Watching the latest conflict in Israel reminds me that not only have I been watching it play out, if that is the word, for my entire adult life with nary an outcome in sight, but that, because neither side is in the right, no one on the outside really wants either of them to win. An Israeli victory would mean more Islamist terrorism. A Palestinian win, as impossible as it sounds, would mean the end of the only liberal democratic power in the Middle East. Referring to it at the close of a recent discussion on CNN, Bob Baer remarked that "Northern Ireland was so much easier." He was only joking, but he made a good point. What was it exactly about the conflict in Northern Ireland, the so-called "Troubles," that was "easier" than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?
The Northern Ireland conflict, which is carefully being resolved as I write this, can be traced back centuries, to the time when the English King Henry VIII decided, as Luther's Protestant Reformation was spreading across Europe, to break with the Church of Rome and create a Church of England, with himself as head of the church. As Catholics who refused to convert were being persecuted in England, the Irish, who had always resisted English control, fought against King Henry's efforts to extend the C of E to their shores. Henry's daughter, Elizabeth I, waged a brutal war against the Irish, who were getting help from Catholic Spain. Some of the greatest names in English letters, including Walter Raleigh and Thomas Campion, fought with distinction in Ireland. I won't bother with the rest of the story, which extended into the 20th century, when the Irish Republic was founded, with six counties in the northern region of Ulster, having a majority of Protestant Royalists in the population, being retained in the British Commonwealth. The Irish Republican Army - or IRA - then shifted its efforts to drive what they called a "British" occupation out of Ulster.
I went through a "Republican phase" of my own when I was a teenager. I tacked the 1916 Easter Uprising poster, written in Gaelic, on my bedroom door, and I listened to Irish Rebel songs. Paul McCartney's song "Give Ireland Back to the Irish" overtly spelled out the feelings of the Republican movement. Unfortunately, as I was soon to discover, the movement was based on a Great Big Lie. When riots broke out in Northern Ireland in the 1970s that threatened to escalate into armed conflict between Protestant and Catholic, the British Army was brought in to restore order and keep both sides apart. The Catholic minority in Ulster had good reason to be upset. They were mostly poor, were discriminated against by the Protestant majority, and had no representation in the Ulster Parliament. The IRA exploited Catholic grievances and made them believe that the IRA was fighting against the British in their name. They were, in fact, an exceptionally ruthless and exceedingly deluded terrorist organization that would stop at nothing, not even bombing Catholics, to achieve victory.
I think that what Bob Baer meant when he said that Northern Ireland was "easier" than present day Israel was that the IRA were the obvious bad guys, and the British Army the good guys. But that leaves out everyone who got in the way, Catholic and Protestant. The similarities between the Northern Ireland conflict and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are many. Firstly, both conflicts weren't directly over territory, but were about power. Also, one ethnic group was dominant in Northern Ireland, the Royalist Protestants, and they used and protected that power jealously. The two sides in Ulster are Irish. In Israel, both Jews and Palestinians are Semitic. The Palestinians are mentioned numerous times in the Bible, but they were called Philistines then.
One difference between the two conflicts is that a two-state solution is unnecessary in Ulster, because of the existence of the Irish Republic, For Palestinians, their homeland is under their feet - it is Israel. But the biggest difference between Ulster and Israel is, where is the British Army? Israel looks like what Ulster would've looked like if the British Army had never intervened and if the Protestant majority had wielded its power with impunity against the Catholics, with periodic uprisings and violent crackdowns. Without the intervention of the British Army, the conflict in Ulster would probably never have been resolved, the two sides would never have agreed, finally, that coexistence was the only answer to thirty years of strife and centuries of hatred. The people of Northern Ireland - Protestant and Catholic - had, together, rejected violence and chosen peace.
The Israelis and Palestinians decided some time ago that coexistence was simply impossible. But anyone who expects the Israelis, who are in a position of power, to relinquish that power even partially to allow the creation of a Palestinian state, are living in dreamland. The Israelis can end the conflict any time they want. What is needed is a Third Power. Not a "brokered" peace deal by Egypt or Turkey or whomever, but an armed force, probably a U.N. force. But what force, whose job will be to stand between the adversaries, would want to be shot at by both sides?
Being in the right is often a dubious advantage, as Israel has learned the hard way. Every time they conduct their attacks on Gaza, they lose the argument. It's usually impossible to look at any conflict and conclude that neither side is in the right. One side is usually closer to it than the other. But the only acceptable end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is peaceful coexistence - something the Irish have managed in a conflict of their own that seemed just as intractable a decade or more ago. If the Catholics and Protestants of Ulster can set aside their differences and live together in peace, anybody can. What's lacking in Israel is the will to live in peace.