Former Senate majority leader George Mitchell's appointment as the latest U.S. Presidential envoy to the Middle East is meant to serve as proof that, after eight years of disengagement, the United States is ready to make a renewed, determined push for a peace settlement between Israel and the Palestinians. And who better than Mitchell, the man who brokered the "peace process" in Northern Ireland, to lead the effort? As President Obama put it in his interview with Al Arabiya, "George Mitchell is somebody of enormous stature. He is one of the few people who have international experience brokering peace deals." Lightning, the theory seems to be, really can strike twice. Mitchell himself argued in 2007 that, while "each situation and negotiation is unique, successful diplomatic interventions have much in common."
Perhaps they do. But the lessons of Northern Ireland cannot be easily applied to the Middle East–nor can Mitchell’s Belfast template be readily transferred to Jerusalem.
There are some similarities. In Northern Ireland, Mitchell, who was appointed Bill Clinton's Special Envoy to the province in 1995, had to mediate between the mutually exclusive desires of two Northern Ireland constituencies: a Republican movement that refused to recognize Northern Ireland's right to exist and a Unionist community deeply suspicious of anything and everything that might possibly undermine Northern Ireland's territorial integrity as part of the United Kingdom. One need not look too deeply to appreciate at least some similarities between this and the Middle East conundrum. Indeed, Sinn Fein and the Republican movement explicitly identified with the Palestinian cause, leaving the Unionists, for better or worse, to be associated with the Israelis. Both sides persuaded themselves that they, not their opponents, were the victims.
Mitchell's insight was to perceive that there could be no piecemeal deal. Instead there would have to be a grand bargain in which both sides agreed to leap together for the common good. His greatest task was to slowly, painstakingly, doggedly build some measure of trust between Gerry Adams's Sinn Fein and David Trimble's Ulster Unionists. This took years. When Mitchell arrived in Belfast the two parties would not even sit at the same table. Their discussions were relayed via a third party--Mitchell.
Mitchell was eventually able to persuade each party that it was unrealistic to suppose they could negotiate without giving ground. But the nature of what they were required to concede differed widely. Sinn Fein and the Republican movement acknowledged, for the first time, that not only did Northern Ireland exist as a political entity but that is also had a right to exist. When Gerry Adams signed the Good Friday Agreement he signed away eighty years of Republican ideology.
From the perspective of Sinn Fein and the IRA this was an enormous, and enormously difficult, concession; to the Unionist community, however, it meant that the Republican movement had finally, through gritted teeth, accepted the obvious reality that there could be no change to Northern Ireland's constitutional status unless that change was endorsed by a majority of the province's voters. In a similar fashion, it is hard to imagine Israelis being enthused by any putative recognition of their state's right to exist on the part of the Palestinians. That's the bare minimum they may feel like expecting.
In exchange for a psychological concession on the principle of consent, the Republican party needed to receive other, more concrete, gains. That meant, much to Unionists’ chagrin, the immediate release of terrorist prisoners and major reforms of policing. To Unionist eyes the IRA's declaration of a ceasefire did not amount to much: They had lived under the threat of the bomb and the bullet for years. Now the IRA was declaring a ceasefire and expected to be rewarded for it? In their view it was rather like a wife-beater asking for credit for no longer beating his wife.
Nonetheless, Mitchell appreciated that it would be difficult, if not impossible, to forge a peace agreement absent the cooperation of the men of violence. In his view, "To be sure, their participation will likely slow things down and, for a time, block progress. But their endorsement can give the process and its outcome far greater legitimacy and support. Better they become participants than act as spoilers. ... Bringing them in slowed the pace of diplomacy - but increased the odds that a power-sharing agreement, once reached, would have widespread support and staying power."
This is both true and not entirely true. And it cuts to the heart of the problem with the Northern Irish "peace process": all three governments involved (London, Dublin, Washington) and Mitchell himself came to believe that any agreement, no matter how flawed, was preferable to no agreement.
That had the consequence of giving Sinn Fein the better end of the bargain. To Mitchell, the most important objective was keeping the Republicans on board. If replicated in the Middle East, this would be to pacify Hamas at all costs.
At the heart of the dilemma in northern Ireland was what came to be known as "constructive ambiguity": that is, the IRA signed on to an agreement that seemed to pledge them to disarm, but precious little pressure was put upon them to do so for fear that the IRA might wreck the agreement and return to war. The failure to hold Sinn Fein and the IRA to their commitments would eventually render the entire peace process hollow.
The vast majority of Irish citizens wanted peace, but few ever really envisioned--let alone welcomed--the idea of Northern Ireland being governed by Sinn Fein and the refusenik, hardline Democratic Unionist Party. Yet this, government by murderers and bigots, is what has transpired. The determination to work from the extremes toward the center, rather than from the center towards the extreme, cripple moderate nationalism and Unionism alike. There is peace, certainly, but not what anyone had hoped for.
That wasn't Mitchell's concern, however. Throughout the process he was a patient, determined, cordial facilitator. A deal would be a deal. He overcame initial suspicion and was, in the end, regarded as a dogged, honest broker. There's no reason to suppose that he won't demonstrate similar qualities in his new role.
But there are myriad factors that make the situation he faces now far more difficult than that he confronted in Ulster. The Good Friday Agreement was not just the result of a year or two of negotiations. It was sometimes dubbed "Sunningdale for Slow Learners" since it bore some resemblance to the outline of a proposed settlement first drawn up in the 1970s. Even the latter part of the "peace process" lasted more than a decade, from the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985 through the Hume-Adams talks of the early 1990s and the Downing Street Declaration of 1993. Each of these nudged the process along toward the moment when each party acknowledged that, one way or another, they would have to find a way of living together.
Equally importantly, negotiations in Northern Ireland were the product of exhaustion. Most of the IRA leadership had realized there was no prospect of a military victory. They could not bomb "the Brits" out of Northern Ireland. Thirty years of paramilitary warfare had taken its toll: The Republican movement was tired and ready, however much it may have pained them, to contemplate a different kind of future. For their part, both John Major and his successor Tony Blair appreciated that a peace settlement in Northern Ireland was worth almost any price. The financial and psychological cost of battling the IRA had taken its own toll.
Perhaps a similar level of exhaustion will prevail in Palestine, too. But right now, in the immediate aftermath of the latest military engagements, that seems a dubious proposition. In Northern Ireland weary combatants recognized, however reluctantly, that they would have to live with one another. Without that awareness there would have been no peace process at all.
One of Mitchell’s first tasks will be to persuade Israel and the Palestinians that they too have exhausted all other options. If he can accomplish that then there may, perhaps, be grounds to hope that he can find a way of forging a new peace agreement--one that many people will think, as they did of his Northern Irish agreement, is better than no peace agreement at all.
A former Washington Correspondent for the Scotsman, Alex Massie writes a blog for The Spectator. He lived in Dublin during the 1990s.
By Alex Massie