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Left, Right & Center
Jewish World Review / April 14, 1998 / 18 Nissan, 5758

Linda Chavez

Linda Chavez One down, many to go

PRESIDENT CLINTON DESERVES credit for his role in securing a peace agreement between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland.

According to reports in The New York Times, the president himself worked the phones throughout the night last Thursday in the final hours of negotiation, calling the heads of the Protestant Ulster Unionist Party and the Catholic Sinn Fein, as well as the British and Irish prime ministers, to urge acceptance of a pact negotiated with the help of U.S. envoy George Mitchell.

Clinton's direct involvement, no doubt, helped push parties to accept an agreement that requires concessions on all sides but may be the best hope for peace in the long-standing violence in Northern Ireland. But if Clinton's efforts have been so successful in North Ireland, why haven't similar tactics worked in getting stalled peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians back on track?

For more than a year now, negotiations in the Middle East have been at a virtual PLO flags stalemate, despite several shuttle-diplomacy missions from high-level Clinton administration officials, including Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Middle East mediator Dennis Ross, and meetings between President Clinton and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The administration has made no secret that it blames Netanyahu for the impasse. At issue is whether Israel will give up an additional 13 percent of the land it controls on the West Bank, as the United States has proposed. The administration's position is supported by some elements in the pro-Israel community in America, including some members of Congress. Some prominent Jewish leaders have even taken out ads in American newspapers supporting the Clinton administration. But is Netanyahu really the stumbling block, or is the Clinton administration playing a dangerous game, and one quite unlike the role it played in Northern Ireland?

Although the feud between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland goes back centuries and has been especially bloody in the last 30 years, with more than 3000 dead since 1969, it can't match in intensity the bitter animosity between Arabs and Jews since the founding of the Jewish state in 1948.

Arabs have fought two full-scale wars to annihilate Israel in the last 50 years, as well as launching continuous terrorist attacks on Israelis at home and abroad over the same period. The Palestinian Authority, which now rules much of the West Bank and Gaza, has never officially repealed language in its constitution that calls for the destruction of Israel, despite having agreed to do so as part of the peace settlement already signed with Israel.

By publicly pressuring Israel to make additional concessions to the Palestinians when the Palestinians have failed to live up to their current agreements, the Clinton administration appears to be taking sides against America's traditional ally Israel in a way that has harmed, not helped, the peace process. Recently, 81 U.S. Senators and 150 Representatives signed letters to President Clinton urging him not to confront Israel by making a public proposal for Israel to give up more land to the Palestinian Authority.

The Clinton administration was successful in Northern Ireland because the parties to the negotiations truly wanted an agreement. In the Middle East, there are huge disagreements over fundamental issues, such as the future of Jerusalem, which the Palestinians want to see divided again, as it was before Israel won it during the 1967 Arab-Israel War. Prime Minister Netanyahu has said he will never agree to divide Jerusalem again -- nor is it imaginable that the Israeli people under some future government would agree to give up their capital. Given these intractable problems, how can the United States hope to finesse an agreement?

Such third-party intervention is always a long-shot, even when it is the most powerful nation in the world that is acting as mediator. The pact in Northern Ireland, so hopeful today, faces tough tests ahead and may ultimately unravel. Voters in Northern Ireland will vote next month on major provisions, which they could reject. And it remains to be seen if the Irish Republican Army and Protestant paramilitary forces will give up their weapons. Most observers expect there will be violence in the next few weeks, as the most radical elements fight to maintain their power and influence with bombs and bullets.

Whatever the outcome in Northern Ireland, it would be dangerous for the Clinton administration to assume it can play a similar role in Middle East negotiations. Peace will come between Israel and its Arab neighbors only when the parties themselves work out their own disagreements.


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©1998, Creators Syndicate, Inc.