Success in Northern Ireland bodes well for Middle East

Hopefully, George Mitchell’s tenure as special envoy to the Middle East will turn out to be a case of what Yogi Berra would call “déjà vu all over again.” Specifically, we could use a repeat of May 9, 2007, which has been the highlight of Mitchell’s career.

That was the day that the conflict over Northern Ireland ended. It was a conflict that began in the 12th century and saw 3,500 people killed since 1966.

It was the day when Protestant leader the Rev. Ian Paisley joined former senior IRA commander Martin McGuiness in a power-sharing Catholic-Protestant unity government.

It was a day, in the words of the BBC, “of such improbability that it sets a new benchmark against which the future will judge unlikely events still to come” — like an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The Irish equivalent of the 1993 Oslo Accords was the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 that created the framework for peace by establishing a power-sharing arrangement between Protestants and Catholics. The ancient enemies would serve side by side in the same government, settling disputes through politics, not violence.

Like Oslo, the Good Friday Agreement hit snag after snag, with both sides caught violating its terms. But none of the major players on either side were assassinated, as Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was, and each setback was followed by intensive efforts to resuscitate the agreement. This marks a striking difference with the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Protestants and Catholics never stopped negotiating following an act of violence. Israelis and Palestinians invariably use acts of violence as a pretext to stop negotiating, never seeming to grasp — or not caring — that by doing so, they are giving the terrorists on both sides a veto on the peace process.

The gaps that divided Irish Catholics and Protestants were every bit as wide as those dividing Israelis and Palestinians. So why did the Good Friday Agreement succeed while Oslo collapsed?

Perhaps the most significant reason was the perseverance of one critical outsider: George Mitchell. Mitchell became involved when British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who had invested heavily in the success of the Irish negotiations, asked President Bill Clinton for help in bridging differences between the two sides.

Blair believed that the American president, unlike a British prime minister, could be the honest broker both sides would trust. Clinton agreed and appointed Mitchell, aformer Senate majority leader, as his special envoy. Clinton expressed full confidence in Mitchell. The president sent word not only that Mitchell would speak for him but that, when called upon by Mitchell, Clinton himself would use his powerful persuasive abilities to push for an agreement.

With Clinton’s full backing, Mitchell had the authority he needed to get the job done. Mitchell was as tough as he was even-handed — he was neither in the Catholic or Protestant camp, just as he is neither in the Palestinian or Israeli camp. And he was indefatigable, involving himself whenever he was needed, whatever the issue.

In an article about successful mediation, Mitchell stated that “peace never just happens; it is made, issue by issue, point by point.” But, he warned, “in order to get negotiations launched, preconditions ought to be kept to an absolute minimum … Confidence needs to be built before more ambitious steps can be taken. Front-loading a negotiation with demanding conditions all but assures that negotiations will not get under way, much less succeed.”

Mitchell also wrote that he believed there should be a price paid by whichever side dodges commitments it has made to the other side or to the mediator.

For the past eight years, neither the Israelis nor Palestinians have lived up to the commitments they made. Although the Bush administration had no hesitation pointing to Palestinian noncompliance, it almost never called on Israel to live up to its commitments (think of the oft-promised settlements freeze).

Moreover, U.S. envoys to the region never had full presidential backing for their efforts and were  undermined repeatedly by Elliot Abrams and other White House neoconservatives. As a result, the United States lost its credibility as an honest broker, and at the end of the Bush administration the conflict was infinitely further from resolution than it was when Bill Clinton left the White House.

That is about to change. Mitchell’s appointment is the proof.

President Barack Obama would not have appointed Mitchell unless he intended to push the process to a successful conclusion. Nor would he have made the appointment in the presence of the vice president, secretary of state and the assembled staff of the State Department.

As for Mitchell, it is safe to assume that he would not have taken the job if he did not know that Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton would fully back his efforts without regard to the supposed political constraints on disinterested mediation.

As for Obama, he promised to begin the serious pursuit of an Israeli-Palestinian agreement during his first year in office. He’s well ahead of schedule. He appointed and tasked Mitchell as special envoy on his second full day in office.

M.J. Rosenberg is the director of the Israel Policy Forum’s Washington office. He wrote this piece for JTA.