Posted by AAI on March 26, 2009 in News Clips
“What we do know is this: That the status quo is unsustainable, that it is critical for us to advance a two-state solution where Israelis and Palestinians can live side-by-side in their own states with peace and security…Last week, we were here for St. Patrick’s Day, and you’ll recall that we had what had been previously sworn enemies celebrating here in this very room. Leaders from the two sides of Northern a couple of decades ago — or even a decade ago — people would have said could never achieve peace, and here they were, jointly appearing and talking about their commitment…”
Washington D.C. – The Arab American Institute (AAI) hosted a panel discussion on Capitol Hill last week entitled “From Belfast to Jerusalem: Lessons from Northern Ireland for Israeli-Palestinian Peace,” where leading experts on the Northern Ireland peace process and Middle Eastern affairs compared and contrasted the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with the Northern Ireland “Troubles.”
The panel, moderated by Dr. James Zogby, President and Founder of AAI, featured Ambassador John Bruton, European Union Ambassador to the United States and former Prime Minister of Ireland (1994-1997); Susan Brophy, former Deputy Assistant to the President (1993-1998); Daniel Levy, Senior Fellow and Director of the Middle East Initiative at the New America Foundation; and Denis Staunton, Washington correspondent for the Irish Times.
The discussions began with Ambassador John Bruton identifying five critical lessons learned from the Irish peace process. “The timing must be right,” he noted first. Second, he said that both sides should be wary of setting preconditions for any peace talks. Third, he pointed out that there needs to be a clear distinction between people’s aspirations and their rights. He also noted that peacemakers have to “listen people to death.” Ambassador Bruton’s most important point was lesson five: the importance of elections as a mechanism for dialogue. He pointed to Sinn Fein’s electoral success in Northern Ireland as being a progressive step on the path to peace. Electoral success gives legitimacy to each party to represent their people, Ambassador Burton explained, and therefore a right to be part of peace process.
Discussing the factors that contributed to the success of the Irish peace process, Denis Staunton attributed the change in the attitude of the Irish Diaspora, particularly in the United States, as the tipping point. While some Irish Americans funded the Irish Republican Army out of “misplaced sentimentality”, the Clinton administration offered a genuine, constructive alternative. Susan Brophy, who served as a principal liaison to Congress in the Clinton White House, spoke about the role former President Clinton played in the peace process. It was under the auspices of President Clinton that Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams was granted a visa to come to the United States—a controversial move at the time. The 1994 visit gave the Irish nationalist leader legitimacy and a platform to speak to a worldwide audience and is considered to be a crucial turning point in the Irish peace process.
Daniel Levy clearly pointed out one lesson from the Irish case: it would be “preposterous” to think that in order to move forward with a peace process the goals of all parties in a conflict have to be compatible. He also pointed to key differences be between the two conflicts, notably that during the Irish conflict there was a balance of power between the two sides which, he argued, doesn’t exist in the Middle East case. When it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Levy said that Israel is clearly in the more powerful position, by way of its military might and international support, and therefore is less willing to make concessions to the Palestinians. He used the issue of settlement expansion on Palestinian land as an example and explained that Israel does not expect the continued building to impact potential negotiations.
The conversation also focused on former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, a seasoned, respected negotiator of Irish and Lebanese descent who was recently appointed to serve as President Barack Obama’s Special Envoy to the Middle East, and how his approach towards the Irish peace process would serve the Israeli-Palestinian case today. Ambassador Bruton credited Mitchell with playing a significant role in the talks, but said that the most important contribution was the will of the Irish people and their desire to end the conflict.
There was no disagreement about how many challenges the Obama Administration will face on the path to Middle East peace. The panelists unanimously agreed, however, that with the right timing, the international support and the willingness among the two parties to make compromises, any conflict can be resolved. The case of Northern Ireland proves it is possible and offers continued hope for Israeli-Palestinian peace.
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