Luck of the Irish

Why their peace process succeeded while the Israeli-Palestinian one failed.

Nine years after the Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998, the Northern Irish peace process successfully concluded last Tuesday with the formation of a power-sharing government comprised of once implacable foes, each the most hardline party in its respective camp: the Democratic Unionists for the Protestants, and Sinn Fein, the Irish Republican Army's political wing, for the Catholics. The Israeli-Palestinian process, in contrast, is nowhere near a resolution, despite having begun five years earlier; and in many respects, the conflict has worsened markedly. Yet the starting conditions in Northern Ireland were scarcely more promising. There, too, both sides claimed the same land: The Unionists wanted it to remain part of Britain, while Sinn Fein wanted it annexed to Ireland. And there, too, religious differences - centuries of Catholic-Protestant strife - exacerbated the conflict. Why, then, did the Irish process succeed while the Israeli-Palestinian process failed? Two American diplomats involved in the former, Richard Haass and George Mitchell, described the reasons for its success in a column in last Thursday's International Herald Tribune. And, unsurprisingly, it turns out that the Israeli-Palestinian process violated almost every one of these rules. First, said Haass and Mitchell, while preconditions for talks should be kept to a minimum, it "was right to make a cease-fire a prerequisite. Killing and talking do not go hand in hand." And in Northern Ireland, this happened: The IRA declared a cease-fire in 1997 and largely honored it, making the ensuing progress possible. But while the PLO also declared a cease-fire, in 1993, this truce was never honored. In the first two and a half years after the Oslo Accord was signed, Palestinian terrorists killed more Israelis than during the entire preceding decade; in 2000-2004, they killed more Israelis than in the entire preceding 53 years. Unsurprisingly, this soured Israelis' enthusiasm for further concessions. So why did the IRA cease-fire hold while the Palestinian cease-fire evaporated? Again, the Haass-Mitchell guidelines provide the answer: "Sanctions should be introduced when there is backsliding. In the case of Northern Ireland, it meant public criticism, stopping diplomatic contacts, the suspension of local institutions. There must be a clear price for unacceptable actions." And in Northern Ireland, there was. Even though the IRA observed the cease-fire, power-sharing governments were repeatedly suspended and/or negotiations frozen over IRA actions that cast doubt on its long-term commitment to peace. This happened, for instance, in 2001, over the IRA's failure to decommission its arms, and in 2002, when evidence mounted that it was gathering intelligence on potential targets and raising funds through criminal activity, neither of which would be necessary unless it contemplated renewed violence. The sanctions were supported by all the international mediators (London, Dublin and Washington). And they worked: Months after the 2001 suspension, for instance, the IRA finally started decommissioning. IN CONTRAST, far worse Palestinian violations - not mere preparations, but actual attacks that killed 1,386 Israelis in the last 14 years - incurred no sanctions at all. Indeed, the opposite occurred: Palestinian violence sparked increased international pressure on Israel to appease the Palestinians through additional concessions. Thus despite the upsurge in terror that followed Israel's initial transfer of territory to Palestinian rule in 1994 (i.e. Israeli compliance followed by Palestinian noncompliance), Israel was pressured into signing three further agreements requiring additional territorial concessions, in 1995, 1997 and 1998. The same occurred when, in 2000, the Palestinians responded to Israel's offer of statehood in most of the territories, including parts of east Jerusalem, not with a counteroffer, but with a terrorist war that killed 1,130 Israelis in the ensuing seven years: Far from sanctioning the Palestinians, the international community pressured Israel to resume talks and make additional concessions; this pressure ultimately produced Israel's 2005 pullout from Gaza. Even Washington's new benchmark proposal demands Israeli concessions before Palestinian progress on terrorism. Thus while the IRA learned that abandoning terror was essential for progress, the Palestinians were taught that terror is no impediment to further Israeli concessions. So what incentive did they have to abandon it? The Haass-Mitchell program also mandates consistency among mediators: "British, Irish and American policymakers were consistent in what they required and in what they promised. They did not allow themselves to be played off one against the other. Their unity also reinforced the message that there was no alternative to giving up violence." In the Israeli-Palestinian process, however, the Palestinians have repeatedly succeeded in playing the US and the European Union off against each other. When the US halted direct aid to the Palestinian Authority over the intifada, for instance, the EU responded by substantially increasing aid to the PA. When President George Bush demanded in 2002 that the Palestinians eschew terror in exchange for further progress, the EU successfully pressured him to backtrack. Even the brief united front against the PA's Hamas government is crumbling, with several European countries urging a resumption of diplomatic ties and direct aid to the PA. Thus even during rare US efforts to enforce Palestinian compliance, the Palestinians could count on the EU to shelter them. Finally, Haass and Mitchell noted, leaders must be able to "survive their compromises," which requires "preparing the public for what can and cannot be achieved." Israeli leaders have done exactly that since 1993, by repeatedly declaring that any deal will require "painful" territorial concessions, including in Jerusalem. Consequently, most Israelis now support such concessions, whereas in 1993, most opposed them. In contrast, no Palestinian leader has ever publicly declared, for instance, that a deal will require forfeiting the "right of return." Consequently, polls still show an overwhelming majority of Palestinians opposing this concession; hence no Palestinian leader could currently make it. The Northern Irish peace process has brought its participants both peace and prosperity. The Israeli-Palestinian process has brought neither. The obvious conclusion is that the dysfunctional paradigm governing the latter should be replaced by the successful model used in the former. Unfortunately, there is no sign that the international community is willing to do so. One can therefore confidently predict that the Israeli-Palestinian "peace process" will continue generating bloodshed for many years to come.