Max Bermann had a great post the other day comparing George Mitchell’s challenge in his new task to his work in Northern Ireland:
Now his past success in Northern Ireland does not mean that this will be easily replicated. But the challenges that posed a successful resolution of the Northern Ireland conflict were in some ways greater than they are in the Middle East. Mitchell had to usher through an incredibly complicated agreement that had to enable peaceful co-habitation of the warring parties and establish innovative ways to overlap Northern Ireland’s sovereignty with the Republic and with the UK. Not only did achieving peace in Northern Ireland require getting Protestants and Catholics to live peaceably together, but required getting them to govern together – ie Martin McGuiness a former IRA gunman worked on education policy with Ian Paisley. At least, Mitchell doesn’t have to get Netanyahu to form a government with Hamas leader Ismail Haniya. And at least in the Middle East both sides generally know what the final terms of a peace agreement will be – partition into two distinct states.
Mitchell’s challenge isn’t so much getting to “yes” on an agreement but merely getting to the table. While in Ireland all sides were exhausted and were willing to take bold steps to begin negotiations – such as John Major quietly dropping the UK’s vow not to “negotiate with terrorists” and beginning talks with Sinn Fein and Sinn Fein’s acceptance of a status short of a united Ireland – in the Middle East the split between Hamas and Fatah, Israel’s refusal to negotiate with Hamas, and Hamas’ refusal to move down from its maximalist stance means simply getting to the table with all relevant players seems almost impossible. So Mitchell’s job over the next few years in terms of the peace process seems less about getting to “yes” and more about trying to rekindle momentum for peace that could eventually serve to push the parties to the negotiating table.
Along these lines, one of the key things an envoy will need to do—and I’m not entirely sure how you do it—is clear out the cobwebs of pessimism that are clinging to both sides. The failure of the Oslo Process has tended to inspire a sense of hopelessness in both the Israeli and Palestinian populations, where both sides are sincerely, if falsely, convinced that they did everything possible to make peace a reality and were stymied entirely by the perfidy of the other side. A more optimistic way of looking at it would be to say that between Ehud Barak’s proposals at the end of his time prime minister and the Arab League’s proposals in 2002, the two sides’ negotiating positions have never been closer together.
That’s not, at the moment, generally the way it’s seen in the region. But one good aspect of having a veteran of a successful peace process in another part of the world is that you have to think Mitchell has some ability to inspire optimism and to get people to see the tragic failure of the Oslo Process in that more upbeat light—it’s tragic precisely because the parties got so close before things went south.