From the Bottom Up

George Mitchell would be well-advised to pay closer attention to certain distinguishing features of the local conflict.

Former senator George Mitchell does not need much advice; he's an experienced statesman whose greatest achievement is the agreement between the Protestant majority and Catholic minority in Northern Ireland. Nevertheless, the U.S. president's special envoy to the Middle East would be well-advised to pay closer attention to certain distinguishing features of the local conflict.

The Irish conflict was basically a religious one, fought between two communities speaking the same language and sharing a common history. Here we have a struggle between two national movements with some religious aspects. While no one in Northern Ireland casts doubt over Britain's right to exist, many on the Palestinian side question the legitimacy of the Jewish state, and some Israelis doubt the right of the Palestinian nationality to exist.

Despite this, some lessons can be learned from Northern Ireland. There, the decommissioning of militias' weapons was a precondition to elections. The Palestinian Authority's elections failed in part because the movements running in themwere essentially armed militias. To end the Palestinian civil war, and to ensure democracy, there must be no compromise: Decommissioning all militias should be a precondition for elections.

Mitchell, meanwhile, faces the challenge of achieving an effective truce between Israel and Hamas, rebuilding the Gaza Strip and opening the crossings. His mission is liable to disintegrate; instead of dealing with the peace process, he might be sucked into resolving local crises. It will be important to think creatively.

Even those who supported the Oslo Accords cannot deny that the process failed for reasons beyond the obstacles put up by both parties. Oslo was an attempt to build the institutions of a Palestinian nation state from the top down; this fell through because Palestinian society did not produce the instruments for building a structure for the state.

In the last two years, the Quartet's Middle East envoy Tony Blair and U.S. Security Coordinator Keith Dayton have made some successful attempts to build Palestinian institutions from the bottom up. This has included building up municipal and regional institutions, strengthening infrastructure and creating functioning security apparatuses. Their efforts have achieved impressive results in Jenin, Bethlehem and even Hebron.

These actions are not at all similar to Benjamin Netanyahu's "economic peace," intended to serve as an alternative to a Palestinian state. On the contrary, they are the only successful attempts so far to create infrastructure for a state. True, this process is gradual and bound to take time, but the other process - the top-down one - failed, and it was time to admit it.

One last comment, on the Syrian front. An obstacle here is the gap between the Israeli position, focusing on the borders between Syria and Mandatory Palestine, and the Syrian position, focusing on the borders of June 4, 1967. Mitchell should look into a sensitive issue at his next meeting with the Syrians: Does their position stem from merely trying to maintain their occupation of land in 1948, or is it something deeper - a nonrecognition of the Middle East's borders, claiming they were set by Western imperialism after World War I? This is not merely a theoretical question, because it can help explain Syria's approach to Lebanon and other regional issues.