Jerusalem (CNSNews.com) - Israel and the Palestinian Authority on Friday each received a draft copy of a U.S. investigation into the reasons behind the outbreak of Israeli-Palestinian violence seven months ago.
Neither side had read the report up until now, and because it is only a draft it will not be made public yet. Both parties had contributed an earlier report detailing its own version of events that led to a wave of violent clashes and terrorist attacks that have left nearly 500 people dead.
U.S. Embassy spokesman in Tel Aviv Larry Schwartz emphasized the fact that the Mitchell Commission's report was only a draft.
Both Israel and the Palestinian Authority will have two weeks to study it before submitting their comments, Schwartz said. Then the report, together with the comments, will be submitted to U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan.
Israeli diplomat Aryeh Mekel said in a telephone interview that Israel expected the report to stick to the terms of reference agreed upon last year - that the inquiry was to be a fact-finding mission and nothing more.
The investigating commission was mandated by understandings reached between Israel and the PA at the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheik last fall under the auspices of former President Clinton and other world leaders.
Israel agreed to the commission as a compromise, in place of a fully-fledged international investigation, which Israel feared would be biased in favor of the PA.
Mekel said the "bottom line" for Israel would be "if the report contributes to a Palestinian decision to stop the violence against us."
According to reports coming out of Washington, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is not being blamed for triggering the violence last September by visiting the Temple Mount, a volatile Jerusalem religious site, holy to both Jews and Muslims.
The PA has said that Sharon's brief visit to the site inspired such rage among Palestinians that it spilled into the streets in a spontaneous outpouring of anger and violent clashes.
Israel has rejected that claim, saying that the Palestinians used Sharon's visit as an excuse to launch a violent campaign, which had already been prepared in advance. Some PA officials have lent credence to that view by acknowledging that the uprising was planned ahead of Sharon's visit.
The Mitchell report reportedly stops short of calling for the deployment of international observers in the disputed areas.
The PA has called on the U.N. to send a peacekeeping force to protect Palestinians. Both Israel and the U.S. have opposed such a move. Israel believes it would only act as a protection force for Palestinian terrorists, who could attack Israel and retreat behind international observers, thus preventing Israeli retaliation.
The report reportedly contains criticism of Israel's settlement policy.
The PA wants a total freeze on Israeli building in the disputed territories. Israel has said it will not begin any new communities but that existing ones must be allowed natural growth.
Foreign Minister Shimon Peres wrapped up several days of talks on the situation, meeting with President Bush in Washington on Thursday.
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer described the Bush-Peres meeting as "a good exchange, reflecting our strong relationship with Israel and our long association with Foreign Minister Peres, who has been a tireless advocate for peace in the Middle East."
The president, Fleischer added, "also stated that violence must be reduced immediately and that the parties should continue their security discussions.
A perceived U.S. backing of Israel in the conflict is creating some concern in the PA.
Faisal Husseini, PLO executive committee member in charge of Jerusalem affairs, called on Bush to invite PA Chairman Yasser Arafat to the White House "quickly."
Bush has hosted Israel's prime minister as well as the leaders of three Arab nations since taking office, but said he would not invite the Palestinian leader until the violence stops.
"[The U.S.] can't go on listening only to the Israeli side," Husseini was quoted as telling the National Press Club in Washington on Thursday.