Lessons of Irish agreement may apply to Mideast

The Irish agreement is a major foreign policy success for Clinton, who may now be encouraged to press harder for Middle East peace. But he could also decide to rest on this achievement and step back from intense involvement in negotiations that seem to be heading toward a very dead end.

Clinton's choice of Mitchell showed the value of a prestigious, high-level mediator. The former federal judge and Senate leader had no baggage with either side, although he is a Roman Catholic.

The chief American negotiator in the Middle East, Dennis Ross, is one of the most experienced diplomats we have, having served the past three administrations. But aides to Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat say he's lost confidence in Ross, whom the Palestinians consider too easy on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu; Israeli right-wingers accuse Ross of being pro-Arab.

In contrast to the priority given Ireland, which carries little political risk for Clinton, the administration seems to be growing weary of the Arab-Israeli conflict, with its intense domestic and international implications.

Secretary of State Madeleine Albright has barely concealed her disinterest; the president, who appears to have lost his drive to bring the parties together after Yitzhak Rabin's death, seems reluctant to get very involved lest he encounter domestic repercussions.

But the leadership vacuum extends farther than Washington and may be most pronounced in the Middle East itself, where American mediation is encouraged by the Arabs and barely tolerated by the Israeli government.

The two conflicts share some important similarities.

They are stories of two people sharing the same small piece of land, divided by intractable religious differences.

They also have in common a history of terrorism by their extremist elements.

Both sides in both conflicts have powerful and influential American friends, and an effective lobby that knows how to get results in Washington's corridors of power.

Arabs and Irish Protestants look to governments and embassies to lobby for them on Capitol Hill. Israel and Irish Catholics have ethnic lobbies to help fight their battles. Israel has the Jewish community and the pro-Israel activists, the Catholics of Northern Ireland have thermonuclear power in any political battle — the Kennedys and a multitude of Irish-American politicians.

Perhaps the most important common factor is that in both conflicts, there has been a greater desire for peace on the part of the people than among the politicians. The ordinary Catholics and Protests, Jews and Arabs, are weary of so many decades of hating, fighting, killing and suffering.

But there are also glaring differences between the two dilemmas.

The biggest may be quality of leadership. In Ireland, leaders on both sides wanted a deal more than the leaders appear to in the Middle East. In contrast, in the Middle East both Netanyahu and Arafat often play to their extremists and appear reluctant to rein them in.

Ireland, for all the enmity, is still a Christian vs. Christian conflict. Israelis and Arabs may be the Children of Jacob and the Children of Essau, but their cultures have far less in common today.

Most Irish opposed the terrorism of their extremists, and there were influential peace movements on both sides. While Jewish extremists are few and condemned by the overwhelming majority of Israelis, they exert disproportionate influence on the present government, and the most extreme can count on some public support.

Palestinian extremists are glorified and enjoy a popular following. Arafat has eulogized some of the worst, and recently there have been mass public displays of mourning in Arab towns and villages for a terrorist bomb-maker. There is no Arab peace movement that compares to Israel's Peace Now.

Jerry Adams, the leader of Sinn Fein, the political arm of the Irish Republican Army, was pragmatic enough to see that terrorism was becoming counterproductive. Arafat hasn't made the connection.

"This agreement really doesn't finalize peace. It creates the opportunity for peace and reconciliation," Mitchell said. "It's a good first step, but there's still a long way to go."

Another "good first step" was taken in another seeming intractable conflict on Sept. 13, 1993, when Israel and the Palestinians signed the Oslo Accords. But one important difference between the two is that the Irish agreement was negotiated by all the major parties on both sides while the Oslo was between the Palestinian Liberation Organization and the government of Yitzhak Rabin.

Douglas M. Bloomfield

Douglas M. Bloomfield is the president of Bloomfield Associates Inc., a Washington, D.C., lobbying and consulting firm. He spent nine years as the legislative director and chief lobbyist for AIPAC.