The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has frequently been compared to the Northern Ireland dispute and many have referenced its resolution in the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 as a model for Israelis and Palestinians to follow. During my recent visit to the city of Belfast, I compared and contrasted what I saw during my tours with the features of the Israel-Palestine conflict. While the two conflicts are distinct in many ways, there are important lessons that can be gleaned from the Northern Ireland experience and applied to Israelis and Palestinians.
One feature that parallels well with the Israeli-Palestinian dispute are the roles of the communities’ conflicting identities and denial of legitimacy towards the other side. For instance, many Republican Nationalists sought, and some still do seek a liberated and united Ireland where the Protestants would be allowed to remain in the land as a religious community with Irish citizenship, but not as Unionists with British citizenship or national representation. Reciprocally, many Unionists may have also considered the Catholics to be only a religious community who may live under Great Britain’s sovereignty with British citizenship, but not with Irish national status.
Palestinians and Israelis also seem to find themselves in a zero-sum mentality and cycle of denial. For example, Palestinians who seek a maximalist solution through a unitary state make a similar case as the Irish nationalists for what the status might be for Israelis, that the Jews would have religious community status, but not national status or sovereignty under a united Palestine. There has also been denial of Palestinian national identity on the Israeli side, such as when Golda Meir notoriously stated that “there are no Palestinians” back in 1969, rather that Palestinians are simply “Arabs” who already have 22 other states. This seemed to change slightly within Israeli thinking during the Rabin years and the Oslo Accords, but the denial has persisted on the Israeli right and may have reflected back to the broader Israeli society. Israel’s continued control of the West Bank (and until 2005, Gaza Strip) only emboldens those who would see those territories as just another part of Israel.
Despite these similarities, the conflicting identities between Israelis and Palestinians cannot be reconciled through the same political structure as exists in Northern Ireland today. Rather, Israelis’ and Palestinians’ conflicting identities and narratives only reaffirm the need for a two-state solution. In the Northern Ireland Assembly, coalition quotas ensure that the largest Republican and Unionist parties are always part of the same government. Such power sharing may be acceptable to both communities because they have sovereign states to represent their conflicting identities (the Republic of Ireland and Great Britain). In contrast, Israelis and Palestinians cannot simultaneously share one territory between the river and the sea and have other states represent their core identities. Both peoples care about how the state represents their identity and their narrative, and one state will not be able to reconcile their conflicting attributes.
While understanding the other side’s grievances and aspirations did help in creating a more peaceful environment, my experience in Northern Ireland also revealed to me that there does not necessarily need to be genuine peace between rival groups before a sustainable peace accord can be implemented. Twenty years after the Good Friday Agreement there is still much tension between the communities and they rarely come into contact with each other. However, though the accord was an “imperfect peace” and there are still many problems, the vast majority of both groups still support it because it resulted in a cessation of violence. If there was one thing Unionists and Irish nationalists agreed on it was that they wanted the violence to stop, and many Israelis and Palestinians feel the same way. Perhaps one of the most important lessons Northern Ireland has for the Middle East is that Israelis and Palestinians probably will not and do not need to have genuinely peaceful relations before a final status solution can be implemented. Rather, a peace agreement will only be the next step in the process towards reconciliation, which we should certainly continue to strive for.
Of course, if there are not going to be warm and friendly relations between Israelis and Palestinians before a final status agreement, it is their leaders who will need to prepare them to make the sacrifices necessary for peace. In his memoir, The Negotiator, George Mitchell reflects on his experiences as a peace envoy in Northern Ireland and the Middle East and the importance of leaders’ willingness to take risks for peace. He points out how just days before the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, 83 percent of those in Northern Ireland did not think such an agreement was possible. Yet, when the British and Irish leaders signed the accord, over 70 percent of people in Northern Ireland supported it. Even though the Good Friday Agreement may be dated at this point, it nonetheless reveals how leaders can develop the constituencies for a peace agreement by taking an initiative and preparing their people to make sacrifices that are necessary for the better good of future generations. As Mitchell writes, “Both societies [Israelis and Palestinians] need leaders who are able to convince their people that compromise is not a weakness but a virtue necessary to secure the well-being of future generations; leaders who will act boldly to halt and reverse the descent into a new round of violence that will be terribly harmful to both societies.”
Twenty years since the Good Friday Agreement, the Republican Nationalists and Unionists still find themselves far away from a utopian peace, but they are in a far more peaceful state than they were during the Troubles. If Israelis and Palestinians want a similarly bright future, they will need to slightly change their tone and acknowledge that there is another side. Israelis do not need to wait for the Palestinians to become Zionists before they can reach a two-state agreement that ensures their security. Palestinians need not wait on Israelis to adopt every part of their narrative. Simple shows of basic respect and understanding can go a long way in laying the groundwork for the sacrifices necessary for a more peaceful future.