George Mitchell knows about hopelessness. In 1998, after two years of leading intense negotiations to stop the violence in Northern Ireland between Catholics and Protestants achieving “little or no progress,” the former Democratic majority leader of the U.S. Senate was branded a failure.
But suddenly, when more than 80 percent of the public believed nothing could be changed, a political deal was brokered.
“Northern Ireland is relevant to the Middle East,” Mitchell told some 900 people Sunday night at the fourth annual dinner of the Israel Policy Forum, a 9-year-old American peace advocacy group.
Speaking on the eve of a new Bush administration initiative in the Middle East, Mitchell offered words of hope to American Jews who supported the Oslo Accords and are despairing over its collapse into death and destruction.
“I say to you, and I want you to believe, that there is no such thing as a conflict that can’t be ended,” said Mitchell in the ballroom at Chelsea Piers in Manhattan filled with IPF supporters, a dozen U.S. senators and congressmen, Bush administration officials and Israeli cabinet members.
“Conflicts are created and sustained by human beings, and they can be ended by human beings,” he said to applause.
The author of the Mitchell Report, a plan to restart peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, said “there’s not going to be a military solution to this conflict. The only way to end it is through negotiations, through dialogue.”
Mitchell said Israel needs to have secure and clear borders, but also must “freeze all settlement activity,” which drew rousing applause from the audience.
“I don’t always get applause for saying that,” he said.
Mitchell was among dozens of dignitaries on hand, including both New York senators, Democrats Charles Schumer and Hillary Clinton, Reps. Charles Rangel, Anthony Weiner, Eliot Engel and Gary Ackerman, and Egyptian Ambassador to the U.S. Nabil Fahmi.
Also attending were Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), actor Richard Dreyfuss, and Israel minister and Labor Party official Ephraim Sneh, who praised IPF and said “sooner or later we will reach an agreement with the Palestinians very similar to Camp David.”
Sneh reported that Israel’s army had achieved many of its goals already, including “arresting or killing the top Palestinian planners of murders,” referring to the suicide bombings at the Sbarro pizzeria, the disco in Tel Aviv and the Passover massacre.
Officially, IPF stated its support for President Bush and his call for a crackdown on terror, “an end of the Israeli incursion and the resumption of negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians.”
“At a time when many pro-Israel voices are expressing concern over the implications of President Bush’s new Mideast initiative, Israel Policy Forum is embarking on a multifaceted campaign to support the president’s peace efforts,” said IPF executive committee chairman Marvin Lender.
The ballroom eerily featured large photos of the smiling faces of two assassinated peacemakers — Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, killed by Islamic fundamentalists more than 20 years ago, and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin, shot by an Israeli fundamentalist in 1995 — as well as a grinning Yasir Arafat.
While attendees were determined to reaffirm their belief in a negotiated peace despite the increasing violence of recent weeks, several still expressed their anguish.
“I don’t know how many dozens and dozens of times I’ve been in Israel and I’ve never been as depressed as I was on this trip,” said IPF president Jack Bendheim, who returned Sunday. “The streets are empty, the sons of friends are being called into the army, there are no tourists.”
But Bendheim said the message of the evening is “that while we’re absolutely 100 percent behind [Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon and behind Israeli actions on the West Bank …we’re supportive of the president in realizing that only through pressure on both sides will there be a political solution. And only through a political solution will there be peace in the region”
Indeed, Bush was hailed even by the most liberal Democratic voices, despite his renewed call for Israel to end its anti-terrorist military operation in Palestinian areas.
“From my perspective I’m very pleased that the U.S. is finally engaged in a very full way,” Clinton said.
“We have to do everything we possibly can through the efforts of [Secretary of State Colin] Powell and [special envoy Anthony] Zinni to push the Palestinians to the point where they will condemn this violence,” she said.
“We have to support Israel in their efforts to defend their people against these unprovoked and deadly attacks by suicide bombers, and every one of us has to recognize that the same kind of hate and fanaticism that leads people to explode themselves led people to use airplanes as missiles in their attack on us.”
Schumer defended the Republican president’s changing position, saying: “He has a good understanding of how we have to fight terrorism. I’m going to give him the benefit of the doubt. For the moment he really has spoken out forcefully about how Arafat and the Arab nations haven’t dealt with terrorism.”
Security was tight for the event, as bomb-sniffing dogs checked cars and guests had to go through X-ray machines before sampling the sushi, cubes of spiced beef, spring rolls and other reception fare with some of the elite from New York’s Jewish community.
IPF honored members Gail Furman, an assistant clinical professor at NYU Medical School; Marcia Riklis, a longtime peace activist; and Peter Joseph, general partner of Palladium Equity Partners, a private equity investment firm.