Terms of Engagement

Mixed Irish Blessing

Obama's peace negotiator thinks his success in Northern Ireland should give us hope in the Middle East. But does the analogy really hold?


The prospect of next week’s direct talks between Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu offers no obvious grounds for enthusiasm, or even hope. Abbas has agreed to the talks with a reluctance that seems to border on dread, while Netanyahu, his public firmly behind him, feels little pressure to make real concessions. Middle East experts have set expectations at subbasement levels. But George Mitchell, U.S. President Barack Obama’s special envoy to the Middle East, believes he knows something the handicappers don’t: With enough patience and persistence, you can bring the most bitter enemies to see their common interest. That was the lesson he learned from his role in the Northern Ireland peace process in the 1990s. "We had about 700 days of failure and one day of success," as he put it recently. As then, so now: "Past efforts at peace that did not succeed cannot deter us from trying again."

Having conducted successful negotiations under very trying conditions not only in Northern Ireland but between baseball’s owners and players, Mitchell has earned a right to his quiet and undemonstrative optimism. Hopefulness is itself an important ingredient for negotiations: You often have to believe in the possibility of a successful outcome more than the adversaries do just to get them talking to one another. In short, we should not want Mitchell to feel any less positive about the Middle East than he apparently does. But that’s different from the question of whether his hopefulness is justified. Does the Northern Ireland peace process offer a meaningful precedent for next week’s talks? What are the lessons of Mitchell’s first foray into global diplomacy, which were crowned with success in 1998?

It’s not hard to see why Mitchell would draw hope from the analogy. By the time then-President Bill Clinton appointed him as an envoy in 1994, the Catholic "loyalists" and Protestant "unionists" had spent decades killing and maiming each other, as well as innocent civilians on both sides. Their fight was not over land, as in the Middle East, but over the status of their country: The Catholics wanted to join largely Catholic Ireland, while the Protestants  wanted to remain within the United Kingdom. But as in the Middle East, religious differences had deeply envenomed a struggle over conflicting national aspirations. As Mitchell writes in Making Peace, his account of his role in the process, "Centuries of conflict have generated hatreds that make it virtually impossible for the two communities to trust each another…. Each assumes the worst about the other." As Nancy Soderberg, then Clinton’s deputy national security advisor, puts it, Mitchell "forced them to see that there was a win-win side to moving forward, that it didn’t have to be a zero-sum game." Mitchell’s gifts for getting adversaries to see reason are "directly transferable" to the Middle East, Soderberg told me.

The negotiations themselves at times sound eerily familiar: The endless, sterile fight over process, over the ground rules for discussion, the preliminary agenda, the final agenda, consumed the overwhelming fraction of those 700 days. Extremists on both sides kept trying to derail the talks through calculated acts of violence. As a "precondition" to talks, unionists demanded that the Irish Republican Army (IRA), the Catholic paramilitary, "decommission" its weapons. The loyalists insisted, as Israel now does, on negotiation without precondition. Mitchell ultimately cut the Gordian knot by persuading both sides to accept a set of principles, including a commitment to "democratic and exclusively peaceful means of resolving political issues" and total and verifiable disarmament of paramilitaries on both sides. The two sides then agreed to hold "proximity" talks with the British and Irish governments before moving on to direct negotiations.

And now, after 18 months, Mitchell has brought the Israelis and the Palestinians to the same point. The lesson he seems to draw from his experience in Northern Ireland is: Don’t surrender to the apparent hopelessness of the situation. If you insist on preserving forward motion, good things will happen. But you can draw another, very different lesson from Mitchell’s own account. The reason both sides ultimately agreed to painful concessions, he writes, was that "the vast majority of people had had enough" of funerals and violence and were desperate for peace. Although extremists remained, hard-liners on both sides had already backed off their maximalist demand: the IRA for a united Ireland, the unionists for a Protestant-controlled north. The remaining stakes, though fiercely contested, were susceptible to difference-splitting: How would an elected assembly in the North protect the rights of the Catholic minority, and under what terms would the new Northern institutions be bound to Ireland?

Another way of understanding the lesson of Northern Ireland is thus: Readiness is all. The adversaries must conclude that their maximalist demands stand in the way of a peaceful settlement. Abbas has arguably reached this point, which is why he has agreed to engage in direct talks after fruitlessly insisting on clear "terms of reference," above all an end to Israeli settlement-building and a return to pre-1967 borders. In the face of public skepticism bordering on hostility, Abbas accepted a statement by the Mideast "Quartet" that simply reaffirms an earlier commitment to direct negotiations that "lead to a settlement … that ends the occupation which began in 1967." Hamas, which occupies a position analogous to that of the IRA, has repudiated the talks and remains formally committed to Israel’s destruction. As an Israeli off
icial puts it, "The IRA was looking at the end of the day to negotiate with the British, which you can’t say of Hamas, and of Syria and Hezbollah and other parties to the conflict." Instead, the hard-liners plan to make hay from the failure of these latest talks.

But Israel’s position constitutes an equal and reciprocal obstacle to peace. Israel is the occupying power in Palestine, as Britain was in Northern Ireland. But well before Mitchell came along, the British had undergone a drastic change of heart. In the 1993 Downing Street Declaration, Britain forswore any "selfish strategic or economic interest in Northern Ireland" and pledged to permit the people to determine their own fate. Successive British governments made painful concessions to bring the Troubles to an end. Israel’s position of course is scarcely analogous because its very survival as a state is at risk, but neither the Netanyahu government nor the broader public has proved willing to make the concessions, above all on settlements, that would strengthen Abbas’s hands vis-à-vis Hamas and his own public. Meanwhile, irreversible "facts on the ground" accumulate. Although it’s often said that "everyone knows" what a peace deal would look like, the settlement policy is well on its way to turning a two-state solution into a dead letter. There are now roughly half a million Israeli settlers in the West Bank. It’s virtually unimaginable that Israel will dismantle enough of their homes to allow a viable Palestinian state to exist, given how difficult it was to extricate just a few thousand Israelis from Gaza.

The comparison of the two situations only points to the much greater intractability of Israel/Palestine and to the limits under which a talented and dedicated negotiator like Mitchell operates. But does that mean that the Obama administration should let the two sides keep clawing at each other until their weary publics call for peace? That may be necessary; but given the neighborhood, it’s a very dangerous proposition. The plight of the Palestinians fuels hatred of both Israel and the United States across the Islamic world. Indeed, the larger Arab region is a party to any settlement in a way that has no analogy at all to the situation in Ireland. One of the few hopeful aspects of next week’s talks is that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Jordan’s King Abdullah II have agreed to attend. Abbas cannot make any concessions at all without cover from the major Arab states. The only way to marginalize Hamas would be through such a broad endorsement of any possible outcome. Only if Hamas were marginalized could Israel be persuaded to act in ways that might otherwise be seen to jeopardize its safety. Neither Mubarak nor Abdullah has much of a following among Arab publics, so it’s a very slender reed, but there aren’t any other kind of reeds in the Middle East.

Whether with Iran, Syria, or Lebanon, not to mention Iraq or Afghanistan, the Obama administration has discovered how very frustrating it is to try to shape good outcomes in the region. Next week may mark the beginning of another such exercise in painful education. George Mitchell will need all the hopefulness, and all the patience, he can muster.

James Traub is a regular contributor to Foreign Policy, a nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, and author of the book What Was Liberalism? The Past, Present and Promise of A Noble Idea.

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