Comparative Perspective: The United States and Conflict Resolution in Northern Ireland and Israeli-Palestinian Conflict


This article discusses the United States’ engagement in the Northern Ireland peace process and makes comparisons with its involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and negotiations. It focuses on the helpful role which the U.S., as a key external actor, has played in enabling inclusive negotiations and political solutions to the conflict and politically motivated violence in Northern Ireland. Through a comparative perspective, the article also examines the nature of the U.S. involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and negotiations, and analyzes the lack of inclusivity and neutrality in its policy towards key issues and actors in the Israeli-Palestinian context. This has contributed to the systematic failure of the political process in the Israeli-Palestinian situation and has undermined the possibility of reaching a just solution to the Palestinian issue. The article ends with identifying critical implications of U.S. policy and engagement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The United States and the Northern Ireland Peace Process

With active support from influential actors and organizations in the Irish-American community, the U.S. administration under Bill Clinton played a positive and constructive role in supporting both the possibility of diplomatic negotiations and a comprehensive political settlement in Northern Ireland, which involved the Irish and British governments as well as the main actors in the conflict. These have included the Irish Republican movement, led by Sinn Féin, and its military wing, the Irish Republican Army (IRA), who had engaged in an armed conflict since the 1960s to achieve a United Ireland and gain independence from British rule. The establishment of a united Ireland, as a political and national project, represented the Nationalist aspirations. The actors have also included the Unionist parties and Loyalist paramilitaries who wanted to defend and keep the political union of Northern Ireland with Britain.The preservation of Northern Ireland within the British Union represented the Unionist aspirations.

Thus, in the context of Northern Ireland, the United States has sought a “historic compromise between unionism and nationalism.”1 The U.S. and Britain’s common battle against communism, the end of the Cold War, Britain’s changing interests in Northern Ireland and its public declaration of having “no selfish strategic or economic interest in Northern Ireland” created the possibility for an American involvement and a potential resolution to the Northern Ireland conflict.2

The role of the United States was influential and has enabled the launch of a genuine peace process at key levels. First, U.S. direct engagement with Republican and Sinn Féin leaders was instrumental in facilitating alternative means to the use of political violence by Republican armed organizations. Second, this particular engagement and recognition legitimatized the political role of Sinn Féin and its future participation in the peace process. Third, the U.S. encouraged Britain to accept the involvement of Sinn Féin in the peace talks and compromise on its precondition of the IRA’s disarmament before the inclusive negotiations could start.3 Fourth, the appointment of Senator George Mitchell to chair the multi-party talks prior to the Good Friday Agreement (1996-1998), with active support from the British and Irish governments, had placed the U.S. as a key mediator and enabling force in the Northern Irish peace process. Fifth, the Mitchell principles that stressed the democratic and nonviolent nature of a resolution for the Northern Ireland conflict4 served as a key framework for committing the major actors at governmental and non-governmental levels to nonviolence and the democratic process in Northern Ireland.

In addition, Clinton’s visits to Northern Ireland and meetings with Nationalist and Unionist actors developed the United States’ engagement and its influence in positive terms. What made the U.S. role more crucial was the policy of neutrality and inclusion towards all the parties to the conflict. This policy presented serious efforts and important symbolic gestures to accommodate the concerns and interests of Nationalist and Unionist forces in the negotiations process.5 The political openness to both sides by the United States and the acceptance of their legitimate aspirations was also reflected in the Good Friday Agreement through the principle of democratic consent. In other words, any change in the political status of Northern Ireland “can occur only with the freely given consent of the people of Northern Ireland.”6 Not only did the positive and neutral role played by the Northern Ireland contribute to an inclusive and genuine peace process but it also consolidated the democratic and legitimate structure which emerged within the framework of the Good Friday Agreement.

The Agreement addressed three key relationships as a mechanism for conflict resolution: a) the relationship between communities in Northern Ireland; b) the relationship between the North and South of Ireland; and c) the relationship between the United Kingdom and Ireland.7 Although the Good Friday Agreement faced serious criticisms on a number of critical grounds including the institutionalization of identity and divisive politics,8 it has been hugely significant in putting an end to decades of political violence and hostilities. As Thomas Abraham observes, the Agreement was “hailed as a triumph for the process of conflict resolution through democratic negotiations rather than through the power of the gun.”9

The peace process in Northern Ireland is still characterized by serious challenges including governance stability, legacy of the violent past, identity, sectarianism, community division, dissident elements, threats of violence and the recent British decision to exit the European Union. Nonetheless, the continuity and sustainability of the peace process with active engagement from the major parties in Northern Ireland and the strategic support from the Irish and British governments carries the promise of progress in the face of national and regional challenges to the peace process in Northern Ireland.

The United States and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

Unlike its involvement in Northern Ireland, the United States has been neither neutral nor inclusive in dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It is deeply embedded in a “special relationship” with Israel as a major and powerful actor in the conflict. This relationship is defined through military and geopolitical interests in the Middle East region, and it grants Israel the privileged status of a strategic ally. As a result, Palestinian national aspirations and interests in statehood and self-determination are acknowledged in rhetoric but effectively marginalized in U.S. foreign policy in the region. Furthermore, the internationally backed consensus for conflict resolution in the Israeli-Palestinian context, which includes Israel’s withdrawal from the Occupied Palestinian Territories of Gaza and the West Bank, the creation of an independent Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its future capital city and a just resolution to the Palestinian refugee issue in exchange for Israeli security guarantees, has been rejected by the U.S. as early as 1976.10 Despite the repeated public statements by the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations and rhetorical support for the establishment of a Palestinian state, the U.S. has effectively been willing to endorse the Israeli terms and versions of a fragmented, divided and weak Palestinian entity.11

Two particular strategies have been employed by the U.S. in favor of Israel in its negotiations with the Palestinian side. First, the American mediation policy regarding Israeli-Palestinian issues has mostly been designed to protect and accommodate first and foremost Israeli interests above any commitment to political settlement and just peace. The conclusion of Aaron David Miller, the former American official who worked at the State Department for 25 years as a Middle East negotiator and advisor, is revealing. “For far too long,” he writes, “many American officials involved in Arab-Israeli peacemaking, myself included, have acted as Israel’s attorney, catering and coordinating with the Israelis at the expense of successful peace negotiations.”The end result, as Miller also confirms, is the U.S. acting as “Israel’s lawyer” and lacking the “independence and flexibility required for serious peacemaking.”12

The second strategy has been employed since the Clinton administration and throughout the Oslo peace process in the 1990s. It has involved joint American-Israeli negotiations with the ultimate purpose of reaching an internal agreement between the two sides on a key issue in the Israeli- Palestinian conflict before the U.S. could present this joint agreement with Israel to the Palestinians and the international community as an American plan for “peace” in the Middle East. The concluding assessment presented by the Israeli journalist Barak Ravid, in his investigation of the recent Israeli-Palestinian talks which were mediated by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and his team, is truly revealing of this strategy. The American mediators ignored the Palestinian leaders and “held most of the meetings and talked only with the Israeli leaders,” Ravid observes. Therefore, the U.S. has continued to reflect Israeli interests and position primarily by“selling an American Israeli agreement on a certain issue as an American [peace] proposal.”13

The resulting reality is that the Palestinian issues concerning the traumas and dispossession of 1948, the fate of refugees inside and outside Palestine, Israeli military occupation, illegal settlements, the future of Jerusalem, sovereignty and Palestinian national rights, are marginalized and subject to an American-Israeli policy consensus.

The United States Policy and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: Critical Implications

Unlike its inclusive and neutral engagement in the Northern Ireland peace process, the United States’ policy in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and negotiations has not only been exclusive and favorable to one side, that is, Israel, but also continues to prevent any real prospect for a political settlement in the Israeli-Palestinian situation. This has critical implications for the possibility of reaching a negotiated solution and just peace in the region.

These implications are: First, this one-sided and biased engagement of the U.S. in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has reinforced the power inequality and imbalance between Israel and the Palestinians. The full American backing of Israel, including diplomatic and military protection, has not only sustained the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories but also weakens the Palestinian side and leaves it vulnerable to Israeli dictations.

As the Israeli academic Guy Ben Porat points out, the subjugation of the Palestinians to a long military occupation and deprivation of citizenship rights has left hardly any opportunity for Israelis and Palestinians to meet as “equals,” even within the context of the Oslo peace process.14

Second, the lack of genuine efforts by the U.S. to mediate a political and comprehensive settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict leads to the continuation of the status quo. Therefore, along with the expansionist agenda, the process of turning “political inaction into a policy and political stalemate into a goal” has been the main strategy that Likud leaders, including Binyamin Netanyahu, have employed since the Madrid Peace Conference in 1991.15 In theory, this strategy of maintaining the status quo at the political level and continuing settlement expansions on the ground receives some opposition by the U.S. but, in practice, Israel continues to be rewarded through significant military and economic aid.16

Third, one of the major implications for this complex reality is the ultimate control and domination which the U.S. exercises on Israeli- Palestinian talks. The U.S. acts as the main mediator in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and it has not allowed any other significant party or international organization, such as the European Union or the United Nations, to play an influential role in conflict resolution. In this respect, Noam Chomsky points out that not only has the U.S. been blocking a political settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on the well-known terms of the two-state solution but it also continues to impose the precondition that the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations must be exclusively “supervised by Washington.” This policy aims to maintain domination over Middle East affairs and is also designed to ensure protection for Israel as a military and strategic ally.17

Fourth, in the absence of change in U.S. policy towards the Israeli- Palestinian conflict, Israel has been able to develop a system of permanent occupation. This is also achieved with European political inaction and complicity that continues to subsidize the occupation project. As the Israeli professor Menachem Klein illustrates, not only has European aid to the Palestinians facilitated Israeli military rule in the Occupied Palestinian Territories but also has allowed Israel to “avoid making hard political decisions regarding its legal, moral and political responsibilities toward the Palestinians” living under Israeli military occupation.18 Furthermore, within the context of European complicity and American support, this system of permanent occupation has been “formalized and institutionalized” by Israel in Gaza and the West Bank under the cover of the Oslo peace process.19


The United States played a positive and constructive role in conflict resolution in Northern Ireland and has contributed to the facilitation of an inclusive and credible peace process. This role has taken direct and indirect forms, including encouraging alternatives to political violence and facilitating inclusive negotiations and neutral mediation in the search for a political settlement in Northern Ireland. However, in its involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and negotiations, the U.S. is neither neutral nor inclusive. It provides support and diplomatic protection to Israel based on their strategic alliance and geopolitical interests in the Middle East region. Moreover, U.S. mediation in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been extremely supportive of Israeli interests and positions through various strategies. Hence, a major obstacle to conflict resolution and a just political settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the biased U.S. engagement in the region. This situation has serious policy implications at the Israeli- Palestinian level, including inequality of power, the continuation of political inaction and stalemate, the lack of alternative international engagement and the intensification of the permanent occupation system by Israel in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

One of the major lessons from Northern Ireland is that international engagement must maintain a just and inclusive role towards the main actors and issues in conflict. Most importantly, the essential aim of external involvement should facilitate the transformation of the structures of injustice and the achievement of self-determination. The application of this critical lesson from Northern Ireland is a key to achieving justice and lasting peace in the Israeli-Palestinian reality.

1 Guelke, Adrian (1996) The United States, Irish Americans and the Northern Ireland Peace Process. Journal of International Affairs 72 (3): 521-536, p. 536.
2Dixon, Paul (2006) Performing the Northern Ireland Peace Process on the World Stage. Journal of Political Science Quarterly 121 (1): 61-91, pp. 64-65.
3Dunn, Seamus (1999) Northern Ireland: A Promising or Partisan Peace. Journal of International Affairs 52 (2): 719-733, p.731.
4Ibid, p. 724.
5Dixon, Paul (2006) Performing the Northern Ireland Peace Process on the World Stage. Journal of Political Science Quarterly 121 (1): 61-91, p. 81.
6Mitchell, George. ‘Listening to a dull speech in Stormont was the happiest day of my life’. The (April 2012) (
7Tannam, Etain (2007) The European Commission’s Evolving Role in Conflict Resolution: The Case of Northern Ireland”. Journal of Cooperation and Conflict 42, (3): 337-356, p. 338.
8See for example, Rupert Taylor (2011) “Consociation or Social Transformation?”, in John McGarry (ed.) Northern Ireland and the Divided World. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp.36–52.
9Abraham, Thomas (1999) Forward. In: Clem McCartney (ed.) Striking a balance: The Northern Ireland Peace Process. Belfast: Conciliation Resources, p.3.
10Zunes, Stephen (2003). TINDERBOX: U.S. Middle East Policy and the Roots of Terrorism. London: Zed Books, p.107.
11Ibid p.108.
12David Miller, Aaron. ‘Israel’s Lawyer’, Washington Post (May 2005) ( AR2005052200883.html).
13Ravid, Barak. ‘The secret Fruits of the Peace Talks, a Future Point of Departure’. Haaretz (July 2014). (
14Ben Porat, Guy (2005) Grounds for Peace; Territoriality and Conflict Resolution. Journal of Geopolitics 10 (1): 147-166, p. 159.
15Shlaim, Avi (2014) Israel, Palestine and the Arab Uprisings. In Fawaz Gerges (ed.) The New Middle East: Protest and Revolution in the Arab World. New York, Cambridge University Press, p. 389.
16Chomsky, Noam. ‘The Imperial Way: American Decline in Perspective’, Guardian (February 2012) ( decline-noam-chomsky).
18Quoted in Noam Sheizaf. ‘How EU money enables the occupation, allow Israel to avoid its consequences ‘, +972 Magazine ( February 2014) ( consequences/87583/).
19Roy, Sara (2007) Failing Peace: Gaza and the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict. London: Pluto Press, pp. 234-236.