DevMode
The recent appointment of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair as the official Middle East envoy of the Quartet provoked many different reactions and predictions regarding his chances of success. Few considered whether Blair's appointment might signal a change in the substance of the Quartet's approach. Could Blair be interested in a "Northern Ireland solution" to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?
In March 2007, the leaders of Northern Ireland's largest Catholic and Protestant parties reached an agreement on power-sharing that went into effect in May. Under the laws of Britain's Home Rule system, which provides for the devolution of power to "nations" within the United Kingdom, the two historic adversaries will now be jointly responsible for the welfare of the divided province's 1.7 million residents.
The power-sharing arrangement effectively ended a conflict that had claimed well over 3,000 lives since the late 1960s. It also established Blair's political legacy as a peacemaker, despite his association with the Iraq war. With the Quartet's Middle East Road Map on hold for the foreseeable future, the Northern Ireland model might provide an alternative method of achieving the vision of a two-state solution.
The peace process in Northern Ireland had its roots in the Anglo-Irish agreement of 1985, which established the basis for cooperation between the U.K. and the Republic of Ireland toward resolving the conflict. Thirteen years later, in 1998, the Good Friday Agreement was signed in Belfast, creating a democratic Northern Ireland Assembly and setting timelines for the "decommissioning" of arms. Despite several delays and breakdowns, further talks and subsequent agreements eventually brought the Northern Ireland peace process to a successful conclusion.
As I have argued before in these pages,1 a key factor in sustaining faith in diplomacy and discouraging a return to violence in Northern Ireland and South Africa was the creation of public, multi-party, representative negotiating institutions that excluded violent groups.
The use of analogy in politics is always perilous. There are no magic formulae or "one-size-fits-all" solutions to complex phenomena such as intractable conflicts. Yet there may be lessons to be drawn from each case, even if only to highlight the unique requirements of other cases. And in the person of Blair, these two conflicts are drawn closer together in a way that invites closer examination.

The Context

Today, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process is almost defunct. The failure of the Oslo process of the 1990s was followed by the violence of the second intifada, the building of the "security barrier" in the West Bank and the disengagement from Gaza. Palestinians chose Hamas in the 2006 elections, leading to the international isolation of the Palestinian Authority (PA) and the further impoverishment of its people.
The kidnapping of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit by Hamas helped provoke a regional war in the summer of 2006. Afterwards, Qassam rockets continued to be fired from Gaza at civilian targets in Israel, provoking Israeli counterattacks. In June 2007, Hamas drove rival Fateh out of Gaza and violently usurped its executive power, throwing the future of a viable Palestinian state - and the two-state solution - into doubt.
At the same time, the overall outlook for peace and stability in the Middle East has deteriorated. Terror attacks in Iraq continue to erode the prospects of the American-backed government. Iran has proceeded with its nuclear program despite sanctions and broad global opposition. In Lebanon, Hizbullah has re-armed, while the Lebanese army fights Syrian-backed paramilitaries in Palestinian refugee camps.
By contrast, the Northern Ireland peace process took place against the backdrop of ongoing European integration and joint Anglo-Irish efforts to promote a peaceful resolution to the "Troubles." The terror attacks of September 11, 2001 in the U.S., which heralded a new era of conflict in the Middle East, may have indirectly prompted republican forces in Northern Ireland to suspend their armed struggle.
The different geopolitical contexts surrounding each conflict must therefore warn against facile comparisons. It is equally important, however, not to overlook signs of progress in the Middle East, such as the Arab Peace Initiative, which offers full normalization of relations with Israel in exchange for a return to the 1967 status quo ante. More negotiation is necessary, but perhaps also possible - and timely.
The two-state paradigm is now in danger - not only because of the Israeli occupation, but also because of Palestinian incapacity. A single-state solution is a "non-starter," and renewed speculation about a new "Jordanian option" has been dismissed by the Hashemite monarchy. Unilateral Israeli withdrawal is now politically impossible, due to fear of a Hamas-controlled West Bank. Alternative models may therefore be relevant.

The "Northern Ireland Solution"

A "Northern Ireland solution" would establish a representative institution for part or all of the West Bank, elected on a constituency basis and including representatives from Israeli settlements as well as Palestinian towns and districts. (I exclude Gaza, because it is effectively self-governing already, albeit within the constraints brought about by Hamas' violent rejectionism and the resulting international boycott.)
The proposed "West Bank Forum" could take a "strong" form, providing the structure of a new and reconstituted Palestinian Legislative Council. Alternatively, it could adopt a "weak" form and simply be a consultative body to the Israeli and Palestinian governments. Either way, the Forum would surpass earlier "autonomy" proposals by explicitly including Jewish settlers as participants - just as Arab citizens of Israel are included in the Knesset.
An objection to this idea might be that settlers, unlike Arab Israelis, arrived in the Palestinian territories under the banner of foreign military occupation. That is true - but it is equally true that the legitimacy of a future Palestinian state would partly depend on its treatment of minorities, including Jews. Reciprocal respect for minority rights would also promote the stability of an eventual two-state solution.
Palestinian recognition of minority rights would direct more serious attention to the legal and political substance of the nascent Palestinian state, particularly regarding human rights (where the PA has been sorely deficient). Such recognition would also, if honored, facilitate Israel's withdrawal from the West Bank by offering settlers a choice: return to Israel proper, or become citizens of a Palestinian state.
After all, so long as outstanding Palestinian land claims against Israel can be addressed, there is no inherent reason why Jewish settlers should be removed and their communities destroyed. Though of dubious (at best) standing under international law, Israeli settlements represent a significant source of investment and a potential tax base that a future Palestinian state would benefit from retaining.
The West Bank Forum would also bring Jews and Arabs in the territory together for the first time to address issues of common interest. It might facilitate broader peace negotiations, or serve as a catalyst for Palestinian institution-building. Perhaps, given increasing trust on both sides, it could encourage the substitution of civilian for military law as the governing legal apparatus of the West Bank.

Problems and Prospects

A few caveats are in order. First, even with a successful Forum, it would remain necessary for Israel to continue to handle security in the West Bank for now. This is partly because terror continues to threaten both Israelis and Palestinians. There is also a possibility of renewed war between Israel and Syria or Israel and Iran (with Sunni regimes tacitly supporting Israel, as they did in Lebanon in 2006), and Israel could only pull back at great risk.
Second, the political will to participate in joint representative institutions is an unproven quantity, on both sides. A visit to an Israeli settlement or Palestinian town quickly confirms the high degree of mistrust that each side feels toward the other. Not only the more ideologically motivated but also the more moderate individuals on each side may balk at sharing power so directly with the "enemy."
I recently asked al-Quds University President Sari Nusseibeh why Palestinian leaders had not - for strategic reasons, if no other - offered Jewish settlers citizenship in the future Palestinian state. He paused to consider the idea, then responded: "I wish our leaders would do that. Unfortunately, our leaders do not do everything that they should do."
I posed a similar question in Jerusalem to Bassem Eid of the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group. He said that Palestinians could not be expected to take responsibility for the welfare of the settlers when they could barely protect their own. The issues facing Palestinians were more immediate and material than broader political questions, he said.
Third, similar ideas have been suggested - and rejected - before. The "Northern Ireland model" has parallels in earlier federal models proposed by Zionist leaders. It also reiterates the fond hopes of Theodore Herzl, among other early Zionist leaders, that Jewish settlements would prove an economic boon for the region's Arab population. These ideas were spurned; however, the Arab Peace Initiative suggests Israel's neighbors might be more receptive now.
Fourth, Israel feels little urgent need to adopt new proposals. The international community - as well as Palestinians themselves2 - feel that ending internal Palestinian infighting is more pressing than ending Israeli occupation. The so-called "demographic threat" to Israel has been forestalled by the exclusion of Gaza, and the "security barrier" provides Israel with an alternative to negotiation, however unattractive to both sides.
Finally, the legal and constitutional framework that would make possible the "strong" version of the West Bank Forum, or possibly even the "weak" one, does not yet exist within Israel, much less the PA. Creating a new representative institution for the area might require the approval of majorities on both sides - which, in turn, presumes a degree of commitment to negotiation and reform that may not yet exist.
However, there are also reasons for hope that a West Bank Forum could succeed. One is the enduring peace between Israel and Jordan, which could play the same role as the Anglo-Irish relationship did over 22 years in Northern Ireland. Jordan has little interest in bailing Israel out of the occupation, but does have an interest in seeing a viable Palestinian state emerge. The West Bank Forum could assist that outcome.
A "Northern Ireland solution" in the West Bank would go beyond its namesake in explicitly envisioning a Palestinian state as the outcome of the process. Whether forming the basis of a new Palestinian legislature, or simply providing support for ongoing negotiations and institutions, the West Bank Forum would be an important intermediate step, a bridge from the present impasse to the future resolution.
A second reason for hope is that the West Bank Forum, by placing the Israeli settlements within a new institutional framework, might effectively set limits to Israeli sovereignty at or near the 1967 border, while protecting the interests of Israel and Israeli citizens. That, in turn, would signal the viability of the Arab Peace Initiative, and might awaken regional support for normalized relations with Israel.
Third, while Israeli settlers will be reluctant to participate in Palestinian institutions, they might do so if it meant that their presence in the West Bank would be recognized and protected. Likewise, Palestinians might accept the presence of Israeli settlements more readily if they were no longer seen as a threat to sovereignty and nation-building but a potential building block of government and development.
Fourth, even if the West Bank Forum were to be nothing more than a debating chamber, it would encourage the kind of mutual contact between those whose absence has frustrated past negotiations and prolonged the conflict. The very idea that the protection of national minorities is as much a responsibility of Palestine as of Israel would calm existential fears on both sides and encourage true mutual recognition.
By dispensing with the implicit notion that a future Palestinian state must be emptied of Jews, Palestinians might mount a more successful bid for territorial integrity, and might also free Israel from anxiety about the so-called "demographic threat." Israel and Palestine need not be mirror images of social democracy, but they can uphold their unique political visions while sharing respect for minority rights.
As in Northern Ireland, the creation of a public assembly of representatives from all groups that agreed to suspend violence - even though that assembly failed several times and was suspended for years - created legitimacy for negotiation and removed legitimacy from violence. In the West Bank, a similar forum might encourage public support for new talks and cooperation, despite the many obstacles to reconciliation.

Conclusion

All of this, of course, is merely conjectural. The immediate challenge facing Blair and the Quartet is to ensure that the PA retains its institutional coherence. For Palestinians, the immediate goal is everyday survival, with the hope that hardships such as checkpoints, closures and curfews can be progressively removed and access to work opportunities and public services speedily restored.
A "Northern Ireland solution" may be too great a departure from past plans, and too radical an idea in itself, to have much chance of being taken up by Blair or implemented by the two sides. Nevertheless, the idea could encourage creative thinking about the future shape of Palestinian institutions and the institutionalization of negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians.
Already, there are ongoing cooperative efforts between Israelis and Palestinians on issues of health, education and environmental protection. For example, an agreement to preserve the Dead Sea was signed in 2005 between Israel, Jordan and the PA. This was followed by plans to create a "Peace Corridor" of sustainable development projects in the desert region shared by the three countries.
Although the economic and environmental prospects of such projects have been greeted with skepticism,3 they have the potential to sustain diplomatic cooperation; indeed, such arrangements are virtually the only negotiations to have survived the second intifada. There is scope for expanding such cooperation and institutionalizing it, in order to serve as a basis for negotiations on the broader political issues at stake.
The example of Northern Ireland reminds us that such institutions have great potential, even in the context of a seemingly intractable religious and national conflict. Equally, the fact that the parties that finally agreed on a power-sharing deal were those that had most implacably opposed the Good Friday Agreement in the first place is a sign that all hope need not be lost in the Middle East.
Blair has wisely avoided trumpeting his success in Northern Ireland as a basis for his role in the Middle East. He knows, perhaps all too well, the difficulties and unique challenges of the region. Yet if he is humble about his successes, he should also be encouraged not to forget them. The path Northern Ireland has followed may yet hold useful lessons for peacemaking between Israelis and Palestinians.

Endnotes

1 "Let Peace Go Public," Palestine-Israel Journal of Politics, Economics and Culture 10:3 (2003).
2 Hebrew University of Jerusalem, "56% Palestinians Believe In-fighting and Lawlessness Greatest Threat." Press release announcing results of joint survey by the Harry S. Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research in Ramallah. (28 Jun. 2007). http://www.hunews.huji.ac.il/articles.asp?cat=6&artID=797
3 "Better red than dead?" Economist, March 15, 2007. http://economist.com/world/africa/displaystory.cfm?story_id=8861571

Comodo SSL