Commentary: Mideast lessons from Northern IrelandCarlo Strenger
July 9, 2007
TEL AVIV -- Two dogmas have ruled Israeli policies for decades: "Always deal with only one Arab nation; avoid meeting together with all of them," and, "Never allow for a permanent international peace conference, because it might push us into corners from which we cannot escape." The result has been a "wait-and-see" strategy that assumes time is on our side.
But "wait-and-see" is no longer an option. Every year that goes by strengthens Islamic fundamentalists, as we have painfully seen with Hamas' 2006 election victory. Israel has never had less to lose and more to gain from experimenting with a fresh approach. And the fear of giving up some square kilometers of land is disproportionate to the danger of being faced with radical regimes, armed with rockets that can reach any Israeli city.
Our situation is well reflected in a story that Lord John Alderdice, originally from Belfast, told me in the context of his serving on a panel on terrorism in Sicily. Alderdice, a psychiatrist by training, received his peerage in honor of his crucial contribution to peacemaking in Northern Ireland, well before the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, while he was still leader of the Alliance Party, and before becoming the first speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly.
When he was a child, he remarked, he wondered how his community - the Protestants - could possibly protect themselves against Catholics. Then, his father had told him: "Imagine that our house is locked, and that you can't get out, and that there is a cage with a lion in it. In two weeks this cage will be opened, and there's nothing you can do about that. Don't you think it's a good idea to start talking to the lion?"
Of course, this advice is frightening; can you ever know for sure that the lion is not going to eat you? The one thing you know for certain is that it is there, and that it will eventually leave its cage. It was this insight that guided Alderdice through the arduous process of ultimately successful peacemaking, and he is currently applying this lesson in various parts of the world. In his view, therefore, Israel must start seeing Arabs as partners.
For this, two creative breakthroughs are needed: the first is to see moderate Arab states as true partners with a common interest in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. In other words, to break with decades-old Israeli doctrine that we should never meet the Arab world in its entirety. This policy is based on the denial of historical reality: the Arab world, as a whole, needs to accept Israel's presence in the Middle East.
The Arabs should help us? Yes. Social psychology has shown time and again that the best way to create solidarity between feuding parties is to have them work on a common problem. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not just our problem: It is one concerning the entire Arab world, because it fuels Islamic fundamentalism, and destabilizes the region. No Palestinian leader can opt for compromise without looking for the legitimacy bestowed by all Arabs.
The second breakthrough we need is to rethink Israel's phobia of participating in permanent conferences that allow a process to evolve. This would have to be exactly the opposite of the 2000 Camp David summit situation, which was completely identified with former US president Bill Clinton, who was in the last phase of his term in office. The frantic pressure of having to strike a deal before he left the White House, with no one in sight who would shepherd the process to its conclusion, was a recipe for failure.
Instead we need to apply the model of the Northern Ireland process. In Alderdice's view, the major factor that made success there possible was the participation of the British and Irish governments, as well as the support and involvement of the American administration. All pledged to be present for as long as it took to reach an agreement.
Psychologically, it makes a huge difference to know that external support is there to stay. The idea of nominating former British prime minister Tony Blair as the Quartet's special envoy to the Middle East is a step in the right direction. Blair no longer depends on the political fortunes of any government or administration. He can be there to stay - never mind who governs the United States, Russia, or who is at the helm of the European Union.
Israel should, thus, push for the establishment of a semi-permanent peace conference involving moderate Arab countries and representatives of the Quartet. Blair's role should, by no means, be limited to Palestinian nation-building alone. Instead, he should become the symbol and guarantor that, this time, the West is committed to staying the course, until there is the proverbial white smoke, even though this will take years.
Carlo Strenger is a Professor in Tel Aviv University's Psychology Department, and a member of the Permanent Monitoring Panel on Terrorism of the World Federation of Scientists. This commentary was first published in Ha'aretz, and is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews). Acknowledgement to CGNews.