One of the oft-repeated clichés of the Middle East is that peace between Israelis and Palestinians is just a matter of determination on the part of both sides, and intermediaries like the United States, to keep pushing compromise until a treaty is signed. As proof of the ability of common sense and persistence to solve even the most intractable conflicts, we are always told to look to Ireland where, after a centuries-long dispute, the long “troubles” over British attempts to hold onto that country were ended by first a partition of the island and then decades later by a Good Friday agreement brokered by the United States. Today, the success of that peace process was on display when the Irish republic’s president came to London on a state visit where Queen Elizabeth treated him as an equal.
Taken in a historical context, this is an inspiring moment that would have seemed impossible a century ago. Indeed, it was not thought likely even a generation ago as Northern Ireland was racked by riots and sectarian conflict over its future. The violence in Ulster seems to be a thing of the past and even if it is not impossible for that powder keg to be reignited at some point, the transformation of the relationship between the two countries and peoples is not to be underestimated. As the New York Times notes today, the main points of contention between Dublin and London these days are worries in Ireland that Britain may leave the European Union, something that would complicate the extensive ties between the two nations.
But those who cite this as a reason for optimism about the Middle East are doing a grave disservice to the parties there, especially the Palestinians. If Ireland has achieved peace it is because the leaders of the Irish nation made hard choices that the Palestinians have, to this day, never been able or willing to do. Why that is so is a short history lesson that those who persist in placing blame for the lack of peace on Israel need to learn.
Apologists for the Palestinians claim that they have chosen peace with Israel via the Oslo Accords as well as the subsequent negotiations in which they have engaged. But in point of fact, first Yasir Arafat and now Mahmoud Abbas have steadfastly refused to accept the half a loaf of independence and freedom that a peace agreement would entail. They’ve refused to recognize Israel as a Jewish state or agree to its legitimacy no matter where its borders are drawn. Most of all, they have refused to face down their domestic opponents, such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad. They have instead competed with them for the title of the most anti-Israel.
Had the leaders of Ireland’s early 20th century revolt against British rule done the same, today’s state visit would be unthinkable. What happened in 1922 was that the a majority of the Irish Republican party led by underground hero Michael Collins embraced a compromise peace agreement with Britain that fell far short of their dreams of a united Irish republic. They swallowed hard and accepted a partition that left six of the country’s 26 counties under British rule including a couple in which the country’s Protestant minority was not in the majority. More than that, the democratically elected Irish government (something that can no longer said to be true of Abbas who is currently serving in the ninth year of a four-year term as president of the Palestinian Authority) put the question of war and peace in the hands of their people. A majority backed the peace treaty and when the IRA, under Eamon de Valera, did not accept the outcome of the ballot box, a bloody civil war resumed in which the pro-peace faction backed by the British prevailed.
Neither Arafat nor Abbas has ever shown any sign of being to act as Collins did in realizing that a truncated Palestinian state was better than none at all. Neither were they prepared to risk their lives as he did (he was assassinated during the Irish Civil War); nor have they, perhaps for good reason, trusted the Palestinian people to back the cause of peace against those preaching war to the death against the Jews.
The reason for this is, of course, rooted in the very different natures of these two conflicts. It was difficult for many Britons to accept the loss of their first colony. But the reason why they were eventually able to reconcile themselves to the compromise of 1922 was that the purpose of the various Irish rebellions they had put down over the centuries was not the annihilation of the British state. The Irish wanted self-determination but they had no ambition to plant their flag over London or any part of England, Scotland, or Wales. But, though many observers continue to act as if the only point of the conflict in the Middle East is the dispute over the West Bank, Palestinians see all of Israel, and not just settlements over the old “green line,” as their patrimony. Irish nationalism was about the revival of Celtic culture and self-determination on their island. Palestinian nationalism was created as a reaction to Zionism and unfortunately has never outgrown the obsession with seeking to eradicate any Jewish state.
Peace between Palestinians and Israelis is not impossible, at least in theory. It would require Israelis to accept a Palestinian state, a position the overwhelming majority of them, including their supposedly right-wing government, have already accepted. But it also requires the Palestinians to do as the Irish did and give up their maximalist dreams and be willing to put down domestic opposition to peace, even if it means a civil war of their own. Until that happens, dreams of a Middle East version of Anglo-Irish reconciliation are not within the realm of the possible.