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Israel Should Learn from Northern Ireland

Author: Richard N. Haass, President, Council on Foreign Relations
November 22, 2012
Financial Times


Israeli missiles continued to fall on Gaza; meanwhile, a bus was blown up in Tel Aviv. But by the end of Wednesday, a ceasefire agreement between Israel and Hamas, and brokered by Egypt and the US, was signed. However, there is a big difference between a truce that is an interlude between rounds of fighting and one that presages a promising political process. It might take a willingness to learn from Northern Ireland, of all places, to tip the scales towards the latter.

Decades of violence – "the troubles" – set the backdrop to negotiations. Success had its roots in British policy. London's objective was to end the terrorism and bring about a political settlement. Doing so required persuading the Provisional IRA that it would never be able to shoot or bomb its way into power and that there was a political path open to it that would satisfy some of its goals and many of its supporters, if it would act responsibly.

The government of Israel has internalised the first but not the second part of Britain's strategy. Israel has carried out massive air strikes that have reportedly destroyed the bulk of Hamas's Iran-supplied, longer-range missiles and killed dozens of Palestinians, including Hamas's military chief.

But military force has limits. Israel cannot bludgeon the Palestinians into submission. Nor should it want to reoccupy Gaza: there is no reason to believe the results would be any better this time round.

Israel needs a Palestinian partner if it is ever to enjoy peace and be the secure, prosperous, democratic, Jewish state it deserves to be. But such a partner will not just emerge; Israel, as the stronger party, actually needs to help the process along.

Right now Israel has two potential but deeply flawed partners. The Palestinian Authority in the West Bank has an apparent desire to make peace but is too weak to make meaningful concessions. Hamas is easily strong enough but is unwilling to reject violence and accept Israel.

So Israel has a choice: it can work to strengthen the secular leadership on the West Bank or it can work to moderate Hamas. The former argues for dropping sanctions put in place to weaken and humiliate the PA. The latter means not just frustrating Hamas militarily but demonstrating that negotiation is likely to yield better results.

It is not clear whether Hamas is open to compromise. Even less clear, though, is what it has accomplished with this latest round of fighting. Hamas has again demonstrated its willingness to take the fight to Israel but also its inability to get results.

What has made the Hamas action singularly counterproductive was that it came on the heels of a visit to Gaza by Qatar's prime minister and an infusion of financial support. Hamas had essentially weaned itself from dependence on Iran and Syria only to squander the opportunity.

Hamas is in competition with the PA that rules over the West Bank for who represents all Palestinians. Hamas enjoys an advantage, though: its agenda of political Islam much better captures the zeitgeist in Egypt and throughout the region, whereas those ruling the West Bank, including many former associates of Yassir Arafat, are widely seen as in the image of Arab strongmen who have been removed from power.

But Hamas only benefits from this comparison if it fully embraces political Islam as a means and not just an end. Distancing itself from armed aggression will not deliver a viable Palestinian state.

Israel needs to put Hamas to the test. It can do this by putting forward the outlines of a fair and comprehensive settlement and a reasonable path for getting there. The US should work closely with Israel in framing this proposal. Hillary Clinton, secretary of state, should use the rest of her time in the region to urge this course. Her goal should be to stimulate a debate in the Arab and Palestinian worlds that would press Hamas to change its ways or risk being caught between those who are even more radical and those prepared to compromise.

This was the dynamic created in Belfast. In the end, Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness – the leaders of Northern Ireland's Hamas equivalent – met the British challenge. They put down their arms, entered the political process and reached agreement with those they had fought for decades. Leaders of both communities deserve credit – but no more than the British, Irish and US governments that created a context for diplomacy.

It is up to Israel, the US and Arab governments to do the same now. No one can be certain the effort will pay off; what is sure, though, is that the choices and options will only become worse with the passage of time.

The writer is the president of the Council on Foreign Relations. He was the US envoy to the Northern Ireland peace process from 2001-03.

This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here (Subscription required).

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