Mitchell turn Jerusalem into Belfast?
US President Barack
Obama's appointment of former Senator George Mitchell as his new
Middle East envoy is a good choice. Mitchell showed even-handedness
uncharacteristic of US officials when he led a fact-finding mission
to the region in 2000.
Had its recommendations been followed -- cessation of all violence
and a full freeze of Israeli settlement construction on occupied
Palestinian land -- the peace process might have made progress.
Mitchell, who is already in the Middle East, helped broker the 1998
Belfast Agreement, the key to ending decades of strife in Northern
Ireland. Because of historical similarities, that peace agreement
is an important precedent for Palestinians and Israeli Jews.
Before 1948, European Jewish settlers, newly-arrived in Palestine,
wanted their own state once British colonial rulers withdrew. But
because Jews were a minority, the only way to achieve this was a
partition that the majority Arab Palestinian population, fearing
dispossession, bitterly opposed. When Israel was established in
1948, most Palestinians were forced from their homeland, and those
remaining became second-class citizens in a "Jewish state."
The modern conflict in Ireland began when Great Britain, facing
resistance from Irish nationalists, decided to withdraw after
centuries of rule. But the Protestant ruling class -- a quarter of
the population -- descended from English and Scottish settlers,
insisted that Ireland remain tied to Britain. These unionists
refused to live in a state with a nationalist Catholic
To appease the unionist minority, which threatened violent
rebellion if it did not get its way, Britain partitioned Ireland in
1921, creating Northern Ireland, an entity whose legitimacy
nationalists refused to recognize.
As Israeli Jews did to Palestinians, Protestants institutionalized
their own culture and religion as the official creed and violently
suppressed expressions of nationalist identity. In the words of its
first prime minister, Northern Ireland's seat of government at
Belfast's Stormont Castle was a "Protestant parliament for a
Protestant people." Catholics faced systematic discrimination in
jobs and housing.
Nationalists launched a civil rights movement in the 1960s inspired
by the one in the US. Protestant unionists violently resisted
demands to share power and reform, but the numerical growth and
assertiveness of the nationalist Catholic population within
Northern Ireland made such intransigence untenable.
In 1972, Britain sent in troops and imposed direct rule. During 30
years of "The Troubles," 3,700 people died at the hands of the
Irish Republican Army (IRA), Protestant militias, British forces
The Mitchell-led Belfast Agreement ended formal Protestant hegemony
in favor of equality, mitigating partition's injustices. It
promised that government power "shall be exercised with rigorous
impartiality on behalf of all the people" and guaranteed "just and
equal treatment for the identity, ethos, and aspirations of both
Decades of bloody conflict left deep social divisions. But a
framework for nondiscriminatory democratic governance has allowed
nationalists and unionists within Northern Ireland to begin to shed
their siege mentalities. While formal partition of Ireland remains,
it is disappearing on the ground as anyone can live, work and move
freely, and official cross-border bodies are integrating the
infrastructure and economies of the two jurisdictions on the island
The power-sharing executive in Belfast, led by staunchly
nationalist Sinn Fein (closely affiliated with the IRA) and the
hardline Democratic Unionist Party, was once as inconceivable as a
government made up of members of Hamas and Israeli politicians
would be today. US diplomacy played a key role by putting pressure
on the stronger parties --the British government and Protestant
unionists -- in favor of the weaker nationalist side. Instead of
shunning Sinn Fein the US, prodded by the Irish American lobby,
insisted it be brought into the process.
By 2010, Palestinians will outnumber Israeli Jews in Israel, the
West Bank and Gaza Strip combined. The two groups can no more be
totally separated than Protestant unionists and Catholic
nationalists in Ireland.
Like Irish nationalists, Palestinians will never recognize the
"right" of another group to discriminate against them. Like
Protestant unionists did, Israeli Jews insist on their own state.
Israel's "solution" is to cage Palestinians into ghettos -- like
Gaza -- and periodically bomb them into submission just so Israeli
Jews, their relative numbers dwindling, can artificially maintain a
If Mitchell is allowed to apply Northern Ireland's lessons, then
there may be a way out. But he goes to Jerusalem with few of the
advantages he brought to Belfast. The Obama administration remains
committed for now to the failed partition formula of "a Jewish
state" and a "Palestinian state" and maintains the Bush
administration's misguided boycott of Hamas, which overwhelmingly
won Palestinian elections in 2006. And the Israel lobby -- much
more powerful than its Irish American counterpart -- warps US
policy to favor the stronger side, an intransigent Israel
committing war crimes. If these policies don't change, Mitchell's
efforts will be wasted and escalating violence will fill the
note: this article was originally published with the second
sentence of the second paragraph inadvertently omitted. The current
version is the article as it was intended to be published.
Co-founder of The Electronic Intifada, Ali Abunimah is author of
One Country: A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse
An abridged version of this article first appeared in The Detroit