Although the Mitchell probe is supposed to lack the authority to assign blame to either side, a safe bet is that it will find fault with the Jewish State, and feed further calls from the [Palestine Liberation Organization] and its friends in the 'international community' for redress," the Center said in a national advisory.

"At the very least, Israel's acquiescence to the Mitchell mission will serve to advance Arafat's campaign to secure foreign support for the Palestinians' sovereignty and independence from Israel by internationalizing the conflict to Israel's detriment and exacerbating the Jewish State's growing isolation from the United States."

Israel has sought to keep the Israeli-PA conflict primarily between the two parties with the U.S. as a sort of broker an minimal interference from other nations.

However, the PA has been trying to involve other international players, hoping to garner support for its positions.