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Last week's dramatic meeting between two Irish leaders was the sort of thing no one imagined possible. Rev. Ian Paisley, the fearsome octogenarian tribune of Northern Ireland Protestants, and Gerry Adams, the leader of Sinn Fein, the political arm of the terrorist Provisional Irish Republican Army, sat down in Belfast to make peace. Though it has been nine years since the IRA first agreed to a cease-fire and to participate in a constitutional process to determine the future of six of the counties of the province of Ulster, the willingness of these two extremists to talk seems to herald the final stage of the Irish peace process.
The scene was, in its own way, every bit as incredible as the dramatic Oslo peace accord signing on the White House Lawn in September 1993, when an equally unlikely pairing of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and prime minister Yitzhak Rabin.
Just as that event spawned hope not just for the Middle East but elsewhere as well, the Belfast meeting has encouraged every dewy-eyed dreamer of peace to think big. After all, if Paisley - the implacable "Dr. No" of Ulster - can make nice with the IRA, surely anything is possible.
That's just what observers of the Middle East are saying this week as US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice appears to have abandoned the Bush administration's prior unwillingness to strong-arm Israel to make concessions to the Arabs. So when, among others, Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Trudy Rubin wrote to make an analogy between Ireland and the Mideast this week, her agenda was to help build support for such a policy of pressure on Israel.
Since so many are fixated on the Irish breakthrough and its relevance to the Middle East, it's worth taking the time to analyze that situation and to see just how misleading this analogy can be.
Unlike the Israeli-Arab stand-off, where one side (the Palestinians) still refuses to accept the legitimacy of their opponents' existence as a separate state, the historic acceptance of a two-state solution in Ireland happened 85 years ago, not last week.
In 1922, Britain finally gave up its fight to hold on to all of Ireland, and agreed to terms with the leadership of the Irish republican movement that had been waging a guerrilla war against them.
Irish leader Michael Collins achieved independence for the people of Ireland after 700 years of British rule. But he had to pay a bitter price for it.
Collins had to concede that six of Ireland's 32 counties with Protestant majorities would stay with Britain, as the majority of those who lived in Ulster had always wanted. But, like the Palestinians who have spurned offers of as much as a state in all of the West Bank and even a share of Jerusalem, some of Collins' colleagues opposed the deal.
The result was the Irish civil war that pitted Collins' "Free-Staters," who accepted the peace with Britain, against a rump of the IRA, who would accept nothing less than a united Ireland. With the support of the overwhelming majority of the Irish people, the Free-Staters won the war, though Collins was assassinated. Collins' antagonists later won control of Ireland via elections, though no Irish government has ever attempted to undo the treaty and conquer Ulster.
Since 1922, the conflict has been about whether or not a portion of Ireland - the majority of whose inhabitants do not wish to sever their allegiance to Britain - would be compelled to do so.
Though the Catholic minority in Northern Ireland may have had legitimate grievances against the Protestant majority, the goal of the Provisional IRA and its political wing Sinn Fein was to forcibly absorb all of Ulster into the Irish Republic.
Their campaign of terror to achieve this end was opposed by the majority of the population of Northern Ireland, as well as by the majority of Catholics in the independent south. Yet with Northern Irish Catholics as sick of the bloodshed as their Protestant rivals, and with both Britain and the Irish Republic united in their opposition to terror, the "provos" finally gave up in 1998. Resuming a terrorist war simply isn't an option for the IRA or Paisley's own ultras.
THE CONTRAST between this scenario - and the one facing Israel and the Palestinians - couldn't be clearer.
Unlike the Irish, who agreed to a historic partition for peace, the Palestinians have yet to meaningfully do so, despite the plethora of peace deals that Israeli leaders have signed with them in the last 14 years.
Some may have thought that Arafat was the Palestinian Michael Collins, a leader willing to risk his life in order to secure peace through compromise with his foes and a willingness to face down his own extremists, but that was never in the cards. The notion that Hamas might take such a step is laughable.
Hamas is based in an extremist faith, not a belief in secular self-determination like Irish republicanism. Their oft-stated goal is simply the destruction of the State of Israel. Were they, or their more secular rivals in Fatah, merely interested in Palestinian statehood, they could have achieved that a long time ago.
Conversely, the Irish never begrudged the right of the British to rule Britain; they just wanted them out of Ireland. The Arabs still oppose the existence of Israel within any borders, including the cease-fire lines of 1949. Their war against the Jews predates the "occupation" of 1967. Israel has always been willing to compromise. Their acceptance of numerous partition plans through the years that were repudiated by the Arabs proves this.
Even more significantly, for all of the bitterness and hatred that kept the "troubles" boiling so long, there is no comparing the cultures of either side in Ireland to the eliminationist mentality of the Palestinians. Theirs is a culture based on the delegitimization of Israel and the Jews, not an agenda of national revival.
Even the "Saudi plan" includes a provision calling for the "return" of Palestinian refugees to Israel. That is tantamount to mandating the end of the Jewish state. Even if the Israelis - desperate not to allow any daylight between themselves and the Americans - say it can be discussed, it is no path to peace.
The Palestinians already have their Paisleys and Adamses. But until they find their Michael Collins - or, more importantly, create a culture that might produce one - there will be no such thing as peace, no matter how often Condi Rice shuttles between Ramallah and Jerusalem.
As long as outsiders encourage the Palestinians in their madness - something the Rice-backed Saudi plan seems to be doing - a day of peace for Israel such as the one the Irish now celebrate, will be put off even further.
The writer is executive editor of The Jewish Exponent in Philadelphia.