When you want to make peace, it is useful to turn to a proven peace-maker. The other day in New York I had a chance to sit down with one of the successful peace-makers of our time and explore the lessons of his own rich experience, especially in view of current attempts to revive a Middle East peace conference. The man I mean is former US Senator George Mitchell, who spent years as an American diplomatic envoy during the Clinton administration. He played brief roles in the Palestinian-Israeli and Bosnia conflicts, but his lasting success was representing the United States for over five years in facilitating the peace talks in Northern Ireland as of the late 1990s. Few people in the world enjoy his perspective of knowing both the Northern Ireland and Palestinian-Israeli conflicts from personal experience. Because of Mitchell’s sensibility and good judgment (he served as a judge in an earlier career) along with his political experience in shaping compromises in his senatorial days, I thought his views and suggestions on how to approach peace-making in the Arab-Israeli conflict today would be worth exploring. He quickly proved me correct. Mitchell first cautioned against drawing too many parallels between Northern Ireland and the Middle East, which have distinct characteristics. However, he also saw some general similarities that pertain to all peace-making attempts, three in particular: First, he said, all sides in a negotiation must commit to ceasing violence and to reaching an agreement only through peaceful diplomacy. Peace agreements are unlikely to emanate from a context of continuing conflict and lack of trust. Second, patience and determination are vital; participants and mediators alike cannot give up when they hit a snag or suffer violent incidents. And third, one must dispel the notion that some very difficult conflicts are destined to go on forever, and instead affirm that a negotiated resolution can be achieved. A successful negotiation also needs a fair mediator who is both persistent and impartial. This helps to reinforce the essential perception of the parties that their minimal demands can be met, and their basic human dignity preserved, through peaceful diplomacy. Mitchell’s experience in the Middle East mainly involved heading an international team in 2001, after the second intifada had broken out in the wake of the failure of the Camp David talks of summer 2000. His team produced a report on how to end the fighting and move back to Palestinian-Israeli negotiations. The report was accepted by both sides, with some reservations, but never achieved its goals because its recommendations were not implemented, due to a lack of political follow-up. Mitchell’s observations are noteworthy because there are numerous signs today in Palestine, the Arab world, the US, and Europe indicating a growing interest in an international conference to explore a negotiated, comprehensive Arab-Israeli settlement. My own sense is that chances of success remain slim today, in view of Israel’s skepticism and the penchant of most parties with their shallow leaderships to hold onto hard-line positions and remain locked in confrontation and conflict. Yet pressure may build to resume negotiations, especially as an adjunct to progress in Iraq. If so, Mitchell’s experience in Northern Ireland should be studied carefully. Mitchell emphasized the need to engage all relevant parties in any peace process. The Northern Ireland talks failed to advance for years because key parties linked to paramilitary groups were excluded. The better approach – which eventually worked in Northern Ireland – was to bring in all the main players but insist they commit to a non-violent resolution of their conflict. The implications for the current situation in the Middle East seem clear. Parties that some people want to exclude from the political process, like Hamas, must have an opportunity to exchange views, Mitchell said. He did not directly engage the Irish Republican Army, but dealt with them through their political arm, Sinn Fein. The critical breakthrough was getting their commitment, along with that of the Unionists, to end violence as a precondition to talking. Also, the parties were not obligated to make any prior commitment on the substance of the negotiations or their end result. Mitchell reminds us that all parties to a long and bitter conflict have their say and be taken seriously, in order to help reduce the sense of victimization that can often define a community. Those who use violence and then commit to non-violent conflict resolution do so only if they are convinced that they will achieve their minimal goals through a process that is mediated fairly by a truly objective third party. The US is the only external party today that can help negotiate Arab-Israeli peace, Mitchell argued, and it should persevere more in the region for this purpose.
Rami G. Khouri writes a regular commentary for THE DAILY STAR.