George Mitchell was back in the Middle East for the third time since his appointment as Middle East envoy last month. The State Department announced that Mr. Mitchell's goal for the trip was to discuss next steps in moving the parties toward a lasting peace, which in practice means pushing for a two-state solution.
According to Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the Palestinians should recognize Israel as a Jewish state before Israel commits to peace talks, which is exactly what he underscored in his conversation with George Mitchell.
Mr. Mitchell, in all his meetings with Israeli officials, kept reiterating the fact that the U.S. favors a two-state solution. Notwithstanding these pronouncements, Mr. Mitchell is learning that, although two states for two people sounds ideal, implementing it is quite an arduous task.
Despite his experience in the region, the environment Mr. Mitchell faced in 2001 has changed dramatically in the past eight years. Specifically, Arafat was still alive and Gaza was not run by Hamas. So now, Mr. Mitchell and the Obama administration are learning that working toward peace in the region without defusing the nuclear threat of Iran will be almost impossible.
Understanding how far and wide the Iranian tentacles reach within groups like Hamas and Hezbollah are key issues for the Netanyahu government, which make them nonnegotiable items as they are at the heart of Israel's war on terror.
Mr. Mitchell's past involvement in "solving" areas of conflict — the 1998 Northern Ireland Good Friday or Belfast agreement which he brokered and his 2001 "Mitchell Report" on Israeli-Palestinian peace — has raised hopes and fears regarding his current efforts. Despite his experience in the region, the environment he faced in 2001 has changed dramatically in the past 8 years.
On April 12, 1998, Mr. Mitchell managed to produce a three-stranded multilateral peace agreement between Northern Ireland and Britain. Mr. Mitchell's success in Northern Ireland's long-standing territorial-religious dispute gave former President Bill Clinton grounds to appoint him to examine the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, which bears some apparent similarities to Northern Ireland's crisis.
The 1998 Good Friday Agreement was successful in transferring the political process from violence to a non-violent, legal framework based on elaborate power-sharing measures between the Protestant minority and Catholic majority in Northern Ireland. Yet, the Mitchell Report, which attempted to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with a similar approach to The Good Friday Agreement, failed to stem the continuing violence, and therefore failed. George Mitchell adopted The Good Friday Agreement as the model for achieving a plausible peace in the Middle East. On the surface, this seems reasonable, as both conflicts share religious bases; but a key difference is that, in Ireland, the land question is secondary. The conflict between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland is not theological but cultural and historical, as well as related directly to economic and social power.
In the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Jerusalem symbolizes the capital for both Israelis and Palestinians. The religious and cultural passions Jerusalem embodies constitute an as yet insurmountable obstacle to peace. Something we witnessed when Arafat's Muslim theology was as such that he denied the existence of any Jewish Temple in Jerusalem to Mr. Clinton's face.
One of the primary differences between Northern Ireland's situation and Israel's is the way in which the populations define their religious identities. Religion in Northern Ireland is a cultural force. The Irish see their struggle for the land/territory as a sovereignty issue, not a religious one. Israel, on the other hand, though largely secular, remains a land deeply defined by religion, a fact which also has political implications. The absence of real separation of church and state in Israel is concomitant with the constant entanglement of religious and political issues that are rooted in the land itself. Israelis, though secular, correctly fear becoming a minority in their own country, or worse, Muslim subjects of a new caliphate. Muslims, by and large, simply cannot accept Jewish sovereignty or self-definition — these things defy the divine order. These roots fuel the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian violence over territorial ownership.
While the Irish people certainly have an identity connection to the land, it is not talismanic. The Irish people do not see Dublin as a divinely chosen conduit to God. Jerusalem, however, is the single most important place for all Jews, and, though unnamed in the Quran, has become the third most holy place for Muslims. Understanding the Jewish and Irish perceptions of their own ethnicities is critical to understanding the outcomes in these two arenas: Ethnic perceptions allowed success in Northern Ireland and virtually ensured failure in the Middle East.
In practice, one of the major themes in both the Good Friday Agreement and The Mitchell Report is the idea of CBM, or "confidence building measures." For example, new mechanisms were put into place to ensure equal rights in employment and policing, and militia weapons were 'decommissioned' under international supervision. These were used in order to reduce the violence and to bring the two parties in both regions together to resolve their differences. The hope of implementing CBM is to reach a level of trust. It is difficult seeing how similar measures would be successful with Israelis and Palestinians, since the recommendations of his 2001 report, most notably the end of terrorism, were hardly observed. And the most problematic issue in the Mitchell Report remains the "clash of identity," a corollary of the definition of "who I am," meaning who is a Jew and who is a Palestinian. Both nations use the land of Israel to define the answer to that question. In contrast, the Irish do not stress the "land" aspect of their identity.
Mr. Mitchell neglected to consider the enormous role religion plays in democracies sans separation of church and state. Had Mr. Mitchell realized the influence exerted by religion and specifically Jerusalem, presumably he would have insisted that more religious authorities be included, even in Northern Ireland.
Finally, if Mr. Mitchell is to learn from his mistakes, he should embrace the fact that Israelis and Palestinians trust their religions more than they trust one another. In the Middle East, neutralizing the parties' focus on religion is critical. In practice, however, this focus has fueled the region's perpetual state of conflict. Similarly in Northern Ireland, neutralizing the players' focus on culture was critical. U.S. involvement there and that religion was not an insurmountable obstacle; we have seen some success in the Irish quest for peace. This is absent in the Middle East, even when purchasing peace with land, thus the focus should be on minimizing the Islamists from the moderates and finding a way to incorporate religiosity with democracy.