Thursday, January 22, 2009

George Mitchell Draws The Wrong Comparisons Between Ireland And Israel

With talk that George Mitchell is going to be Obama's Middle East envoy, the following quote is making the rounds:
Mitchell, Washington's special envoy to the Northern Ireland peace negotiations that led to the Belfast Agreement in 1998, spoke to the Post during a visit here last month to take part in a conference on US-Israeli relations at Tel Aviv University's Institute for National Security Studies (INSS).

"I understand the people in the Middle East are discouraged," Mitchell said. "I understand your feelings. But from my experience in Northern Ireland, I share the feeling that there is no such thing as a conflict that can't be ended. Conflicts are created by human beings, and can be ended by human beings. It may take a long time. But with committed, active and strong leadership, it can happen here in the Middle East."
The kind of leadership Mitchell is talking about, based on his personal experience in Ireland, is leadership in diplomacy as opposed to taking action against terrorism. Unfortunately, such a view ignores the context.

Last year, John Bew and Martyn Frampton wrote an article about Talking to Terrorists: The Myths, Misconceptions and Misapplication of the Northern Ireland Peace Process. According to the summary of the article:

  • It has become fashionable to look to the lessons of the peace process in Northern Ireland as holding insights for other areas of conflict in the world. However, this has been done in an uncritical way, often more focused on contemporary agendas than on the core realities unique to the region, which do not necessarily translate elsewhere.

  • In some instances, the willingness of a state to negotiate might encourage the terrorists to believe that their opponents are ready to concede - even when this is not the case. In June-July 1972, for example, top IRA operatives were flown to London in order to meet senior British politicians, leading the IRA to believe its violent campaign had forced the British to the negotiating table. After the talks failed, on 21 July 1972, the IRA exploded 22 bombs in Belfast in the space of 75 minutes - killing 9 and injuring another 130 on what became known as "Bloody Friday."

  • By the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Republic of Ireland had become a force for stability and peace in Northern Ireland and worked in close cooperation with the British government in the search for a settlement. The same cannot be said of Israel's neighbors. On the contrary, Iran and Syria continue to support Hamas and encourage its violent campaign, offering it arms, funding, training, and sanctuary.

  • For the British government, formal negotiations with the IRA could only occur in a context in which republican violence had been brought to an end. With the IRA in a position of declining military and political fortunes, it sought to extricate itself via the peace process. The perception of the republican leadership had become - rightly - that IRA violence had held back the political prospects of Sinn Fein.

  • The aims of the IRA posed no existential threat to the British. This is not the case where Israel and Hamas are concerned, however. The objectives of Hamas require the destruction of the State of Israel. Moreover, whereas the political goals of the IRA were confined locally to the future of the island of Ireland, Hamas, by its own admission, is part of a global Islamist movement, known as the Muslim Brotherhood. Thus, diplomatic engagement with Hamas has broader international implications. [emphasis added]
Read the whole thing.

Whenever I see this kind of comparison between Israel and Ireland, I like to quote from this 2001 press conference. (It is no longer online apparently, but a cached copy is still here):
Joint Press Availability with British Secretary of State of Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs Jack Straw

Secretary Colin L. Powell
Washington, DC
October 24, 2001

...QUESTION: Secretary Powell, does the situation in Northern Ireland not show us all that negotiations is really the only way forward in all of these situations? And just secondly, when you met Martin McGuinness yesterday, did he give you assurances that there is no link between the IRA and the FARC guerillas in Colombia?

SECRETARY POWELL: We didn't, when I met with him yesterday, we didn't discuss that. We were just sort of celebrating the progress that was achieved yesterday. And I think negotiations are always to be preferred to military conflict, and even when you have military conflict, it doesn't always result in the kind of classic military win. Very often, it sets the stage for negotiations.

And so I hope what we have seen in Northern Ireland in the last 24 hours, which culminates a process that took many, many years long to get to this point, is an example of what can be achieved when people of good will come together, recognize they have strong differences, differences that they have fought over for years, but it's time to put those differences aside in order to move forward and to provide a better life for the children of Northern Ireland.

FOREIGN MINISTER STRAW: Could I just add one thing to that, if I may? Of course, negotiation is far, far better -- infinitely better -- than military action. As far as Northern Ireland is concerned, we welcome hugely the progress that has been made following the Good Friday Agreement. It also has to be said that before that happened, there had to be a change of approach by those who saw terrorism as the answer. And that approach partly changed because of the firmness of the military and police response to that terrorism. And if there had not been that firm response by successive British governments and others to the terrorist threat that was posed on both sides, we would not have been able to get some of those people into negotiations. We would not be marking what is a satisfactory day in the history of Northern Ireland today.[emphasis added]
On a separate note, an example of a double standard how the situation in Ireland is treated differently than Israel, is that in Northern Ireland there is a separation--not that you would know about that, based on the lack of criticism:
Belfast separation fences divide, but slow violence

This volatile situation forced the British government to erect a separation fence between Catholic and Protestant houses in the area. The origins of such walls, which block off areas of violent friction in Belfast, are to be found in the 1970s during the period known as "The Troubles." Since then, the fences have become a poignant symbol of Belfast, past and present.

...As Morgan sees it, comparisons can't be drawn between Belfast's walls and the separation fence which Israel is erecting in the West Bank. "I've seen pictures of the wall which Israel is building," he says, "but it's not the same situation in Northern Ireland and Belfast. Most of the walls [here] literally separate houses; the wall goes into the back garden of each community - so, quite literally, it divides Protestants and Catholics." Hatred runs so deep on his city's streets, the Belfast mayor adds, that there have been cases of drunks who were beaten almost to death after having taken a wrong turn on the wrong street.
Yes, there are lessons to learn from Ireland onto Israel--namely the need to bring terrorists to the point where they see that terrorism is not an option and they are forced to come to the negotiating table.

Someone may have to remind Mitchell that we are nowhere near that point yet with Hamas, and Abbas's Fatah group is questionable as well.

Crossposted on Soccer Dad

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