From Belfast to Beirut

An article in Issue 9, August 18, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. After the funerals of Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, the Israeli soldiers whose bodies were returned in mid-July after being held for two years by Hizballah, the feeling in Israel is dark, heavy and gloomy. We feel revulsion, even hatred, toward a wily, manipulative and deceitful enemy in Lebanon, representing the fanatical Iranian ayatollahs. Not until the coffins were handed over did Hizballah notify Israel the two men were dead. In exchange for the bodies, Hizballah celebrated the repatriation (among others) of a murderous terrorist, who 29 years ago killed a 4-year-old girl with a rifle butt. We continue to confront the fanatical Hamas Islamists in Gaza, who are happy to smuggle in rockets and dynamite in place of food and medicine. We face Iran, feverishly building nuclear weapons while lying and denying it hourly. Even the relentlessly optimistic President Shimon Peres has said privately there is at present little hope for a peace agreement with Palestinian Authority President Mahmud Abbas, a weak leader with little support. Is there hope? There is indeed and it is found far away, in Belfast, Northern Ireland. If only the wisdom and common sense of the Irish peace agreement could travel to Beirut - and to Ramallah, Gaza and even Jerusalem. Ireland's battle for independence began much earlier than the Arab-Jewish conflict. Some 400,000 Irish starved in the Great Potato Famine of 1740-41. Many Irish blame Britain, who as the ruling colonial power, kept high tariffs on food. A moving monument in Dublin commemorates the famine - for many Irish, still a vivid memory. The fierce conflict between pro-British Protestants and anti-British Catholics in Northern Ireland, centered in Belfast, and known as "the Troubles," took 3,500 lives, in a total Northern Ireland population of only 1.6 million, between 1969 and 1998. In 1997, Tony Blair, who promised to end the conflict, was elected prime minister - and surprisingly - did so, in 1998, in the so-called Good Friday agreement. The deal created a new Northern Ireland assembly with power shared by Protestants and Catholics, called for the release of political prisoners and renunciation of terror by all parties, and set a two-year time limit on the decommissioning of paramilitary weapons. Why did the implacable Protestants and Catholics make peace? Perhaps, because both sides were weary of death and killing, which kept business investment far away, resulting in poverty, stagnation and high unemployment, and making Belfast a dreary, hungry slum. Perhaps because of the stark contrast a few minutes away with Eire (Republic of Ireland), where the economy boomed and life was peaceful. Perhaps because Blair was a clever, persistent and skillful mediator. Blair now represents the Quartet (an alliance of America, the European Union, the U.N. and Russia mediating the Israel-Palestinian peace process) in the Middle East. He is trying to play the same role here that he played in Belfast. What has Blair's peace agreement done for Belfast in the past decade? According to John Simpson, a Northern Ireland-based economics consultant quoted by the BBC, "10 years on, life is better and living standards are higher." Simpson says Northern Ireland has enjoyed a big increase in employment, creating two landmark records. "First, unemployment has fallen sharply and the unemployment rate has gone from the highest regional rate in the U.K. to nearly the lowest. Second, in an unprecedented change of patterns, Northern Ireland has swapped a pattern of emigration for immigration. The long history of net emigration has been reversed as people, mainly from other EU countries, have found employment here. Employment in Northern Ireland has increased by 100,000 people in the last decade This was proportionately more than in other regions and 40,000 more than would have matched the overall U.K. pattern." A new book by MIT Professor Dan Ariely, an Israeli, is titled "Predictably Irrational." Human beings behave irrationally, Ariely observes. (And, he might have added, nowhere more than here in the Middle East.) But their irrationality is predictable. Can the ultimate predictable irrationality of endless war in the Middle East give way to the rationality of peacemaking and the economic boom that will inevitably follow, as Belfast shows? Hope travels. Someday, perhaps, hope will catch a flight from Belfast - and land in Beirut. • The writer is academic director of the Technion Institute of Management, Tel Aviv. An article in Issue 9, August 18, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.