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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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).
3 "Better red than dead?" Economist, March 15, 2007.