Mideast Can Follow N. Ireland’s Example

Atlanta Journal-Constitution

If peace can trump hatred in Northern Ireland after centuries, there is hope for peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

It was a blessing to join my daughter for St. Patrick's Day in Northern Ireland. One surprise was a TV news story about the festival in Savannah. What fascinated people in that strife-torn country was that Savannah's Catholics and Protestants celebrate together.

People in Northern Ireland would have to be fascinated, since for centuries they have not found the unity these upstart Americans take for granted.

My previous visit to Northern Ireland, in 1998 for a conference in Derry on the social science of peace, took place during the week the Northern Ireland Assembly met for the first time. This put fierce enemies in the same room, and it was marred by a walkout. Worse, the next night, synchronized bombings damaged Catholic churches in eight locations around the country. No one was hurt, but clearly there were still forces against peace.

Tragically, there were more bombings, once as recently as September. But overall the peace held; the assembly has survived. We met with a senior republican, toured North Belfast and attended an inquiry into Bloody Sunday. Everyone we spoke to said the time for violence is over.

The Emerald Isle is prospering. Bill Clinton and George Mitchell, American peacemaker-heroes, are revered for their role in healing the old rift. But above all, people in Northern Ireland are tired of a life tinged with fear; they are bored with hatred. They care far more about having a civilized life than about their religious differences.

As an American Jew who loves Israel, I could only watch sadly from my safe Irish haven as the Middle East burst into flames; now the fire is blazing. Back in July when I visited there I saw signs of hope; today it is almost gone. To put things in perspective, half as many people have been killed in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict over the past 18 months as in the whole modern history of the Northern Irish Troubles. Twice as many Jews died in Israel's war for independence alone when it was nearly killed in its cradle by six invading Arab armies as the multigeneration Irish total of around 3,000.

There are parallels, to be sure, but the Middle East conflict is fiercer, the region far less civilized than Ireland. Too many on both sides are not yet ready for peace. Palestinian terrorists destroy pizza parlors and discotheques, supermarkets and seders, not military targets, in a terror campaign unprecedented in history.

But Jewish settlers continue to build illegal extensions of their settlements, adding to Palestinians' loss of hope. The fanatical acts on the two sides are hardly comparable, yet both help to sustain the endless war.

At Camp David in 2000, Yasser Arafat rejected an offer of more than 90 percent of the land he wants, yet he wouldn't even negotiate from that as a starting point, a place from which to work toward a free, coherent state. Israel's government can in time remove many settlements; it can control its few extremists. But Arafat can't or won't control his, and their actions echo Sept. 11 every day.

No one who knows Israel thinks it can stand by while hundreds of women and children are murdered. The Nazi shadow is too long there. And anyway, what nation would just stand by?

Fatah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad are Israel's al-Qaida, and they will be hunted down in much the same way. As for those who harbor terrorists, they must be viewed as enemies. Right now, peace seems a vain dream. But it was not so long ago that things looked very bleak in Northern Ireland. One month a bomb went off near where Catholic children walked to school, yet the next month the IRA laid down thousands of weapons. Men who had given their lives to violence now dedicate them to peace.

Yitzhak Rabin, murdered by a Jewish fanatic for seeking peace, said, "You don't make peace with your friends; you make peace with your enemies." Israel today calls Arafat its enemy, but ultimately it must make peace with him or someone like him. We may still cherish the hope that the Middle East will some day follow the Irish example. In the end, there is no other way.