October 22, 2019

The Path to Peace exchange, part 3: What can Israel and the Palestinians learn from Northern Ireland?

George J. Mitchell served as a Democratic senator from Maine from 1980 to 1995 and Senate majority leader from 1989 to 1995. He was the primary architect of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement for peace in Northern Ireland, chairman of The Walt Disney Company, US Special Envoy for Middle East Peace, and the author of the Mitchell Report on the use of performance-enhancing drugs in baseball, as well as the books The Negotiator and A Path to Peace. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1999.

Alon Sachar has worked to advance Middle East peace under two US administrations. He served as an adviser to the US Ambassador to Israel, Daniel B. Shapiro in Tel Aviv from 2011-2012, and to President Obama’s Special Envoys for Middle East Peace, George J. Mitchell and David Hale, from 2009 to 2011. In those capacities, Alon participated in negotiations with Israelis, Palestinians, and Arab states. From 2006 to 2009, he served in the State Department’s Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, focusing on the US bilateral relationships with Israel and the Palestinians as well as Arab-Israeli relations.

This exchange focuses on Senator Mitchell and Mr. Sachar’s new book A Path to Peace: A Brief History of Israeli-Palestinian Negotiations and a Way Forward in the Middle East (Simon & Schuster). Parts 1 and 3 can be found here and here.


Dear Senator Mitchell and Mr. Sachar,

1. For the final round I have two questions:Your book conspicuously does not mention John Kerry and his recent round of peace-making efforts even once. What is behind this omission, and how does the incentives-based approach to peace mediation that you suggest differ from the way the last US government ran the last round of negotiation attempts?

2. It is not every day that we host a person who has brokered a historic, lasting peace agreement that ended an age-old conflict, so it would be somewhat remiss not to ask you about the applicability of the lessons of Northern Ireland to Israel and Palestine. In the book you describe the Good Friday Agreement as a slow process of trust building that needed some serious adjustments even after being signed (and after Senator Mitchell was knighted by Queen Elizabeth for his part in it). This type of process clearly demanded a whole lot of patience and faith from everyone involved.

In a time when Israelis and Palestinians don’t expect much from each other and the Israeli public seems content with maintaining the current status quo, what, if anything, can the Northern Ireland peace process teach the Israeli public about the current stagnation in the Middle East peace process?

Thank you once again for your book and for participating in this exchange.




Dear Shmuel,

Our book does not describe Secretary Kerry’s effort to broker an agreement because we took no part in that process, which by all accounts failed for many of the same reasons ours did: deep mistrust between Israelis and Palestinians and a lack of political will.

The Good Friday Agreement was reached in Northern Ireland after years of failure, decades of bombings and murders, and centuries of religious and political tension. Almost everyone doubted it would be possible to resolve what was called the Troubles.  The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is more complex and difficult. Yet, Northern Ireland demonstrates that deeply entrenched ethnic and religious conflicts can end if there is public support and there are courageous leaders.

The most difficult obstacle in Northern Ireland was the deep distrust on both sides. There, as in the Middle East, each was unwilling to take the first step. That mistrust was overcome by a series of agreed confidence building measures. Every action and every word was agreed to advance, the product of months of negotiations. It was a very slow, difficult, and fragile process. It succeeded because the parties themselves wanted it to succeed, although American involvement and outside pressure helped.

That last point is the most crucial in the Israeli-Palestinian context: peace cannot be externally imposed, by the United States or anyone else. The United States is indispensable, and others can help, but in the end the relationship between Israelis and Palestinians will be determined by Israelis and Palestinians. And they must truly be prepared to take the painful steps to end the conflict. Unless they do, confidence building measures will not lead anywhere, as we (and Secretary Kerry and his team) discovered the hard way.  That’s why, in our book, we recommend a number of incentives to encourage negotiations to help achieve resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Examples of the incentives we suggest include: establishing a fund for Palestinian refugees which would only be disbursed in the context of a conflict-ending agreement; and for the United States and other interested nations to create and hold in escrow funds to help with the inevitable relocation of some Israelis from the West Bank and with state building for the Palestinians. While costly and competing with many other pressing global priorities, at a time when the U.S. Administration is focused on scaling back, these incentives could reap benefits well beyond their costs if they help to get a peace agreement. Positive incentives are, in fact, what the United States does best. And resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the normalization of relations between Israel and the Arab world is important to the US.

Both parties will have to make adjustments to their current positions if agreement is to be reached. History has shown that real breakthroughs between Israelis and Arabs occur only when the parties themselves realize that the cost of continued conflict outweighs the risk of an agreement. The United States can and must, at the appropriate time, urge Israel and the Palestinians to enter into negotiations, as we have from Madrid to Annapolis and during the Obama administration. But only the parties can make the final decisions to conclude them successfully.

We believe there is no such thing as a conflict that cannot be ended. Conflicts are created and conducted by human beings; they can be ended by human beings. We believe that there is a path to peace through a two-state solution. We recognize that there is little reason to be optimistic at this time for resolving this conflict. Some suggest that the situation on the ground must get worse before the folly of the conflict’s current trajectory is undeniable to the leaders and peoples on both sides. But by then the current stalemate will seem easy. That is precisely why it is essential for the United States to continue to press for resolution to the conflict and to create the right incentives to encourage the parties to enter serious negotiations and reach an agreement.