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Peace in the Middle East – yes he can

Posted on 19 May 2009 | 9:05am

Nice to see George Mitchell hovering in the background as Barack Obama met Israeli PM Binyamin Netanyahu yesterday.

He was looking a bit older than the last time I saw him, but hopefully has the same infinite patience which was so helpful during the Northern Ireland peace talks.

Bringing peace to the Midddle East is in its own way even more difficult than some of the other challenges facing Obama, like the global economy and saving the planet from self-destruction.

But the parallels with Northern Ireland are there. Put crudely, for Israel read the Unionists; for the Palestinians read Sinn Fein; the Brits were the Americans; the Irish the Egyptians; the ‘two-state solution’ an agreeement focussed on the principle of consent to assure the Unionists, and equal rights for Catholics. I’m struggling to decide who the Iranians were.

Like I say, crude, but not so crude as to be parallels without meaning. And here is another one – people said peace could never be brought to Northern Ireland, just as many say it can never come to the Middle East, particularly with a hardliner like Netanyahu in power.

It was good to see Obama giving it a go. Some of the commentators were pointing out his obvious differences with Netanyahu as a bad thing. They were not. They were a sign he is trying to come at this from a different direction, and with greater energy than the Bush Administration, forcing the pace both on settlements and the question of an independent Palestinian state. Given it merely restated his public position, it was not quite as dramatic as TB’s announcement shortly after becoming PM that the government would hold talks with Sinn Fein without the usual preconditions, but with Netanyahu alongside him it felt like the start of something that might just lead somewhere.

Nor will Obama be able to hop on and off planes to Jerusalem the way TB used to shuttle backwards and forwards to Belfast and Dublin, but let’s hope the commitment on display yesterday is there for the duration, whatever the inevitable setbacks along the way.

TB and Bertie Ahern get nothing like the credit they deserve for what has happened in Northern Ireland, and I have long thought that if he is given the chance to make a real difference in his role as Middle East envoy, he will. Up to now, it has felt like he has responsibility without power. Yesterday, just maybe, the plates started to move in different directions.

Both Mitchell, and TB, have a lot of experience of managing that kind of change, when the pieces start to move around the chessboard. Netanyahu is a very tough negotiator. So are the Palestinians. So were David Trimble, Ian Paisley, Gerry Adams et al.

We don’t yet know whether Obama is, but we have a fair idea he will be, and yesterday was a good start. ‘Yes we can.’ It is as good a starting point as anywhere, whatever has gone on before.

  • gary Enefer

    Dear AC

    I too was glad to see Senator George Mitchell. Since the Good Friday Agreement ,and the Mitchell Report,the Senator had taken a role at Leeds University and battled with Cancer. I wrote to him regarding The Muslim’s held in HMP Belmarsh and the concerns that the Home Office were making their plight of being held without trial an ‘immigration issue’ . The Govt also did this to the Gurkhas instead of a human rights issue.

    I have also spent some time in Israel and to see Bebe (as Benjamin Netanjanu is known) sitting down being lectured on a Palestinian state by the Barack Obama is history itself.

    Iran and Hamas are the the elephant’s in the room. The Isrealie govt’s concern is that the Palestinian State simply becomes and iran backed terrorist state on Isreal’s doorstep.

    I am sure that George Mitchell and Senator Holbrook are making every effort to work their magic.TB also has a years experience which will help the process.

    With thanks

    gary enefer

  • Marsha

    At least Netanyahu did not insult Obama as he once did Clinton who apparently had to be restrained he was so angry. But once Netanyahu gets back home he will be doing the usual Israeli thing -working out how to obstruct progress while pretending to want it

  • Mike Phelps

    Obama has to strike while he is popular and respected around the world. Also, I worry that his position on Iran is too soft, but I agree yesterday felt important. Obviously not as important as day 12 in the expenses row as far as your media are concerned, but that was to be expected

  • Ian Eastwood

    I suggest for the Iranians “Agent Provocature” may be apt.

  • Stuart Mudie

    I read “Nice to see George Michael hovering in the background…”

  • Mary Delaney

    Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern were quite a team. Although they had different working styles they complimented each other in working out strategy and being committed to pushing the process forward. Every time a deliberate obstacle would appear there was always a sense that TB Bertie and their teams were ready and prepared to deal with it.

  • Alina Palimaru

    Obama does seem to have a more sophisticated understanding of the region when compared to George W. Bush. But the decades of unwavering American support for the Israelis have damaged American credibility with the Arabs, and I fear that the mistrust will persist regardless of President Obama’s international popularity and political acumen.

    Regarding Iran, I think it’s best to wait for the outcome of their elections before setting any new objectives.

  • Keith A. Southall

    Alistair why arent you there helping your old friend…surely he can afford you even if he pays out of his own pocket, god knows they need some dialog there, even iffy dialog is better than what they do.

  • uberpikey1889

    I don’t think the parallel is all that crude, but I think you’ve missed out a major player. The media.
    For decades in the UK, the average man in the street was made to think of the IRA as a collection of criminals/thugs/psychos and Mad Dogs with no legitmate grievance. The Loyalist paramilitaries, closer to the above description I think you will find, were portrayed in a more sympathetic light.
    IF one was to show the least support for the IRA, the media’s coverage was decidedly more negative as it appeared that people weren’t LOYAL to the Crown and the British soldiers risking their lives to bring order to the 6 counties of N. Ireland. In a similar vein, if one sympathises with the Palestinians or criticises the IDF one is accused of anti-semitism.
    . How does one address the issue of the media’s bias or innacuracy, without being labelled anti-semitic as any criticism of Israel seems to bring?

  • BarBar of OZ

    Who is Hamas?

    It’s kinda like the Real IRA had pulled a military coup against Sinn Fein and were entrenched in a pocket of NI. But even the Real IRA weren’t operating off the fundamentalist will of god with a covenant pledged to utterly destroy all protestants.

    Maybe for Iran read the Vatican (but with divisions!)

  • Danny Stone

    You are spot on with this Alastair – Netanyahu’s continuation of the Oslo process was pushed by the Americans last time, i think their input will help this time too. The fact that Bibi and TB (in part) see an economic solution to the problem will put them on the same page – a good start if we are to get a desperately needed peace.

  • Tony

    Amen, AC.

  • Mark


    You’re spot on. It is a crude analogy.

    The situations are only similar in that it’s a problem to be solved. Hence, using your method of comparison I could say that I’ve been given a barrel of work that I shouldn’t have to do and my poor social life is getting crushed and squeezed into a non-existent hole. Therefore, my Hours at Home are the Palestinians, the Workload given to me by my boss is the Israelis. And to resolve this awful question that’s been forced on my poor hours, I have to get the mighty American superpower onside (otherwise known as The Boss). The thing is, there are a few problems: the great Arab power (also known as Me) that’s fighting the Hours at Home’s cause, has regular bouts of cowardice and gutlessness and has been known to take the line of doing whatever The Boss wants. Another problem is The Boss’s track record. He’s been closely allied with the ultra aggressive Workload for many, many, many years and for him to change his ways would take a monumental shift in policy. This change, for all of The Boss’s rare flashes of humanity may not happen, because there are a lot of other people that helped The Boss get where he is who want to maintain the Workload.

    What your analogy hasn’t focused on is the multitude of differing factors that are important to the very different Palestinian and Irish debates: the role of religion; the role of the world’s biggest superpower; the question of land and who lives there; worldwide perception of the various participants; and the very, very different history of the two lands affected.

    I very much enjoy your blogs otherwise and please take this as a compliment in that I’ve managed to dodge The Boss’s constant demands and overwhelming belief in the Workload to write to you.