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The Middle East Is Not Ireland

Author: Elliott Abrams, Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies
December 7, 2010
National Review


The 700 days are almost up.

On Jan. 22, 2009, his second full day in office, President Obama signed orders to close the Guantanamo Bay prison and announced former Senate majority leader George Mitchell as his special envoy to the Middle East. These two moves have been about equally successful.

In May 2010, Senator Mitchell explained that a year of frustration and failure had not daunted him. He told a reporter, “You can't take the first ‘no.' I had 700 days of ‘no' in Northern Ireland, and one ‘yes.'” By my calculation, on Christmas Day, the 700 days will be up, and perhaps Mitchell will acknowledge that it's time for a change.

Even reporters long ago became tired of Mitchell's Northern Ireland analogies, for that situation is as similar to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as it is to, say, Sri Lanka. Sure, there are parties, there are mediators, there are negotiating rules such as “don't lie” and “keep your word” and “prevent outside spoilers from ruining everything.” But at bottom, the situations are different. By the mid-1990s, IRA and Unionist leaders were ready for a deal, but some mediator needed to bring these parties — strangers and enemies to each other — together. By contrast, the Israeli and Palestinian negotiators know each other well and have met scores of times since the Oslo talks began 20 years ago. They've attended each other's family weddings and birthdays and anniversaries, and any American who meets them sees immediately their easy camaraderie. They don't need us to bring them together, for the problem isn't getting talks started. It is that their views of how to solve the conflict are different, and the most one side believes it can offer is less than the least the other thinks it can accept.

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