Mitchell: Zinni is first step toward Mideast peace
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- George Mitchell, the former U.S. senator who negotiated a comprehensive Middle East peace framework, said Thursday the return of President Bush's envoy to the region is the first step necessary for ending violence and resuming Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.
Mitchell said he would advise Anthony Zinni, a retired marine general, to try to establish a process in which both sides take "reciprocal action" to end violence immediately, then follow it up with "tangible action" that would lead directly to the negotiating table.
Zinni arrived in Israel on Thursday with orders from Bush to try to nudge both sides back to the table and restore calm after the 18-month intifada, or uprising, against Israel. The president has said Zinni's goal is to achieve the conditions necessary for negotiating a cease-fire.
"If there is to be eventually, over time, a genuine peace and reconciliation, there has to be a sharp reduction -- hopefully an elimination -- of the kind of incitement and hatred and demonization that has so far characterized the conflict," Mitchell told CNN.
The trip is Zinni's third to the region. Mitchell said his return does not mean his previous mission, late last year, failed -- but rather that the United States was simply persevering and patient. "You just have to keep at it until peace is achieved," he said.
The plan that Mitchell helped broker, dubbed the Mitchell Commission plan, calls for an immediate cease-fire by both sides and the resumption of security cooperation. Once those steps have been taken, the plan calls for a cessation of Jewish settlement construction in Gaza and the West Bank, a denunciation of terrorism and the resumption of peace talks, among other steps.
In separate conversations with both sides, Mitchell said, Israelis and Palestinians have expressed to him a general weariness of the fighting -- an exhaustion neither party expresses to the other.
"There isn't any way out of this on the current track, and they've got to find a way to get back to the negotiating table," he said, emphasizing the need for a third party's involvement.
"In the Mideast, life has become unbearable for the people in both societies, and for different reasons," he continued. "I think ultimately, they're going to accept the reality that as painful as political negotiation is, and the compromises that are required, it's far preferable to the continuation of this current level of violence."
Mitchell said he witnessed such weariness for violence when he worked to achieve peace in Northern Ireland in 1998. "A peace agreement ultimately became possible because the people got sick of war."
He said prospects for a peace accord in Northern Ireland, finally achieved in the Good Friday agreement, did not seem possible until the end. He added the same may be true in the Middle East.
"Until it happens, you can't predict with certainty," Mitchell said. "You can't take 'no' for an answer. ... You just have to keep at it until peace is achieved."
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