Can Mitchell turn Jerusalem into Belfast?

A mural in Derry, Northern Ireland commemorates solidarity between Palestinians and Irish nationalists. (Ali Abunimah)

US President Barack Obama’s appointment of former Senator George Mitchell as his new Middle East envoy is a good choice. Mitchell showed even-handedness uncharacteristic of US officials when he led a fact-finding mission to the region in 2000.

Had its recommendations been followed — cessation of all violence and a full freeze of Israeli settlement construction on occupied Palestinian land — the peace process might have made progress. Mitchell, who is already in the Middle East, helped broker the 1998 Belfast Agreement, the key to ending decades of strife in Northern Ireland. Because of historical similarities, that peace agreement is an important precedent for Palestinians and Israeli Jews.

Before 1948, European Jewish settlers, newly-arrived in Palestine, wanted their own state once British colonial rulers withdrew. But because Jews were a minority, the only way to achieve this was a partition that the majority Arab Palestinian population, fearing dispossession, bitterly opposed. When Israel was established in 1948, most Palestinians were forced from their homeland, and those remaining became second-class citizens in a “Jewish state.”

The modern conflict in Ireland began when Great Britain, facing resistance from Irish nationalists, decided to withdraw after centuries of rule. But the Protestant ruling class — a quarter of the population — descended from English and Scottish settlers, insisted that Ireland remain tied to Britain. These unionists refused to live in a state with a nationalist Catholic majority.

To appease the unionist minority, which threatened violent rebellion if it did not get its way, Britain partitioned Ireland in 1921, creating Northern Ireland, an entity whose legitimacy nationalists refused to recognize.

As Israeli Jews did to Palestinians, Protestants institutionalized their own culture and religion as the official creed and violently suppressed expressions of nationalist identity. In the words of its first prime minister, Northern Ireland’s seat of government at Belfast’s Stormont Castle was a “Protestant parliament for a Protestant people.” Catholics faced systematic discrimination in jobs and housing.

Nationalists launched a civil rights movement in the 1960s inspired by the one in the US. Protestant unionists violently resisted demands to share power and reform, but the numerical growth and assertiveness of the nationalist Catholic population within Northern Ireland made such intransigence untenable.

In 1972, Britain sent in troops and imposed direct rule. During 30 years of “The Troubles,” 3,700 people died at the hands of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), Protestant militias, British forces and others.

The Mitchell-led Belfast Agreement ended formal Protestant hegemony in favor of equality, mitigating partition’s injustices. It promised that government power “shall be exercised with rigorous impartiality on behalf of all the people” and guaranteed “just and equal treatment for the identity, ethos, and aspirations of both communities.”

Decades of bloody conflict left deep social divisions. But a framework for nondiscriminatory democratic governance has allowed nationalists and unionists within Northern Ireland to begin to shed their siege mentalities. While formal partition of Ireland remains, it is disappearing on the ground as anyone can live, work and move freely, and official cross-border bodies are integrating the infrastructure and economies of the two jurisdictions on the island of Ireland.

The power-sharing executive in Belfast, led by staunchly nationalist Sinn Fein (closely affiliated with the IRA) and the hardline Democratic Unionist Party, was once as inconceivable as a government made up of members of Hamas and Israeli politicians would be today. US diplomacy played a key role by putting pressure on the stronger parties —the British government and Protestant unionists — in favor of the weaker nationalist side. Instead of shunning Sinn Fein the US, prodded by the Irish American lobby, insisted it be brought into the process.

By 2010, Palestinians will outnumber Israeli Jews in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza Strip combined. The two groups can no more be totally separated than Protestant unionists and Catholic nationalists in Ireland.

Like Irish nationalists, Palestinians will never recognize the “right” of another group to discriminate against them. Like Protestant unionists did, Israeli Jews insist on their own state. Israel’s “solution” is to cage Palestinians into ghettos — like Gaza — and periodically bomb them into submission just so Israeli Jews, their relative numbers dwindling, can artificially maintain a Jewish state.

If Mitchell is allowed to apply Northern Ireland’s lessons, then there may be a way out. But he goes to Jerusalem with few of the advantages he brought to Belfast. The Obama administration remains committed for now to the failed partition formula of “a Jewish state” and a “Palestinian state” and maintains the Bush administration’s misguided boycott of Hamas, which overwhelmingly won Palestinian elections in 2006. And the Israel lobby — much more powerful than its Irish American counterpart — warps US policy to favor the stronger side, an intransigent Israel committing war crimes. If these policies don’t change, Mitchell’s efforts will be wasted and escalating violence will fill the political vacuum.

Editor’s note: this article was originally published with the second sentence of the second paragraph inadvertently omitted. The current version is the article as it was intended to be published.

Co-founder of The Electronic Intifada, Ali Abunimah is author of One Country: A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse An abridged version of this article first appeared in The Detroit Free Press.