Ambassador Evrony: Northern Ireland and Israel

 March 5, 2010 International Herald Tribune

From Ireland to Israel

By ZION EVRONY, Israel’s ambassador to the Irish Republic

During a recent trip to Northern Ireland, one theme that dominated all of my conversations was encapsulated in the words “Who would have believed…?”

It was the happiness shared by those present that the unimaginable had happened: The conflict that had once made the province a byword for terrorism and sectarian violence had ended.

Northern Ireland’s peace is still in its fragile, fledgling stage, as the ongoing debate about the issue of devolution of policing demonstrates. But it seems that nobody wants to return to the bad old days of the “Troubles” and the “politics of the last atrocity,” with the habit of mutual recrimination.

This sense of transformation struck a chord with my own fleeting impressions on the journey from Dublin. The traffic tailbacks into the Northern Irish town of Newry that I had witnessed on TV many years ago were still there, but this time it was different. With the dismantling of the heavily fortified security checkpoints, unrestricted freedom of travel now allows thousands of people to travel north. I could not help feeling a pang of envy, as well as a hope that a similar change may one day happen in the Middle East.

Any such thoughts are bound to prompt a consideration of the similarities that may exist between the conflict in Northern Ireland and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and a search for lessons.

Undoubtedly, there are huge geopolitical, historical and cultural differences between the two regions and the two conflicts. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict possesses far more intractable elements — above all the different role played by religion. The sheer density of holy sites in Jerusalem, sacred to three different faiths, makes them flashpoints of emotional tension. In addition there are the painful, bitter memories of wars, and the challenge of mutual recognition not yet met by all in the Middle East.

Despite this, a number of lessons can indeed be learned:

First and foremost, there is the concept that to resolve a difficult conflict, each side, while retaining its “dream” — its maximum aspiration — must be willing to forego its implementation in practice. Painful compromises were made by both sides in the Good Friday Agreement, without which no deal would have been possible.

In the Middle East, Israelis would have to give up the dream of a “Greater Israel.” Palestinians would have to give up the dream of “return” for the refugees, accepting their accommodation in a future Palestinian state.

A key lesson is that the essential interest of each side must be respected and safeguarded. The Unionist community in Northern Ireland won the principle of consent, which established that it cannot be incorporated in a united Ireland against its will. Nationalists were guaranteed full civil and political rights as a minority along with full access to Irish citizenship, while the power-sharing arrangements offer them full participation in the government of the province.

For Israel, the vital interest is its recognition by Palestinians as the nation-state of the Jewish people, existing with adequate security arrangements alongside a demilitarized Palestinian state. For Palestinians, the vital interest is independence and freedom within their own state.

The central importance of third-party mediation, as well as outside actors who continuously facilitate the process of resolution, is another moral to be gleaned from Northern Ireland peacemaking. The mediatory role of the United States and its envoy, George Mitchell, was crucial in all stages of Northern Ireland’s peace process.

Senator Mitchell can certainly be similarly effective as a facilitator in the Middle East, although direct negotiations are always preferable. Other external actors, such as moderate Arab states, can encourage the Palestinian leadership to come to the negotiating table and make the necessary tough decisions. By normalizing their relations with Israel, they can help ease Israeli concerns about the risks of concessions.

If 2010 is to be a year of progress, uninterrupted by violence, a code of conduct could be adopted by all sides. A code of conduct was recognized by Senator Mitchell as a prerequisite to the Northern Ireland talks, when he formulated in 1996 the famous “Mitchell Principles” requiring commitment to the exclusive use of peaceful democratic means to resolve the conflict.

Critics of Israeli policy toward Hamas have drawn from Northern Ireland the view that “you must talk to your enemies, not your friends.” This is one part of the equation; the full equation is that your enemies first have to recognize your very right to exist. Hamas will have to abandon its extreme religious ideology, which calls for the establishment of an Islamic state over all the territory, including Israel today.

The need to build a solid foundation in the popular mind for the political agreement anticipated is another important lesson. Both Irish communities learned to their cost over 80 years the futility of nurturing hateful stereotypes of one another. One of the recognized foundation stones of the Northern Ireland peace process was the need to strive for “parity of esteem” and end the animosity between the two communities.

Similarly, true reconciliation cannot be achieved between Israelis and Palestinians as long as incitement to hatred toward Israel continues amongst the Palestinians. Can we hope the time is near when Palestinian children, and children in Syria, Saudi Arabia and Lebanon, will look at schoolroom maps that show the state of Israel alongside their own states?

Central to this building of a popular platform for peace should be joint action by religious leaders. Commentators on Northern Ireland have remarked that even at the worst moments of the conflict, when a fresh atrocity seemed about to pitch the whole province into violence, the two communities always drew back from the brink. Much of the credit for this must go to the leaders of the different Christian denominations who, though politically divided, acted as restraining influences on their congregations. Religious and intellectual leaders in the Middle East can exercise similar positive authority in the interests of peace.

There is more that we Israelis and Palestinians can learn from the Northern Ireland experience.

There is the realization of the time it can take to implement a peace agreement. It was a full seven years after the Good Friday Agreement that the I.R.A. finally decommissioned its remaining weapons. There is the even more sober realization that even after an agreement, there will continue to be radical and rejectionist elements who oppose reconciliation and try to sabotage the process.

There is the importance of measures to build economic prosperity as a backdrop to peace efforts. And, underlying all efforts, there is the transparent need to nurture the people-to-people contacts that are the only true foundations for the bridges for peace that we wish to build.

As W.B. Yeats wrote, “Peace comes dropping slow.” There is no doubt that we must be patient, avoid setting unrealistic deadlines and above all, keep in mind that peace, no matter how difficult to achieve and imperfect, is better than perpetual conflict.

Zion Evrony is Israel’s ambassador to the Republic of Ireland.