Commentary Magazine


George Mitchell’s False Irish Analogy

With the appointment of former Senate majority leader George Mitchell as America’s new Middle East peace envoy, there has been much discussion of Mitchell’s background (unlike many other veterans of the Clinton foreign-policy team, he’s not Jewish and is, in part, of Lebanese extraction) and the notion that he will be more “even-handed” in his work rather than sympathetic to Israel. Like most other peace processors, Mitchell spent his time on the issue chasing the illusion of a Palestinian renunciation of terror and full acceptance of the Jewish state to be purchased by Israeli concessions on territory.

But Mitchell’s foreign policy credentials and his stature as a foreign-affairs guru stem chiefly from his role as the broker of the “Good Friday” agreement, which effectively ended the conflict between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland.

There are those who consider Mitchell’s role in that affair to be overrated. He presided over a process that codified the decision of Sinn Fein to acknowledge the futility of further terrorism and the willingness of the Unionists to accept them as political partners. Give him credit for doing so, but it’s not as if he persuaded the two sides to do anything that they had not already acknowledged as inevitable.

But whether or not we want to give Mitchell credit for any of this, there is a bigger problem with the precedent of Irish peace that is often brought forward as an example of how intractable conflicts can be resolved if only there is the will.

There are some striking differences between the two conflicts that speak directly not only to the intractability of the Arab war against Israel but to the ignorance and naïveté of those who believe that peace is always just around the corner. Those who cite Mitchell’s experience as proof that all the Middle East peace process needs is more American pressure need to learn some Irish history.

The first problem with this analogy is that the goal of Irish Republicans was not the destruction of Britain but an Ireland free of British rule. After many years of struggle, they achieved part of that goal in 1922. IRA leader Michael Collins accepted the partition of the country, which left six mainly Protestant northern counties in British hands but left the remaining 26 as an Irish Free State (which eventually transformed itself into the current Irish Republic). The Irish fought a civil war over whether to accept this deal. The result was a defeat for the maximalist rump of the IRA, though Collins was killed by an assassin’s bullet.

The conflict in Northern Ireland lasted seven more decades and was ended by the defeat of terrorism and the recognition by both the Ulster Protestants and London that power would be shared in the province. But it must still be understood that the historic compromise that Collins accepted has stood the test of time.

By contrast, the goal of Hamas and the Palestinian nationalist movement has always been the utter destruction of Israel, not merely the creation of a Palestinian Arab state alongside it.

Moreover, no Palestinian leader has ever made the sort of decision that Michael Collins made in 1922 and accepted less than he wanted in exchange for sovereignty in part of the country. Many thought that was what Yasser Arafat was doing in 1993 when he signed the Oslo Accords. But his subsequent record of terrorism, and his refusal to accept peace when it was offered at Camp David in July 2000, made it clear that real peace was never on his agenda.

Ireland has relative peace today because the Irish were prepared to take “yes” for an answer from the British and accept a favorable compromise — even if it wasn’t all they desired. The Palestinians have never been willing to do that because they have always seen the conflict as a zero-sum game in which the goal was Israel’s extinction, not merely its withdrawal from part of the country. Not even the most hard-line members of the Provisional IRA ever sought to end Britain’s existence as an independent state.

Until the Palestinians find their Michael Collins — a man who is willing to put aside his irredentist goals and wage war on his own side’s uncompromising extremists — peace will be impossible, no matter how badly George Mitchell wants it to happen.