George J. Mitchell Commencement Address

Transcript of Commencement address given at MIT Commencement, Cambridge, Mass., June 9, 2003


To the graduates, their families and friends, it's an honor for me to be part of this important day in your lives. I know that many of you already are worrying about how long I'm going to speak. So I begin by reassuring you that my intention is to stop speaking before you graduates stop listening.

I've been asked to discuss my work in conflict resolution in Northern Ireland and the Middle East. Mindful of the commitment I've just made, my comments will have to be brief.

I spent five years working for peace in Northern Ireland. For almost all of that time there was no progress. There was political posturing, delay, doubt and many people died. After each death I spent a sleepless night trying to fight off a growing feeling of despair and failure. But after years of effort, a peace agreement was finally reached.

From that experience, I formed the conviction that there is no such thing as a conflict that can't be ended. Conflicts are created, conducted and sustained by human beings. They can be ended by human beings.

After completing my work in Northern Ireland I was asked to go to the Middle East. There, the committee which I chaired made recommendations, which have been incorporated into the "road map," recently advanced by the United States, the United Nations, the European Union and Russia.

As we all know, last week it was accepted by Israel and the Palestinian authority. Although only a first step, that acceptance was significant and it reinforces my conviction that like all others, the conflict in the Middle East can be ended.

Among the steps we recommended and which are included in the road map are, by the Palestinian authority: the renunciation of violence, an end to hatred and incitement, and a 100% effort to crack down on terrorism, an effort which has not yet been made. By the government of Israel: the withdrawal of its military forces to their pre-Intifada positions and the freezing of all settlement construction activity. Then, there must be a prompt resumption of negotiations to achieve a two-stage solution.

What is most important is that both recognize that the only way to achieve a lasting solution is through negotiation. If they are to succeed, illusions must be abandoned on both sides. Some Palestinians and other Arabs continue to believe that they can destroy Israel and rid the Middle East of a Jewish state. That cannot and will not happen. It is a fantasy that will only generate more misery and suffering on both sides. Some Israelis believe and advocate that all of the Palestinians, every man, woman and child, can be physically uprooted and moved to another country. That cannot and will not happen. It, too, is a fantasy.

Contributing to the difficulty of finding a peaceful resolution is the fact that the circumstances and objectives of the two sides are different. The Israelis have a state. What they want is security. That is their overriding objective. The Palestinians don't have a state and they want one, an independent economically viable, geographically contiguous state. That is their overriding objective.

I believe that neither can attain its objective by denying to the other side its objective. Palestinians will never achieve a state if Israel does not have security. Israel will never get sustainable security if the Palestinians don't have a state.

There are some in both societies, perhaps some here today, who disagree with this assertion. But for me, it has been validated by the tragic events of the past two and a half years. Our committee's report was very tough on terrorism. We branded it morally reprehensible and unacceptable. It is also politically counterproductive. It will not achieve its objective. To the contrary, with each suicide bomb attack, the prospect of a Palestinian state is delayed. Such tactics also are destructive of Palestinian civil society and the reputation of the Palestinian people throughout the world.

The road map offers Palestinians the alternative of a non-violent path to a Jewish state, to a Palestinian state living in peace alongside a Jewish state, the two state solution that a majority on both sides continue to say they support.

Palestinians in turn must accept that the Israeli demand for security is as real and as necessary as is their demand for a state. Both are more likely to occur if reciprocal steps are taken to create a context in which meaningful negotiation can be conducted. This can't be done by the two sides themselves. Their mutual mistrust is total. The culture of peace, so carefully nurtured over the previous decade, has been shattered. In its place there has developed a sense of futility and despair of the inevitability of conflict.

And yet public opinion polls on both sides show consistent and strong majorities in support of a two-state solution and of the political process needed to bring it about.

But because of the impact of the prolonged violence, a majority of Palestinians support suicide bombings of Israelis and a majority of Israelis support the use of whatever force is deemed necessary to suppress such attacks. In other words, majorities on both sides largely agree on the solution, but they no longer trust the other side's intentions to reach it. They're caught in a zero-sum contest in which both are suffering.

Time does not permit me to repeat the long list of our committee's recommendations or the details of the road map. Most attention has been given to the cessation of violence and incitement by Palestinians and a freeze on all settlement construction activity by Israelis. I have already commented on and condemned the failure of terror to advance the Palestinian cause. As to settlements, our committee adopted what has been the policy of every American administration for more than a quarter of a century.

During the more than 50 years of its existence, Israel has had the strong support of the United States. In international forums the US has at times cast the only vote in Israel's behalf. Yet, even in such a close relationship, there are some differences. Prominent among them is the United States government's long-standing opposition to the government of Israel's policies and practices regarding settlements. That US opposition has been consistent through the Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton and Bush administrations; just as consistent has been the continued settlement activity by the Israeli government. In his major policy speech on the Middle East last year, President Bush was explicit. He said, and I quote, "Israeli settlement activity in the occupied territories must stop, consistent with the recommendations of the Mitchell Committee." The road map also refers specifically to our recommendations on settlements.

As we read in this morning's newspaper, there already are serious problems in implementation of the road map's recommendations. There will be more. So I don't underestimate the difficulties, but I believe that an end to this conflict is possible.

It is especially important that we Americans not turn away when the inevitable setbacks occur, that we not resign ourselves to the inevitably of conflict. American commitment and determination are essential to the preservation of a sovereign and secure Israel and to the peaceful and just resolution of the conflict in the Middle East. There as elsewhere there is a universal human desire to lead lives that are full, free and meaningful.

Because of the wisdom and foresight of our founding fathers, we're fortunate to live in a society, which despite its imperfections is the most free, the most just, the most open society in all of human history. From that society each of us receives many benefits. With benefits come responsibilities. You've had the good fortune to receive an advanced education, so you have an important role to play in preserving and improving our way of life. There's much for all of us to do.

Each of you students, graduates, undergraduates, every person present today, will have your own list of our society's domestic challenges. I will mention just a few that are important to me.

If you believe as I do that every American child is entitled to a good education, regardless of background or family wealth, you must oppose any actions, which have the effect of denying them that opportunity.

If you believe as I do that we have an obligation to leave for future generations the very basics of healthy human life, clean air, pure water, unpoisoned land, you must demand public policies to honor that obligation.

If you believe as I do that every American is entitled to equal opportunity and equal justice, you must speak out against all forms of discrimination and injustice.

Never forget that in the presence of evil, silence makes you an accomplice. The education you've received at this great institution is important, even necessary, but it is not a guarantee of self-worth. It is not a substitute for a life of effort. How you do it is important, just as important as what you do. If you take pride in what you do, you will excel. If you do not take pride in what you do, you cannot excel. John Gardner put it best when he wrote, "An excellent plumber is infinitely more admirable than an incompetent philosopher. The society which scorns excellence in plumbing because it regards that as a humble activity and tolerates shoddiness in philosophy, because it is an exalted activity, will have neither good plumbing nor good philosophy. Neither its pipes nor its theories will hold water."

For those undergraduates going on to further education I have some advice on what not to do. I serve as the Chancellor of the Queen's University of Northern Ireland. Last December, our students took a graduate school entrance exam. One of them, frustrated by the difficulty of the questions, wrote, in answer to the last question, "God alone knows the answer to this question. Merry Christmas." Two weeks later he got his paper back with this note: "God gets an A. You fail. Happy New Year."

You are part of a highly privileged elite in the education you've received, in the opportunities that will be available to you. It is inevitable and appropriate that you devote much of your life to earning the income you need to support yourself and your family. Like all human beings you will want status and wealth, and most of you will get them.

But the more successful you are, the more evident it will become to you that there's more to life. You will find that fulfillment in your life will not come from the expensive things you acquire, not from leisure, not from self-indulgence. Real fulfillment in life will come from striving with all of your physical and spiritual might for a worthwhile objective that helps others that is larger than your self-interest. Most of all for you graduates, I hope that each of you is fortunate enough to find such an objective in your life.

Congratulations, good luck, may God bless each one of you.


Topics: Commencement, Special events and guest speakers

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