Religious Conflict, Walls and Terror: Northern Ireland’s Lessons for Israeli-Palestinian Peace

The peace process in Northern Ireland was led by territorial maximalists and hardliners who, unlike today’s Israeli and Palestinian leaders, were willing to consider compromise.

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A man walks past Irish Republican graffiti in west Belfast, Ireland, December 7, 2004.
A man walks past Irish Republican graffiti in west Belfast, Ireland, December 7, 2004.Credit: Paul McErlane, Reuters
Cliff Savren
Cliff Savren

As an Israeli, I went to Northern Ireland recently with the expectation that I would find striking similarities between the history of the conflict there and back home. Both conflicts have involved a fight against British rule, both have involved attempted resolution through partition and both simmer to this day, although in Northern Ireland the violent intensity of the conflict has waned.

I came back with great affection for the people of Northern Ireland and was impressed by the economic peace dividend that a decade of relative quiet has brought to them, but I also returned to Israel believing that our situation is immensely less complicated. 

Northern Ireland’s interlocking geographies

Because Catholics and Protestants were and are too geographically intertwined to draw a national border that would give self-determination to each community, they are 'doomed' to live together. That is however despite some Catholics fervently aspiring to have Northern Ireland united with the Irish Republic to the south and however much many of their Protestant neighbors strongly identify as U.K. citizens. 

The Good Friday Agreement of 1998 gave the Catholic Republic of Ireland to the south certain symbolic and consultative powers over the affairs in the north and also addressed Northern Irish Catholic grievances, while retaining constitutional and legal ties to the U.K.. It suffered birth pangs and amendments but once stabilized, it paved the way for a new era in Protestant-Catholic relations in Northern Ireland after decades of violence and strife that had taken thousands of lives.

Despite the spasms of violence and the frustration that many of us in Israel feel over the stalemate in the situation with the Palestinians, our situation could be eminently easier to resolve. We don't have Northern Ireland's interlocking geographies; there are no 'mixed' communities in the territories. 

A fence separates a Catholic neighborhood from a Protestant neighborhood, Ireland, November 21, 2013.Credit: Nico Kaiser

We – and the Palestinians – simply need political leadership that is capable of pursuing a peaceful solution to the conflict to its logical conclusion and one already outlined so many times before: through a division of the land and the establishment of a Palestinian state, so that the Jewish people and the Palestinian people can both achieve self-determination.

Settlers in Israel, Palestinians in Palestine

For all of the attention it has received, Jewish settlement construction in the West Bank has not forestalled drawing a border between Israel and a Palestinian state. Land swaps with the Palestinians (a mechanism that had the support of the United States as far back as 2004 in an exchange of letters between then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and America's then-President George W. Bush) of the type that would put most settlers in Israel. 

A 2011 study by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy looked at various scenarios in this regard, including one that would provide for a border that would put 80 percent of settlers on the Israeli side of the line. The study found that this scenario would involve swaps of less than five percent of each side’s territory, including six small portions of Israel that would be ceded to a Palestinian state and nine areas claimed by the Palestinians (including Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem) that would come under undisputed Israeli sovereignty.  

Other creative arrangements can also be found for Jerusalem, that would not only put most Palestinian neighborhoods in a Palestinian state and leave Israel in control of the Jewish Quarter of the Old City, perhaps also provide for shared sovereignty over the Temple Mount. 

Walls make good neighbors

The logic of the 1947 United Nations Partition Plan, which provided for a Jewish and an Arab Palestinian state, still holds, with adjustments to accommodate developments on the ground over the past 69 years. It is that logic that maximizes the opportunity that Jews and Palestinians have to live in a country that reflects their own national aspirations. In effect, we get another chance for partition, the inglorious alternatives having been played out since. 

It would be expected that in a peace agreement with the Palestinians, a security barrier would remain to protect Israel’s border. Although not entirely analogous, I was astounded to see walls separating Catholic and Protestant working-class neighborhoods in Belfast, with gates that are opened during the week and closed on weekends to minimize friction between the two communities. In a sign of progress over the years, some of the walls have been removed. Over time, I would hope for a similar fate for the security barrier between Israel and the Palestinians as well.

When the Good Friday Agreement was signed, there was clearly an assumption that the Republic of Ireland and the U.K. would both be EU members, and there has been an open border between north and south on the island of Ireland. Now, after the Brexit vote, that open border may disappear, with not only symbolic consequences but economic ones for the economies on both sides of the border. Shortly after the vote, the leading Catholic member of the Northern Ireland government, Martin McGuinness, complained that “English votes have dragged us out of Europe.” He called for a new referendum on the status of Northern Ireland, where a majority voted to remain in the EU, with a view to further integration with the in-EU Ireland.

The logic of the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland and of partition in Israel have long been self-evident. Just as the creation of a Palestinian state here was provided for in the 1947 Partition Resolution and again in the Oslo Accords of the 1990s, the outlines of the Good Friday Agreement were fleshed out years earlier, in 1973, in the Sunningdale agreement, with the involvement of the British and Irish governments. That agreement collapsed only to be revived with modifications decades later, and after decades of killing in Northern Ireland and on the British mainland.

Hardliners make peace

What was lacking in Northern Ireland until 2006 was a buy-in by the hardliners on the two sides of the conflict – Sinn Fein for the Catholics and the Democratic Unionist Party for the Protestants. Since they were brought on board, Northern Ireland has seen relative quiet and prosperity that no one could have imagined in the midst of The Troubles, as they were known. 

The breakthrough, ironically, came as Sinn Fein, which favors a single government for the entire island of Ireland, gained ascendancy over its more moderate Catholic rivals, the Social Democratic and Labour party. And on the Protestant side, the Ulster Unionist party, which favored continued British rule in the province, began losing support to firebrand Rev. Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionist party. 

The political scene in Northern Ireland was further complicated by a dangerous mix of armed groups on both sides. Sinn Fein was essentially the political wing of the violent Irish Republican Army which had its counterparts on the Protestant side. But by 2006, the political leadership of the more extremist camps was persuaded to compromise rather than hoeing to maximalist positions. 

That should be a powerful lesson for us in Israel. When it comes to territorial issues and opposition to a Palestinian state, some of Israel’s maximalists are also in power. They include members of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s own Likud party as well as members of the coalition government that Netanyahu has cobbled together. On the plus side, however, Netanyahu has immense political experience and powerful oratorical skills, if he would just make use of them and exercise leadership in the peace process. 

He gave rhetorical support for a two-state solution to our conflict in his speech at Bar Ilan University in 2009 and grudgingly since as well. If he really means it, he could do well to take a page out of Northern Ireland’s history and make every effort to make the solution a reality.

Cliff Savren is a member of the Haaretz English editorial staff.

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