Michael Weiss
September 17, 2010 - 12:00am

With the resumption of Arab-Israeli direct talks comes the regurgitation of a minority view that these talks are destined to fail because Hamas is excluded. The first salvo in this ongoing campaign came from Palestinian-American blogger Ali Abunimah, an advocate of the one-state solution, who expounded upon the need for recognizing Hamas in the New York Times. Peter Beinart made the same case in a broader Daily Beast column about Obama's failed foreign policy. What both had in common, apart from thinking rather generously of a totalitarian and anti-Semitic Islamist party, is use of the Irish Republican Army and Northern Ireland as a convenient analogy for the Middle East peace process. Didn't the British government eventually sit down with Sinn Fein, the IRA's "political wing," after decades of murderous mayhem in Belfast and Tube, pub, and other bombings on the mainland? And can't the same lessons learned from the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which inaugurated the end of the Troubles, be applied to the Arab-Israeli conflict?

There are many obvious reasons why this analogy fails. The IRA never employed suicide bombers or called for the wholesale destruction of Great Britain. Nor was it the client of a theocratic state intent on becoming a nuclear power. It was also thoroughly integrated with Sinn Fein and could therefore act with greater strategic cohesion than the fragmented Hamas, whose political and paramilitary leadership is spread throughout Gaza, the West Bank, and Damascus, Syria. But, most important, the analogy misconstrues the history of the Northern Ireland peace process and the ultimate aim of the Good Friday Agreement, which was, chiefly, to undermine the terrorists, not to legitimize them.

Abunimah and Beinart both refer to Hamas' 2006 election victory, although neither acknowledges that the group has twice refused to hold new national elections this year, fearing a likely walloping at the polls. Moreover, Hamas has loudly denounced each and every framework for Arab-Israeli negotiations from the Clinton-brokered Oslo Accords of 1993, which created Palestinian democracy in the first place, to the Bush administration's 2002 roadmap for peace. It's worth measuring all this against the way "inclusive dialogue" with the IRA really proceeded.

The earliest instance of talks between the British government and the IRA occurred during a temporary truce in 1972, with no preconditions set by the former. The IRA took this as a sign of the British government's wobbliness, and top operatives, including IRA leader Martin McGuinness and future Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams (who was then in British custody), were flown to London by the Royal Air Force, where they simply stated their demands for full British withdrawal from Northern Ireland. The truce subsequently broke down, leading to the "Bloody Friday" attacks of July 21, 1972, in which 22 bombs ravaged Belfast within 75 minutes, killing nine people and injuring 130 more. "Talking to terrorists" had plainly failed in such an anything-goes context, and 1972 marked the single deadliest year of the Troubles.

From then on, both the British and Irish governments instituted a constitutional "bottom line" in the form of two preconditions for negotiating with the IRA. First, they refused to negotiate with an organization that was still involved in an active military campaign; second, they insisted on the "consent principle," which stated that the future of Northern Ireland must be decided by the people of the province. Since this province contained a majority of Protestant unionists, there was every possibility that Northern Ireland would remain part of the United Kingdom. The IRA's capacity to reject the will of the people was therefore nullified.

The consent principle was further enhanced and reinforced by the 1993 Downing Street Declaration, a joint initiative by both the British and Irish governments, which called for a "permanent end to the use of, or support for, paramilitary violence" and allowed only "democratically mandated parties which establish a commitment to exclusively peaceful methods and which have shown that they abide by the democratic process" to be admitted to the table. (Again, Hamas would have trouble meeting these conditions.)

This declaration marked a turning point in the peace process, because it effectively meant that by the time the IRA had agreed to its next cease-fire, in 1994, it had de facto acceded to British parameters. That's because the IRA had been defeated militarily. Throughout the late 1980s and early '90s, the British security services had either killed or captured leading republican militants, and the rest of the IRA was so infiltrated with spies and informants that, according to one British estimate, in 1994, eight out of nine of its planned attacks in Belfast were thwarted. Even the most optimistic accounts by IRA brass at this time conceded that only a "stalemate" was possible. (The 1994 cease-fire broke down over the matter of weapons decommissioning, yet even here the IRA's McGuinness acknowledged to an Irish official that sooner or later the IRA's guns would have to be "banjaxed.")

So what would the Hamas equivalent of this scenario look like? At the very least, another devastating war with Israel would need to occur, leaving the Islamists completely depleted and certainly not in sole administrative control of Gaza. Targeted assassinations would likely be renewed. Israeli intelligence operatives would thoroughly penetrate Hamas' command structure, so as to be able to predict and pre-empt almost every rocket fired into Ashkelon or Sderot or every attack on settlers in the West Bank. Hamas would then have to concede that its strategic long-war doctrine of violent "resistance" and its dream of establishing Greater Palestine was a fantasy, which would mean no more statements like this one from Hamas co-founder Mahmoud Al-Zahar, issued on June 15, 2010: "Our ultimate plan is [to have] Palestine in its entirety. I say this loud and clear so that nobody will accuse me of employing political tactics."

George Mitchell's involvement in Northern Ireland is similarly misread when it comes to gauging prospects for legitimizing Hamas now that he is President Barack Obama's special Mideast envoy. Mitchell went to Northern Ireland in 1995 as part of a three-man team designed to supervise the decommissioning of weapons—itself indicative of his early role as the enforcer of the Anglo-British "bottom line." In January 1996, his team produced a report that concluded the IRA was not going to disarm before joining the peace process. Their nonradical solution? Force the organization to disarm when it joined the peace process. The six Mitchell Principles, to which all parties to negotiations had to pledge their total commitment before they were admitted to the table, included agreeing to democratic and peaceful means of resolution, total disarmament subject to independent verification, the renunciation of force, the end of "punishment" killings and beatings, and respect for the outcome of peace negotiations, whatever form it may take.

Built atop this solid foundation, the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, which enshrined a democratic power-sharing arrangement for Northern Ireland, constituted the "triumph of moderation over extremism," to quote one of the agreement's key architects, Protestant unionist David Trimble. British Prime Minister Tony Blair's success was to make the starting point for these negotiations "sufficient consent," meaning that a settlement was reachable with the support of the British and Irish governments and a majority of unionists and a majority of nationalists, as determined by popular referendum. Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party and Gerry Adams' Sinn Fein, neither of which ever had commanding majorities in their constituencies, could be left out entirely and had no veto power over the resulting accord. In fact, the DUP opposed the deal, and Sinn Fein didn't sign off on it until the very end, by which point all the heavy lifting had been done by Trimble's Ulster Unionists and John Hume's Social Democratic and Labour Party. This is why Trimble and Hume won the Nobel Peace Prize, and hard-core Irish republicans to this day refer to the Good Friday Agreement as the "Got Fuck All" agreement.

True, by May 2007, after a decade of fitful implementation of the accord, particularly concerning the ever-nettlesome question of decommissioning, as well as London's renewed emphasis on incorporating the extremists, the leaders of Northern Ireland's power-sharing government wound up being Gerry Adams and Ian Paisley. But by this point, these men had been forced into a political architecture that neither especially wanted 10 years before and which, regardless of how they may mug for posterity, they had no part in assembling.

"The only 'good example' the Americans saw from the Northern Ireland conflict," writes Henry McDonald in his seminal history Gunsmoke and Mirrors: How Sinn Fein Dressed Up Defeat as Victory, "was the one that Britain used to close down the IRA's armed campaign."

Hamas legitimizers who use the "Ulster Model" are therefore asking Israel to get tougher on terrorism before inviting its sworn enemy to the table, at which its presence isn't even required. And the underlying irony in their amnesiac use of recent history is that there already exists a Palestinian organization that has exchanged extremism for moderation and reluctantly buckled to Israeli demands for meeting certain nonnegotiable criteria, such as recognizing Israel's right to exist. It's called the PLO, and it's in peace talks with Israel right now.


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