Senator George Mitchell: A Path to Peace

Senator George Mitchell

Senator George Mitchell delivered a stirring call for the cause of peace in the Middle East at a time when events on the ground seem to be pointing towards increasing violence and conflict. Speaking to a LAWAC dinner on Thursday, December 8th, the veteran negotiator of the Northern Ireland Peace Agreement who was also US Special Envoy for Middle East Peace said "peace is worth it. You can't take the first no, or the fifth no, or the twentieth no - peace is worth fighting for."

Mitchell has been internationally hailed for his role in bringing peace to Northern Ireland in 1998 after 30 years of conflict there, but he said that when he started the negotiations in 1996 he wasn't sure he would succeed, and the more he got to know about the situation the less optimistic he became. "In three years of negotiations I never once had all the parties in the same room at the same time - never once!" Finally in 1998 he gave all the parties a two-week deadline to come to an agreement or abandon the process, and after some late night negotiations on the very last day - which included some phone calls directly from President Clinton - the parties made the necessary compromises and the "Good Friday Peace Agreement" was agreed upon. "At the critical moment they found the courage to do the right thing... we have now had peace for 18 years."

When he was appointed special envoy in the Middle East in 2009, there was a similar list of obstacles to peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians: a long history of hostility because of the killing and destruction, pervasive distrust amongst all the players, a deep sense of victimization and a mismatch in military and economic strength between the two sides. But the difficulties of bringing the two sides together were of a different magnitude than in Ireland. "I spent five years in Ireland and it was really tough - but then I spent six months in the Middle East and I said 'the Irish are patsies by comparison."

For Mitchell, one of the crucial differences between Ireland and the Middle East is that the British and Irish governments had "taken the first steps to produce an agreement" even before he started his negotiations, whereas "in the Middle East it was the opposite - there is no working together by the two governments." In addition Ireland and the UK were part of the EU which was largely supportive, whereas in the Middle East many of Israel's neighbors are hostile and not supportive of peace negotiations. "Today the primary foreign policy of Israel and Saudi Arabia is identical - to resist efforts by Iran to extend their domination over the region - but they don't cooperate at all."

Mitchell said that no peace plan imposed by America could ever work - it will have to come from the parties themselves. "I told them in Belfast when I arrived that there is no American plan, no Mitchell plan - it would have to be a plan they did themselves." He is not optimistic in the short term for the Middle East, but says in the longer term it will be in the self-interests of both the Israelis and the Palestinians to do a deal. "Israel cannot have security without giving the Palestinians a state, and Palestinians will not get a state until they can guarantee Israel's security."

In the longer run Mitchell pointed out that Israelis cannot avoid the demographic changes that are coming. Today there are about 6.25 million Jews and 6.25 million Arabs in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza. "Because of higher birth rates, there will soon be more Arabs than Jews and Israel will have to face a decision to remain a Jewish state or to be a democracy." Worldwide, there are currently 1.6 billion Muslims out of a total population of 7 billion - approximately 1 in 5. By 2060 with 10 billion people in the world and 3 billion Muslims, the ratio will be 1 in 3 - many in the Arab-dominated Middle Eastern countries that completely surround Israel. "It is imperative for Israel to establish normalized relations with its neighbors."

Asked about who saw the possibility of peace first - the (Catholic) Nationalists or the (Protestant) Unionists - Mitchell said that both sides had realized they had reached an impasse and needed a change. On the nationalist side, the IRA realized that after decades of armed struggle, they were not going to achieve their overall goal of getting the British to leave Northern Ireland by force - and so they ultimately agreed to the Mitchell Principles of non-violence and entered into talks. On the Unionist side their leaders realized that the founding idea of Northern Ireland when it was separated from the Republic in 1921 - that it was a "Protestant government for a Protestant people" - was no longer tenable in the 21st century. So both started to talk - and then once they had started the (peaceful) negotiations, they realized that if they failed to reach an agreement, "it would have unleashed an even worse wave of conflict." So a fear of plunging into greater violence and a recognition on both sides that their interests were not being served by sticking to their old positions led to a peace deal. Sadly in the Middle East the Israelis and the Palestinians have not yet reached that conclusion.