Can Mitchell broker Belfast-style pact in Mideast?
BY ALI ABUNIMAH
February 2, 2009
President Barack Obama's appointment of former Sen. George Mitchell as his new Middle East envoy is a good choice. Mitchell showed evenhandedness uncharacteristic of U.S. officials when he led a fact-finding mission to the region in 2000.
Had its recommendations been followed -- cessation of violence and a freeze on Israeli settlement construction on occupied Palestinian land -- the peace process might have made progress. Mitchell, who is already in the Middle East, helped broker the 1998 Belfast Agreement, the key to ending decades of strife in Northern Ireland. Because of historical similarities, that agreement is an important precedent for the Middle East.
Before 1948, European Jewish settlers in Palestine wanted their own state once British colonial rulers withdrew. But because Jews were a minority, the only way to achieve this was a partition that the majority Arab Palestinian population bitterly opposed. When Israel was established in 1948, most Palestinians were forced out. Those remaining became second-class citizens in a Jewish state.
The modern conflict in Ireland began when Great Britain, facing resistance from Irish nationalists, decided to withdraw after centuries. But the Protestant ruling class, a quarter of the population, insisted Ireland remain tied to Britain. These unionists, descended from English and Scottish settlers, refused to live in a state with a nationalist Catholic majority.
To appease the unionist minority, Britain partitioned Ireland in 1921, creating Northern Ireland, an entity whose legitimacy nationalists denied. As Israeli Jews did to Palestinians, Protestants institutionalized their own culture and religion as the official creed and violently suppressed expressions of nationalist identity.
The Mitchell-led Belfast Agreement ended Protestant hegemony in favor of equality. Decades of bloody conflict left deep social divisions, but a framework for nondiscriminatory democratic governance has allowed nationalists and unionists to begin to shed their siege mentalities. While formal partition remains, it is disappearing on the ground. Anyone can live, work and move freely, and official cross-border bodies are integrating the infrastructure and economies of the two jurisdictions.
The power-sharing executive in Belfast, led by staunchly nationalist Sinn Fein (closely affiliated with the IRA) and the hard-line Democratic Unionist Party, was once as inconceivable as a government made up Hamas and Israel's current government would be today. U.S. diplomacy played a key role by putting pressure on the stronger parties -- the British government and Protestant unionists. Instead of shunning Sinn Fein, the United States -- with prodding from Irish Americans -- insisted that it be brought into the process.
By 2010, Palestinians will outnumber Israeli Jews in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza Strip combined. The two groups cannot be totally separated any more than Ireland's Protestant unionists and Catholic nationalists could.
Like Irish nationalists, Palestinians will never recognize the "right" of another group to discriminate against them. Like Protestant unionists, Israeli Jews insist on their own state. Israel's solution is to cage Palestinians into ghettos -- like Gaza -- and periodically bomb them into submission.
If Mitchell is allowed to apply Northern Ireland's lessons, there may be a way out, but he'll face obstacles he didn't encounter in Belfast. The Obama administration remains committed to the failed partition formula of a Jewish state and a Palestinian state and maintains a misguided boycott of Hamas, which won Palestinian elections in 2006. And the Israel lobby -- much more powerful than Irish-American groups -- warps U.S. policy to favor the stronger side, an intransigent Israel. If these policies don't change, the hope Mitchell brings will be wasted, and escalating violence will fill the political vacuum.
ALI ABUNIMAH, a fellow at the Palestine Center in Washington, D.C., is author of "One Country, A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse." Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.