Mitchell resignation jeopardizes peace talks in Mideast

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George Mitchell has resigned as special envoy to the Middle East. Hope for an early, just and lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians seems fading. That is sad, not least for Mainers. Following the Mitchell appointment in 2009, the state Legislature enacted, on a bipartisan basis and without dissent, a joint resolution congratulating both, and calling on them to work vigorously for peace.

Unlike his predecessors, President Barack Obama took up Middle East peace in his first term, and projected a settlement within a year. What followed was disappointing.

The Israeli government repeatedly refused the president’s requests for a freeze on settlement-building in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, while Palestinians, suspicious of Israeli intent, rejected direct negotiations in the absence of such a freeze.

It also became evident that Hamas, which controls Gaza, is too strong to be dislodged, while the Israelis refuse to negotiate with Hamas unless it recognizes Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state, renounces violence, and promises adherence to all previous agreements. Recent Fatah-Hamas reconciliation, and Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas’ intention to seek United Nations recognition of a Palestinian state have lessened Israeli inclinations toward peace.

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The Israeli peace camp has been marginalized. So has George Mitchell.

His leaving should not surprise. What did he accomplish? It is hard to say.

One mystery is why he did not draw more extensively on the Northern Ireland experience. Three lessons from that conflict seem especially relevant. Two relate to Israeli insistence on a right to exist as a Jewish state.

Until about 10 years ago, the Irish Republic claimed all Ireland, including Northern Ireland. It dropped the claim, not because it became convinced of the North’s legitimacy, but for broader reasons of self-interest.

The Irish Republican Movement’s political arm, Sinn Fein, still refuses formal recognition — even though Sinn Fein shares power in the North’s government. This is not unique: China does not recognize Taiwan, Serbia will not recognize Kosovo. This happens when two peoples contest the same land. There may be “de facto” recognition of the other’s existence, but not of a “right to exist.”

The Israeli requirement is unrealistic — and unreasonable.

The Six Counties also provide a cautionary tale: Between 1922, when Northern Ireland was created, and 1972, the ideal of the pro-British Protestant majority in that province was “A Protestant State for a Protestant People.” The result was discrimination in housing, employment and other sectors against Catholic Irish Nationalists, and repression by an overwhelmingly Protestant police force and auxiliaries.

Civil rights protests and eventual Irish Republican Army insurrection led the British government to suspend the Northern Ireland Parliament, and to rule directly from Westminster. The British recognized that the “Protestant state” was not compatible with modern British democracy.

Israelis need to make clear what they mean by a “Jewish state.” It is one thing to conceive of such a state as the principal homeland for Jews. It is another to intend it as a place where Jews are privileged over other citizens. There is considerable evidence of housing, employment and other discrimination against Israeli Arabs, and the Israeli occupation of the West Bank is very repressive.

Rightward political trends in Israel promise worse to come. The “Protestant State” should be reflected on.

Finally, Northern Ireland suggests how to deal with Hamas. Negotiations there advanced not through preconditions requiring overt renunciation of violence but through ceasefires, more than one of which the IRA violated. Neither was formal recognition of Northern Ireland’s “right to exist” required before talks could begin.

Hamas cannot be expected to acquiesce in preconditions which entail renouncing its reasons for being. The standards demanded of Hamas are for negotiation, not useful preconditions.

Perhaps George Mitchell brought these lessons to the Israeli-Palestinian situation but found Israeli and U.S. intransigence too great. If so, the future does not seem bright. Unless President Obama is willing to take the political risks of a less pro-Israeli approach, the prospects for peace are dim.

At best, we will see more like the recent blood-drenched protests, with worse in the offing. That will be tragic for both peoples, and for the national interest of the United States in a stable and secure Middle East.

Ed McCarthy is Maine coordinator for Churches for Middle East Peace and an active member of Veterans for Peace. He has written on both Irish politics and the Middle East for more than 30 years. He lives in Vienna.

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