Jewish Journal

Mideast Conflict Displays Parallels to N. Ireland

by Niall Stanage

Posted on Apr. 5, 2007 at 8:00 pm

The Middle East peace process, frozen to the point of lifelessness, may be starting to thaw.

After the swearing in of a new Palestinian unity government, cracks quickly began to appear in the Western diplomatic boycott to which the Palestinians have been subjected since Hamas' victory in last year's elections.

Norway's deputy foreign minister met with Palestinian Prime Minister and Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh last month. Britain, Germany and Italy have suggested that their doors are at least ajar to discussions with the Palestinians.

The United States, for its part, has said that its ban on aid to the Palestinian government will remain intact, but it has also noted that it will not shy away from talks with non-Hamas members of the new coalition.

It is much too early to be celebrating the dawning of a new era, of course. On March 19, an Israeli civilian was shot at a fuel depot about 300 yards from the Gaza Strip border. The shooting was claimed by Hamas' armed wing, which stated that the action was "a response to continued Zionist aggression."

It is little wonder, given such actions, that Israel is reluctant to engage with the new Palestinian body.

To Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and his allies, the changes heralded by the formation of the new government are illusory.

But does the maintenance of a hard-line attitude actually help or hinder Israel's own interests and the broader cause of peace in the region? One example from thousands of miles away -- the Irish peace process -- suggests that such an approach may be both shortsighted and counterproductive.

There are obvious parallels between the current situation in the Middle East and the earliest days of Ireland's slow and agonizing march toward peace. The formation of the Palestinian unity government, for example, has been greeted with much the same blend of opprobrium and suspicion that met the so-called Hume-Adams talks of the late 1980s and early 1990s.

That dialogue, between John Hume, then-leader of the moderate Irish nationalist Social Democratic and Labor Party, and Gerry Adams, president of the IRA's political wing, Sinn Féin, is now almost universally acknowledged to have laid the groundwork for a historic peace agreement in 1998.

At the time, however, Hume was accused, as the moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is now, of legitimizing unreconstructed terrorists. Suspicion of Adams -- and calls for his exclusion from political negotiations -- were even more vituperative, with one British newspaper, for example, referring to him as "one of ... the most formidable enemies to peace in Ireland's bloodstained history."

Fortunately for the Irish, the U.S. administration of the time didn't take the naysayers' view. President Bill Clinton's decision to grant Adams a visa to visit the United States in 1994 -- a move made against the advice of the State Department, the Department of Justice and the FBI -- is now seen as crucial in persuading Irish militants to join the political process.

There are many other parallels. Hamas' election triumph last year was widely seen as a disaster for Israel and for U.S. policy in the region. But those pronouncements of doom echo those that followed the election of imprisoned IRA hunger-striker Bobby Sands to the British Parliament in 1981.

At the time, the Sands result was seen purely as strengthening the IRA's hand. Later, it came to look a lot more like the pivot upon which the conflict turned: It opened Irish militants' eyes to the potential of participating in the electoral process, while simultaneously helping bring the British to an acknowledgment that the conflict could not be ended purely by military or "security" means.

At present, Israeli politicians are demanding the continued isolation of the Palestinian government, in part because of Hamas' refusal to explicitly recognize Israel and because the government's platform includes an assertion of the right to "resistance in all its forms."

The Israeli concerns are valid -- but they are also eerily reminiscent of the attempts of pro-British politicians to exclude Sinn Féin from political negotiations, because the IRA had not declared its cease-fire to be permanent.

Adams and his comrades have never to this day explicitly stated that the state of Northern Ireland is legitimate, nor have they disavowed the IRA's campaign. Rather, their actions -- at present, Martin McGuinness, a onetime IRA commander, is on the verge of becoming the deputy leader of Northern Ireland's devolved government -- have rendered such semantic points moot.

There are, of course, fundamental differences between Hamas and the Irish Republican movement. Perhaps the most significant is that Hamas triumphed in last year's elections, while unambiguously wedded to its military campaign, whereas the IRA's armed struggle came to be seen as retarding Sinn Féin's political ambitions.

Nonetheless, the moment is ripe to encourage Palestinians to head down a similar path. Britain's Sunday Telegraph recently reported the release of Hamas commander Salah Arouri from an Israeli jail and quoted him as follows: "We are harmed if we target civilians. At the end of the day, the fruit of military actions is political action. All wars end with truces and negotiations."

It could have been Adams talking 15 years ago.

Likewise, even before the announcement of a unity government, Hamas' decision to take part in elections and to take its seats in the Palestinian Legislative Council was more momentous than perhaps even the group's members fully appreciated.

Almost every armed struggle is underpinned by grandiose claims of ideological purity. Any engagement with the electoral process erodes those justifications, because it brings the would-be revolutionaries into the messy business of realpolitik, however reluctantly, and makes it more difficult for them to ignore the will of the broad mass of people, who are almost never as radical as the guerrillas themselves.

Making peace with erstwhile violent groups is a delicate business: It requires not merely pressure or concessions but a nerve-wracking combination of both. But now is the time to engage with the Palestinians.

Yasser Arafat used to talk about a "peace of the brave." He never showed that bravery himself. Neither Israel nor its friends in the West should be found wanting now.

Niall Stanage, a journalist from Belfast, Northern Ireland, is a columnist for the Irish national newspaper, The Sunday Business Post. He is based in the United States.

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