Lessons from Ulster
While there will be many practical issues to hammer out during negotiations toward a final peace accord, there can be no peace as long as both parties refuse to accept the human reality of the other side and to be more thoughtful about their own emotional reality.
In a recent article, Prof. Shlomo Avineri argues that, despite the differences, some lessons can be learned from the Northern Irish peace process. Avineri considers this point important because former senator George Mitchell, appointed by Barack Obama as special envoy to the Middle East, played a crucial role in the Northern Irish peace process. Avineri is right on both counts. However, he repeats some myths we have found to be common beliefs in Israel.
The Irish conflict was no more a religious conflict than the Israeli-Palestinian one - both are national territorial questions with religious aspects, conflicting historical narratives and significant cultural differences (exemplified by the current argument in the Northern Ireland Assembly about the Irish Language Act).
Avineri argues that nobody disputed Britain's right to exist, whereas many Palestinian factions dispute Israel's right to exist. Of course, the analogy is wrong. The issue was never Britain's right to exist. The struggle was between Protestant Unionist Irishmen and Catholic Nationalist Irishmen over whether Northern Ireland should be permitted to exist - a real existential threat for Protestant Unionists.
Perhaps more importantly, he says that "the decommissioning of militias' weapons was a precondition to elections" and by implication a precondition of the peace process in Northern Ireland. This was not in fact the case. Sinn Fein has been running in elections since the 1980s when Bobby Sands was famously elected to Westminster during a fatal hunger strike in prison in Northern Ireland.
Decommissioning of weapons was indeed a matter of dispute (on which George Mitchell was requested to advise at an early stage) in advance of inclusive talks, but the plans for decommissioning were not agreed on until the Belfast Agreement in 1998, and the actual decommissioning of IRA weapons did not begin until 2001 and was not completed until 2005. This was more than 10 years after the first IRA cease-fire and seven years after the Belfast Agreement and elections to the new Northern Ireland Assembly.
Our concern, however, is not to debate historical facts for their own sake. We want to engage with Avineri's argument because he accurately reflects a state of mind in Israel's political elite that is very similar to what remained among many in Northern Ireland and indeed in the British government for a long time. Such a view is entirely understandable, but it may be standing in the way of the prospects for peace and security for Israel through a negotiated settlement with the Palestinians and the wider Arab world.
Avineri is right to be wary of differences despite similarities, but we also need to be alert to similarities despite differences. When Northern Irish politicians of all sides went to South Africa, they found with some surprise that there was much to learn from this very different place, and the Irish peace process subsequently owed some of its success to the contribution of South African colleagues of all colors and political parties.
The key question at this point is whether either side still genuinely believes that there is a military solution to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. The military clearly has a role, but is there a military solution that can give a genuine sense of long-term security for this generation of Israelis and Palestinians to pass on to their children? If not, there must be a political component, and it is difficult to see how the violence can be ended without finding a way of engaging with those involved.
The most important lesson from the Northern Irish process is that progress was only made when all parties were able to listen to and acknowledge the other side's point of view, even though they did not agree with it. It is impossible to weigh Jewish suffering against the Palestinians', or to try comparing Palestinian rage and humiliation to Israel's fear of extinction. Whatever the realities, each side's feelings are an indisputable fact, and as we know, one of our deepest human needs is for our subjective experience to be acknowledged.
While there will be many practical issues to hammer out during negotiations toward a final peace accord, there can be no peace as long as both parties refuse to accept the human reality of the other side and to be more thoughtful about their own emotional reality. This process will be painful, but the prize of peace will not be obtained without paying the price.
No one has a monopoly on suffering, guilt or truth. All have a fear of betraying the past, but are in real danger of betraying their children's future unless they can find a way to talk.
Carlo Strenger is a professor of psychology at Tel Aviv University. Lord Alderdice is a member of the House of Lords and a former speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly.
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