John Lyndon is the Executive Director of the Alliance for Middle East Peace (ALLMEP), the largest network of peacebuilding NGOs in Israel/Palestine. He brings with him over a decade of experience leading NGOs concerned with conflict resolution and international development, with a particular focus on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the pivotal role civil society can play in any lasting resolution.
A regular contributor and commentator on events in the Middle East, his writing has featured in numerous international publications, and he is a frequent analyst on the BBC, CNN, France 24 and Sky News. A former member of the Under 35 Steering Committee at the Royal Institute of International Affairs at Chatham House, John is also a Visiting Fellow at King’s College London’s Department of Middle Eastern Studies.
A big thanks to the Balfour Project for inviting me, and to everybody for joining.
I actually spoke about this topic to a group of the Balfour Project Fellows a few months ago, and I just encourage anybody: we’re going to talk about civil society for quite a bit of this conversation. If you want to support young civil society leaders, the young student leaders as a part of that group were phenomenal. I know the Balfour Project is currently fundraising to support that fellowship, so I would encourage anybody who can to try and support it. Some really talented young people from right across Europe, in fact, including quite a few from Northern Ireland.
So I guess, to set things up, there’s a cliché, a Mark Twain quote, that history doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.
And there are a lot of rhymes and common rhythms between what happened in Northern Ireland and in Israel / Palestine over the broad sweep of history.
But I’m going to try and speak for 30 minutes today, so I’m not going to go down into the very deep roots that both conflicts have. We can have a much, much longer conversation about each individually, but for the purposes of this relatively short discussion and then a conversation of questions and answers, I want to focus on the conflict resolution phase of it, really; the latter part of the 20th century, and to try and see why two parallel peace processes – I know that phrase is quite discredited these days – taking place under US leadership, at a similar time in global geopolitics, ended up in very different places.
There’s lots of reasons for that. I’m not trying to say that my analysis is the overriding one, but I do think it’s an important variable within it.
To sum it up, really: The Good Friday Agreement itself came at the end of a deep, robust, incremental, highly engaged community and civil society driven process with the political framework arriving as the conclusion to that. Whereas the Oslo process, one of its flaws was that it seemed to arrive out of Outer Space with nobody expecting it, no community preparation, and it collapsed under many of its own contradictions, but also a lack of community support and common understanding of what it entailed amongst both Israelis and Palestinians.
If we look at some of those lessons, about what worked and what didn’t 30 years ago now at this point, it can perhaps help to inform some of the questions that need to be answered now in Israel / Palestine, where we find ourselves at a really difficult juncture. The Oslo architecture itself has all but collapsed and it’s not entirely clear what is going to replace it.
I just want to, first of all, acknowledge a couple of biases. Firstly – and it’s nice speaking to a largely British audience, because you will recognise this immediately – is that I’m Irish. I come at the Northern Irish conflict with some biases related to being an Irish Catholic who grew up in a Nationalist household, but who also came of age during the Good Friday Agreement and the optimism and the transformation that happened just when I was really at my opinion-formation age, politically, in the late 1990s.
The second is that for the last 12 years, I’ve been working quite narrowly with Israeli / Palestinian peace builders in civil society. So, you know, I come at the Israeli / Palestinian conflict with a civil society-centric analysis.
Maybe it’s important, just quickly, just to explain who ALLMEP are and what we do.
I’m the executive director of the Alliance for Middle-East Peace. We’re the largest and fastest growing network of peace builders working amongst Israelis and Palestinians.
We work with over 150 civil society organisations in the region, many of whom have echoes with some of the civil society groups in Northern Ireland, and almost none of whom have received the sort of funding or centrality that was the case in Northern Ireland in the 1990s. This is why we try to increase that cooperation on the ground amongst our members, but also to advocate to governments around the world for far greater investment in this work.
One of the things we look at, as a case study, is what was done in Northern Ireland by the creation of something called the International Fund for Ireland in 1986, which directly invested and leveraged over $2.4 billion for the sort of programmes that we’ll be speaking about in this discussion.
That’s over $40 per person, per year, for over 20 years. In Israel / Palestine it’s around $2 per person, per year. Also, spending at that level only really started after the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin and, arguably, after the Peace Process we’ll be discussing was all but dead.
With those biases aside, I want to also chat just very briefly about the moment that conflict resolution took place in the nineties. I don’t know the age profile of everybody who’s on this call. It’s weird: the nineties still seem very recent to me, but it’s obviously now history and it was a historical moment where big, knotty, difficult, international problems seem more soluble than they perhaps have done, particularly over the last few years. We had the Berlin Wall collapsing in 1989, the Madrid Peace Conference in 1991 – which is worthwhile reflecting on as it was most of the states of the region around the table for the first time with the Israeli / Palestinian conflict centre to it – the election of Yitzhak Rabin and the Labour Party and the most left-wing government in Israel’s history in 1992, the Oslo Agreement in 1993, the end of apartheid in 1994, the election of Labour after a long period of Tory rule in 1997, and then of course the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.
So it did seem that there were lots of bad things in the nineties too, but it did seem an era when these sort of irresolvable conflicts could be grappled with, could be resolved.
And also a time when civil society and activism could play a central role. Although it’s interesting, because that was not the catalyst or the central frame with regards to the Oslo Process, I’d argue that’s one of the reasons – only one – why it collapsed in the way that it did.
It’s also worthwhile reflecting on the Troubles, on the Northern Irish conflict on its own for one second, before we look at it comparatively. Because, again, for younger people and even for everybody else, when it begins to disappear into history, it’s easy to forget just how violent and deeply embedded the Troubles were. Nowadays, it’s a news feature, obviously because of the DUP yesterday and the tensions that the Good Friday Agreement has been under, particularly since Brexit. But whatever the imperfect reality you have now, it pales in comparison to how the Troubles were for most of the latter part of the 20th century.
It was one of the most violent sectarian conflicts on earth. Over the course of the Troubles – we’re talking about the late 1960s through the end of the 1990s – you had over 36,000 shootings, 16,000 bombings, 30,000 political prisoners and around 4,000 fatalities. And this is within a very, very small population. If you extrapolate that out, for example, it’s about 2% of the population who are killed or maimed over those decades. In a UK context, that would be the same as 100,000 casualties. In the US, it would be half a million.
So this is an intensely violent, deeply embedded conflict and I can tell you, growing up – and I think most people in Ireland and the United Kingdom felt this way – it was irresolvable. It was going to be with us forever. It was a problem to be managed. The peoples were irreconcilable.
Those are things that we hear said about Israel / Palestine quite a lot now, and obviously also heard a lot about through the course of the 20th Century. Because of the brevity of the talk, I’m not going to get into the very deep roots, as I mentioned, for both sides, but I’m happy to have a conversation about that during the questions and answers part.
It is, though, probably worthwhile looking a little bit on the decades that led up to the conflict resolution era of the 1990s; both in the Israeli / Palestinian case and in the Troubles.
In the 1970s, first of all. It was really the bloodiest decade of the Troubles. It’s when the army were deployed in Northern Ireland. We had the British regular army deployed in urban environments in the United Kingdom and that in itself is an extraordinary event. Bloody Sunday obviously took place. You had attacks on mainland UK, you had the rise of the Provisional IRA from the ashes of the old IRA and a younger generation of Irish Republicans really centring violent resistance and terrorist attacks in their theory of change.
Then, in parallel to that, Loyalist paramilitaries who, again, were increasingly using sectarian violence, including involving collusion with some of the British security services in a very deeply embedded, dirty war essentially, by the mid-1970s.
Now it’s interesting, again, the seventies were where the bloodiest part of this. In 1973, there were terrorist incidents every 40 minutes for the entire year. So this is a high-intensity conflict.
Very often in high intensity conflicts, it spurs elite level diplomacy. People see just how out of control events are and there’s an attempt by political leaders and elites to try and find a conflict resolution paradigm quickly to graft onto it.
In Northern Ireland this was very interesting, because something called the Sunningdale Agreement was ironed out by the moderate actors in both the Unionist and Nationalist communities in 1973.
It’s very similar to the Good Friday Agreement. In fact, John Hume – who I think is one of the heroes of this story throughout these decades – called the Good Friday Agreement “Sunningdale for slow learners,” as did many other people, and that it took the next two and a half decades not just for people to catch up to some of the content of it, but also for the communities to catch up to it.
There’s a parallel between the strategy of Sunningdale, where elites converged on a British state beholden to try and forge an agreement and then drop it into the communities who are resisting it, and Oslo, which again took place in secret and arrived, as I said, as if from Outer Space, with very little preparation for the communities themselves once it arrived.
Of course, Sunningdale unravelled fairly quickly. The more extreme actors on both sides of the sectarian divide worked to undermine it, using both violence and political mechanisms.
We did see civil society organisations beginning to mushroom in the seventies around the Sunningdale period. One important one was run by Betty Williams and Maraid Corrigan, the Peace People it was called and it won the Nobel Peace Prize, but it collapsed because it was essentially almost out on its own. There was a high penalty to cross-community activism and violence was deployed against the largely female leadership as well as intimidation.
You had, basically, by the end of the 1970s, the beginning of a very grim era. The assassination of Lord Mountbatten in Sligo in 1979 and of course the election of Margaret Thatcher with an incredibly tough set of policies on Northern Ireland, really, in distinction to her predecessors.
In the seventies, there was a couple of other moments of overlap. Sunningdale happened at the same time as the Yom Kippur war in 1973. But then in 1979, when you had Thatcher elected and the assassination of Mountbatten, you obviously also had the Camp David Accords. So the Israeli/Palestinian conflict morphed at the end of the 1970s as well.
The inter-state nature of it, from the foundation of the state of Israel in 1948, really changed. Even though it was only Egypt making peace at that point with Israel, Egypt had the largest army, had the largest population in the region and it suddenly being taken out of the geopolitical balance, essentially, as a belligerent nation, changed the nature of the conflict. I would argue that from, say, 1980 onward, it was no longer an interstate conflict. Although it maintained some of the architecture of it and certainly some of the rhetoric, it really became much more centred on the events between the river and the sea and the population in Israel and Palestine.
You see, obviously, with the dawning of the 1980s the civil war in Lebanon and the Israeli invasion as well, the PLO being expelled to Tunis and again, the greater centring of events between the river and the sea. The further the PLO went – from Jordan, initially, then to Lebanon, and then all the way to North Africa – the more events in Israel, Palestine and society there, the civil society groups that might grow up in between the river and the sea began to drive events.
That mirrors what was happening in Ireland in the 1980s a little bit. We had hunger strikes taking place in Northern Ireland in prisons – I mentioned we had 30,000 political prisoners during the course of the Troubles – so that’s another parallel with Israel/Palestine, where prisons for Palestinian prisoners became a place of political organising.
Many organisations spread from the prison environment. Many political ideas were cooked up by prisoners that were then were tried to be socialised amongst civil society groups, again, in both Northern Ireland and Israel / Palestine.
But I think it’s fair to say that for the bulk of the 1980s, in both Northern Ireland and in Israel / Palestine, there were a lot of spaces in the conflict. Yes, it was still grim and there was relatively regular violence. But then there were some disruptive events towards the end of the decade and at the beginning of what we’ll call the long 1990s, I guess.
On the Israeli/Palestinian side, it’s fascinating to watch these different dynamics take place at the same time. First of all, in 1987 there was the London Agreement, where you had maybe the last gasp of this old inter-state analysis of Israel/Palestine. King Hussein came to London in secret for negotiations with Shimon Peres, who was the foreign minister then in the unity government that Israel had.
They essentially brokered a deal whereby Jordan would be the sovereign over much of the West Bank and have a special role in East Jerusalem. When that secret deal was taken back to Israel and Menachem Begin, and the Likud party, essentially torpedoed it. However, nine months later, Hussein himself not only disowned the London Agreement, but essentially withdrew any territorial claim or any claim to be acting on behalf of at least the West Bank Palestinians.
The big variable that took place in those nine months was the First Intifada, in the latter part of 1987. Again, this was initially a very civil society and civically driven, organic uprising of Palestinians, initially in Gaza, and then spreading to the West Bank and to East Jerusalem, taking the PLO in Tunis by surprise and much of the rest of the world as well, and resulting in a change in the Israeli response.
That change was to focus on what was taking place inside the Occupied Territories themselves rather than around the wider region. I think it managed to create some of the dynamics which led later to Madrid and to Oslo, when the dynamics that took place on the streets of the West Bank and Gaza were taken up, or arguably co-opted, by the PLO toward a diplomatic agenda that wasn’t necessarily in keeping with the conversation that was taking place amongst trade unions and civil society activists in the West Bank and Gaza.
If we look at that same period in the late 1980s in Northern Ireland, you had, again, John Hume working diligently in the United States to change the conversation around Northern Ireland.
It’s interesting: diaspora groups in both conflicts played an incredibly important role in framing the political conversation, particularly in North America, and in who they supported and incentivised in both territorial regions, in Israel/Palestine and in Northern Ireland. Hume had noted that the Irish diaspora in the United States – which numbers 40 million people as one of the largest ethnic self-identifying groups in North America – were sometimes incentivising some of what he saw as the most toxic behaviour in Northern Ireland; often raising money for guns and for weapons and to justify or further incentivise violent action in Northern Ireland.
He went and lobbied and advocated with some of the leading lights in the Irish-American community at a civic stage and also in Congress. There were four members of Congress who were called “the Four Horsemen” who essentially drove Irish-American policy on Capitol Hill. He made the case, again, both to those civic organisations right across the United States and to those political leaders, that the way in which Irish-American solidarity should be expressed needed to be by incentivising a real peace process. By taking the luxury or the benefit of not being in the conflict as Irish-Americans and using that to try and incentivise the “better angels” of those who are living there themselves.
And he made the case for a big, disruptive instrument, a fund that could help to support civil society organisations in Northern Ireland to try and prevent the collapse that we saw of Maraid Corrigan and Betty Williams group in the seventies, the Peace People, by creating a larger infrastructure. Then that network could be connected to the Irish diaspora in United States, but also directly to US capital support.
So as the Anglo-Irish Agreement was coming together, which was very much an interim agreement between Ireland and the United Kingdom, John Hume was getting Ronald Reagan to begin to speak out about the conflict.
It’s also worthwhile noting that Jimmy Carter was the first president, really, to address the Troubles in Northern Ireland, because it had been wrapped up in the Cold War’s great power politics.
This is another echo where Israel/Palestine is often used as the vehicle for larger geopolitical conflict. The same was true in the Cold War era for Northern Ireland, but that began to morph and change towards the late 1980s, as the Cold War was coming to a close (as we now know retrospectively) and Reagan began to identify a little bit more with the Irish-American community, recognising some of the political upsides and helped to create the International Fund for Ireland.
Interestingly, President Biden, who was a member of the Senate at the time, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is one of the few people still around who helped to bring the International Fund for Ireland into being. As I mentioned, it created and leveraged over $2.4 billion of investment in those sorts of programmes over the next 25 years or so.
What’s interesting then is, as we move into the 1990s, if you would ask somebody in 1991 let’s say, as the Madrid conference came together, which of these two conflicts is likely to be resolved, I’d argue most people would’ve said Israel/Palestine. Even if they didn’t think it was likely, they probably thought it was more likely than Northern Ireland was. At pretty much the same time as Madrid was taking place, there were mortar attacks on 10 Downing Street by the IRA. We’d had the Brighton Bombing, the attack on the Tory Party Conference, in 1984.
Just a quick aside on how civil society often works in strange ways. One of the people that lost his life tragically in that attack was a Tory MP named Anthony Berry. His daughter, Jo Berry, set up a civil society conflict resolution group, which has done some work in Israel/Palestine with Pat Magee, who was the IRA member who had planted the bomb at the Grand Hotel in Brighton. That shows you how the power of trauma and loss, and also how former combatants can be fused together in advocacy and political action in order to try and end conflict.
That also has some echoes in some of the organisations and groups that are active in Israel/Palestine.
Coming back to the early 1990s, as I mentioned earlier, we had the Madrid Conference in ‘91 and the real pressure that was put on Israel by the Bush administration – the first Bush administration – to participate.
That was important. Again, the US use pressure and leverage on a close ally, like Israel, to participate in this conference. In many ways, the same sort of pressure was applied on the United Kingdom, a very close ally, by the United States in order to facilitate a real peace process.
We haven’t really seen that in the Israel/Palestine space since then, maybe with the arguable exception of the settlement freeze in Barack Obama’s first term. US presidents trying to use that sort of leverage toward a meaningful path toward a peace process. And it needs to be done in tandem with those sort of civil society engines and vectors that I spoke about earlier.
Now it’s worthwhile pausing on the bizarre moment in 1993, when the Oslo Accords appear, and reflecting on what preceded it.
Before September 1993, it was illegal for Israelis to meet members of the PLO. The Palestinian national flag was banned inside Israel. In Palestine, there was very little day-to-day contact beyond the economic reality and utility amongst Israelis and Palestinians, although interestingly, there were far fewer physical impediments between the West Bank, Gaza and Israel than there are today. But both populations, essentially, and particularly their political leaderships, were estranged.
Out of nowhere, seemingly, Oslo appeared. It was a civil society initiative to begin with. Ron Pundak and Yair Hirschfeld were two Israeli academics. A Norwegian think-tank provided the good offices and the structure for it, and in Oslo, over a period of months, they grappled with the various different issues germane to the peace process.
It’s also worthwhile mentioning that the PLO was in a historically weak position at this time and some of that is probably reflected in some of what’s in Oslo and also what’s not in the Oslo Accords.
Now, if we zoom out for a second and look at Northern Ireland at the same time, there was no elite level diplomacy taking place. There were some back-channel talks taking place.
What did happen in 1992, running into 1993, was that the investments that the Fund for Ireland and diaspora groups like Chuck Feeney’s in North America, the groups they had been investing in, multi-million dollar investments, were beginning to flower and beginning to come of age. They were working together.
Something called Initiative ’92 was launched, which was a cross-community citizens’ forum of Northern Irish Catholics and Protestants, trying to have open conversations and consultations about what some sort of conflict resolution framework might look like, which was really innovative and brave at the time. It was opposed by most of the political parties. Again, violent intimidation was visited on many of the leaders.
In another bit of history rhyming, if not repeating, the Norwegians were involved in creating something called the Opsahl Commission. In 1993, only a few months before the Oslo Accords appeared, the framework that the Initiative ’92 group had put together was taken by this commission and a grassroots consultation process was set up.
They consulted with over 3000 civil society organisations. You’re seeing the mushrooming of groups thanks to the investment that had started seven years earlier. They began to run events all over Northern Ireland, asking communities what they wanted, bringing together, in a fairly radical way, Catholics and Protestants in the same room, talking about their future. That seems normal now in Northern Ireland, but it was really brave and difficult to pull off in the early 1990s.
Now, if you were looking at Oslo as it emerged and these civil society initiatives in Northern Ireland at exactly the same time, most of the newspaper reportage put an awful lot more focus, for understandable reasons, on Oslo, when people really did have a sense, almost fatalistically, that the conflict in the Middle-East was coming to an end.
But so little of the preparation necessary for that to be the case had actually been done. Suddenly, the PLO – who Israelis had been conditioned to believe were the Devil incarnate over the previous decades, due to waves of terror attacks and Yasser Arafat being seen, essentially, as Israel’s number one enemy – the people of Israel were suddenly being asked to entrust their security to the PLO. That was a huge leap to face in the space of days, never mind months or years. A huge leap too for the Palestinian side, who were undergoing military occupation in the West Bank and Gaza, to be suddenly conditioned to think that that same occupying military was going to be a security partner for your own force.
Even then, in a micro sense, for the PLO – having been in Tunis and having been away from the region, most of them, since 1948 or, for many,1967 – for them to return suddenly, initially to Gaza and to Jericho and to build up the institutions of statehood.
From scratch, these were big, heavy lifts without civic buy-in or engagement beforehand.
If you look back on the record of the speeches of both Israeli political leaders and Palestinian political leaders at that time, they represented Oslo in very different ways to their populations. They accentuated parts that were slight elements, or weren’t even there in many cases, and created centres of expectation in both populations, which were ultimately likely to be disappointed.
Nonetheless, for all of its failings, it’s worthwhile remembering that Oslo was popular when it first emerged, even without that civic preparation beforehand. In January 1994 some three or four months after the Oslo Agreement had been announced, 64% of Israelis believed Oslo was going to end in a two-state solution, even though it wasn’t in the Oslo Accords, and even though the Israeli government were not saying it was going to go towards a two-state solution. With that understanding of what Oslo was, 61% of Israelis supported it.
Yet one month later, in February 1994, Baruch Goldstein entered the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron and killed 29 people and injured over 120 people in one of the most horrific attacks in the course of the violence, particularly in the latter decades of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.
Before that attack, there had been two suicide bombings that Hamas had launched inside Israel-proper. There was another six over the course of the next 11 months; a huge wave of violence within a year of the Oslo Accords being agreed. Very quickly that level of support – just dealing with the Israeli side, first of all – began to dissipate. By January of 1995, one year after the poll that I quoted earlier, support for a two-state solution had dropped to 35%. It had nearly halved in the space of a year. It shows you how shallow that support had been and how easily overturned it could be by violence.
Similarly, on the Palestinian side, the lofty promises of what Oslo was going to curtail were not materialising. Settlement growth was continuing. The violence at the Tomb of the Patriarchs did not result in settlers being evacuated from Hebron, as many people had urged Yitzhak Rabin to do in the immediate aftermath. At the same time, the growth of Hamas and political Islam, standing against the Oslo Accords and making a case that the Palestinians had been tricked or been fooled, began to gather pace.
It’s also worthwhile pausing here for a second and looking at these opposite theories of change.
On the elite side, it was all cooked-up in elite conferences, policy papers put together with very little civic buy-in.
On the grassroots side, when you look at who was taking that more civil society led, incremental, community driven approach in Israel / Palestine, there was Hamas on one side with their network of clinics, hospitals and schools rooted into communities. That was widely contrasted to a PLO that was often dismissed as being very aloof and very elite.
On the Israeli side, it was a settler movement, who were desperately unpopular for a period in the 1990s, yet were working diligently every day to create local institutions, to be able to create “facts on the ground” – that cliche again – and build an inevitability that Oslo was going to collapse, when the elite consensus at the time was that a two-state solution was inevitable. Yet they worked incrementally in a real way, whilst elites were doing something that was very, very much removed from where ordinary populations were.
Over that period from the second half of the 1990s into the early part of the last decade, we obviously saw the complete collapse of the architecture of the Oslo Accords.
With those suicide bombing waves very soon after the massacre at the Tomb of the Patriarchs that we spoke about – we had the Dizengoff attack in October 1994 where over 20 people were killed and the Beit Lid attack in January 1995 – support for Rabin began to ebb way.
Again, there’s an interesting note here in Israel / Palestine that’s contrary for Northern Ireland. Rabin and his government: they did a lot of things right, but they also made a lot of mistakes.
I would argue that one of the mistakes that they made was to keep themselves at arms-length from the peace camp, the civil society that had been demanding peace to with the Palestinians. They were afraid that exposure to those groups or being seen as being their allies, would delegitimise them in the eyes of more nationalist voters.
By the way, there’s an excellent book that came out last year by Sammy Cohen that analyses the Israeli peace camp, and it’s really remarkable to see just how rude the Israeli Labour leaders often were to the leaders of these groups.
It’s worthwhile remembering that peace had now brought 400,000 people out on to the streets following the Sabra and Shatila Massacre in the late 1980s. That’s 10% of the Israeli Jewish population at that time, I think. They had a convening power that would have been able to be used by the Rabin administration if it’d been harnessed. But again, there was that fear to do so.
In a very sad, poignant note, the moment that Rabin finally embraced the peace camp was on stage in Rabin Square when he was assassinated in November 1995. That’s when, I think, that the Oslo process really, retrospectively, can be seen to have collapsed.
Fast forwarding slightly – because I can see the clock! – we’re into 1998, and Benjamin Netanyahu, who, first of all, had won the prime ministerial election in 1996 after inciting against the Oslo Accords and against President Rabin and building, again, a civil society ecosystem of organisations, which have only grown more powerful since. They were very, well-funded; very, very disciplined in the tactics and strategies that they deployed; focused upon taking apart the Oslo Accords and making a two-state solution unviable.
That sort of marriage, from the elite political level down to civic actors, has, I think, some lessons for the left to learn. When the political leader is very aloof from civil society, it ends up alone when it comes under attack.
Looking at the counterpoint, when the Wye River Accords were agreed in 1998 and Bibi Netanyahu flew back from Washington DC, they were never really implemented at all. There was meant to be withdrawal from Hebron and from other parts of the West Bank. All this happens at almost exactly the same time as the Good Friday Agreement is agreed in Northern Ireland.
You can see the civil society that had been invested in from the late 1980s pushing political leaders to take risks they didn’t want to take. Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair’s chief negotiator, said that the International Fund for Ireland was the great unsung hero of the Good Friday Agreement. George Mitchell, who was a Special Envoy to both Northern Ireland and later to Israel/Palestine, said that he would have hesitated to take the job from Bill Clinton without that civic capacity that had been built earlier, before the 1990s.
Politicians everywhere are cynical. They respond to political incentives. If you don’t have a robust, dynamic, civil society, pushing them to take risks and chances for peace, they simply won’t and the more extreme actors will be able to monopolise the political conversation.
But by 1998, that worm had turned and we saw the Good Friday Agreement coming about.
What’s fascinating is that the architecture of the agreement itself is around something called “parity of esteem” and around placing the Nationalist narrative and the Unionist narrative, with so many cultural, linguistic and political elements that flow from it, on an equal pegging.
It sounds very milquetoast and vanilla now, but it was radical at the time, and the idea came directly from Initiative ’92 and the Opsahl Commission in 1993. So you can see a through line from those civil society organisations through to the ideas that politicians then co-opted and made their own.
More than that, after that the Good Friday Agreement was agreed at Easter 1998, there had to be a referendum to ratify it, but the politicians were too afraid to lead the referendum. Many of them endorsed the Good Friday Agreement, as did their parties, but to go out knocking on doors in difficult communities, advocating for peace and compromise was uncomfortable for many of those sectarian actors.
Who led the referendum? Civil society organisations. These groups across Northern Ireland were the ones out campaigning, knocking on doors, holding town hall meetings and ensuring that 71% of the electorate in Northern Ireland endorsed the Good Friday Agreement.
Now, on a final note, and again, there’s some similarities here with the Goldstein massacre in 1994, the single worst terrorist attack of the entire Troubles took place after the Good Friday Agreement. It was only 13 weeks, I think, after the Good Friday Agreement, in Omagh, the Omagh Bombing, by the “Real IRA,” a sort of splinter faction of the IRA. It was devastating. The same number of fatalities actually as the Tomb of the Patriarchs Massacre: 29 people killed and hundreds injured.
What was interesting, however, is that how that violence, when it was deployed in Israel / Palestine derailed the peace process and incentivised political leaders to retreat to their corners. The exact opposite happened in Northern Ireland where civil society, in a cross-community way, came out in revulsion against this violence. The sectarian leadership, including the DUP and Sinn Fein came out very clearly in opposition to it.
Some of the most condemnatory language I think I’ve ever seen Sinn Fein use against republican violence was against the Omagh bombers.
And you saw something coherent there in that immediate aftermath that I think has stayed ever since.
I don’t want to romanticise, or sort of utopianise the situation in Northern Ireland. It’s really difficult and conflict resolution remains difficult. It’s something you’ve got to get up and do every day. It’s not a destination that you arrive at.
But what’s interesting is that for all the political failures, including the collapse of the Stormont Executive a few years ago and some of the civil society arrests that we’ve certainly been seeing over recent weeks, it is those civic actors who are really pushing and incentivising the peace to be kept.
We’re doing very brave things at a micro and local level, filling the vacuum that I think the DUP and Sinn Fein often leave in their wake. Those organisations and entities that were seeded by the International Fund for Ireland in the 1980s are also helping form political parties. Just this week we’ve seen Arlene Foster resign as the leader of the DUP, and it’s interesting that the DUP’s vote is beginning to haemorrhage, and it’s not going to the UDP or other distinctly unionist-aligned parties.
The party that is probably most resurgent at the moment is the Alliance Party, which is a joint cross-community political party, many of whose leaders are alumni of the programmes that were seeded by the International Fund for Ireland who found that critical voice – many leaders are in their thirties and early forties – in these sort of programmes.
We see that in Israel / Palestine too, but it’s at such a micro level because we’ve never funded them at the sort of a level where they can bring about change. We know they change lives individually, but to be able to change whole communities and society.
It’s worthwhile finalising things here, before we open up for questions, on where we are in Israel / Palestine now.
It’s a real dead end if we’re looking at it from an Oslo perspective.
We have 90% of Palestinians who think it’s impossible to trust Israeli Jews and 79% of Israeli Jews who think it’s impossible to trust Palestinians. As long as that’s true, it doesn’t really matter who the prime ministers and presidents are in any society.
Under the surface, the youth attitudes are causing the greatest crisis. We saw this very viscerally last week in the racist violence in Jerusalem, with Kahanists and the Jewish far-right marching through the Old City, chanting “Death to Arabs,” and at the Tik ToK attacks, taking place amongst very, very young Palestinian and Arab people against visibly religious Israeli Jews.
We are seeing a generation of Israelis and Palestinians who don’t remember those, in retrospect, “good days” in the 1990s. They only remember the regime of separation that’s come about since the Second Intifada, the repeated incidents of war with Gaza. Just imagine: the average age in Gaza is 16. So for the average Gazan, all they know is living behind a wall and having wars every few years, never having met an Israeli to talk about how they might have a more just or inclusive future.
The same is also true for many Israeli Jews. Again, the average age in Israel is 29, but most Israelis have never had a conversation with a Palestinian about how they might share the land together in a just and equitable way.
These sorts of programmes and initiatives, they don’t end the conflict on their own. They cannot achieve peace, but they can create and scale those sort of inclusive conversations.
I’ll finalise on this point.
I ran organisation for a long time that campaigned for a two-state solution. I think everybody looking around now needs to be honest and say that partition looks less likely every day. For some that’s tragic and for others a good thing. But it looks less viable because of the spread of settlements, because of the lack of support, particularly amongst young people for that destination. And it looks increasingly likely that whatever political framework Israelis and Palestinians have; be it two states, a confederation or a single state; it’s going to be not separation, but proximity.
Israelis, Palestinians, Jews and Arabs are going to have to find a way to live together in a very similar way to Northern Irish Protestants and Catholics have had to. To learn the daily behaviour of tolerance and be able to compromise over symbols and political norms in order to make the reality manageable and just.
I think these programs and civil society in general terms can help them to create the foundations and the architecture for that to happen, but they can also create the leaders themselves.
We’re only socialising leaders now, in both societies, who know nothing of each other. Nothing, they speak in cliches. You listen to a speech in the Knesset about Palestinians and it’s really clear, very often, that the people giving the speech have never sat down and had a conversation with Palestinians. The same is often true for some of the speeches that you will hear from politicians in the West Bank and Gaza. We have a generation now that have grown up in this regime of separation, and it’s been at the behest or the allowance of the international community.
Now the United States had the foresight to be able to act in a much more judicious and longsighted way in Northern Ireland and create those investments that could bear fruit and be able to create the foundations for peace.
It’s important now – and I really wish it had happened 30 years ago so we were enjoying those fruits – to do the same in Israel / Palestine, to give that younger generation, one: the tools to resist the dehumanisation, the racism and the extremism that’s growing. And two: to create those institutions that can answer the questions that the previous generation have so failed to.
I think it’s the least the international community owes Israelis and Palestinians after the lofty promises of the 1990s and beyond.
That’s why we at ALLMEP are very proud to have helped to advocate for an international fund for Israeli / Palestinian peace, again, inspired by that International Fund for Ireland, and to have seen legislation enacted in the US Congress at the end of last year promising $250 million towards these sort of programmes.
We’re now working with the government of the United Kingdom, the European Union and further field to create a genuinely multinational pooling of, not just resources, but also legitimacy, because the truth is the United States is not seen as a legitimate actor by very many Palestinians after recent years.
But I speak as a European. The same is true for the European Union for many Israeli Jews. So the only way the two main funders in this space can work cohesively on both sides of the green line is by pooling those resources and allowing and unlocking incredibly ambitious multi-million dollar projects that can allow participation in these programmes and the creation of these institutions to be a right and a rite of passage for Israelis and Palestinians, rather than a very rare privilege.
On its own, it will not end the conflict, but it can create a petri dish and the foundations that can allow that next generation to begin to figure out answers to those questions.
I know I’ve covered an awful lot. Again, it’s difficult to go deep into any of those individual issues I mentioned in such a short amount of time, but I hope for the rest of the conversation that we have we can maybe go narrowly on any issues that people have any questions on. So thank you again.
A question from Magan Singodia, one of the Balfour Project trustees:
“Why is there such a clear division in Irish people’s support in Northern Ireland about the Israel/Palestine conflict?”
It’s a really good question. Some of it goes back to the era that I spoke about, around the anti-colonial struggles and the new left from the sixties onwards, the crossover between the republican narrative in Northern Ireland, the PLO, FARC… there were a few different groups that were on that kind of Marxist radical left aspect. But I think that only really makes sense for the elites in communities.
I think for a more general perspective, there is a sense of affinity with the underdog. I think that’s true in Ireland in general, and then in the republican community – the nationalist community – in Northern Ireland. We’re seeing a crossover where there is a sense that, in Northern Ireland, there were plantations and settlements that took place where land that was perceived by Irish nationalists to be Irish land was taken by people they perceived to be foreign invaders. Now, the difference is this all happened centuries ago and the people living in the area today are both nationals of the same area with the same rights and entitlement to the land. So part of it is there.
On the union side as well, there is sometimes an affinity with the hardest edge of the settler movement on the Israeli right. Some of it sometimes comes up in the most bizarre ways. There’s actually a weird Orange Order lodge in Northern Ireland whose members think they’re a lost tribe of Israel. I’ve heard some of them speak Hebrew in really, really bad Northern Irish accents!
Sometimes it’s adopting the close of another conflict when your own is moving towards resolution. It can sometimes be that your identity is dependent upon the need for conflict. Now, in saying that, I don’t want to be judgmental on either side, because there are lots of reasons for affinity. One interesting point – I don’t know any data on this – I come from a fairly nationalist family and I’ve been told by my dad that back in the early sixties many Irish people actually aligned themselves with Israel. This is when Israel was seen as having been fighting against Britain to found the state in 1947-48. Then obviously in ’67 with the start of the military occupation, the role of the underdog – not just for Irish people but, I think, more generally around the world – and the centrality of the Palestinian experience changed that.
I think it’s fair to say that today, in Ireland in general and amongst nationalists, probably, in Northern Ireland, you’ll find one of the most pro-Palestinian societies in Western Europe. I’ve brought Israelis and Palestinians to Northern Ireland for tours and they often find it a bit strange to find these people very far away from the region whose identity is wrapped up in their problems in Israel/Palestine.
But in saying that, sometimes the solidarity can also be expressed in ways that are quite helpful. There have been incidences of Sinn Fein politicians that I’m aware of playing quite an important role in some internal Palestinian issues around division between Hamas and Fatah, and being seen as trusted intermediaries for some of the diplomatic initiatives the Palestinians have tried to put together in the last two decades.
We’ve got a couple of questions and comments – one from Ian Chalmers and I think Tony Greenstein touched on this – comments about how much response there’s been to the recent reports by Human Rights Watch publicly calling out Israel on apartheid policies. Have you as ALLMEP responded to this, or have you got any comments on it for us now?
No. At ALLMEP, we don’t tend to respond to those sort of things.
We’re a network for over 150 NGOs. We try and reflect our network’s interests, views and consensus where it agrees. The exception to that would be the annexation crisis of last year and the Trump Initiative, which we took quite a strong stand against because it’s obviously contrary to what our members stand for, which is Israeli/Palestinian equality and joined to political activism. Then those initiatives went over the heads of Palestinians and didn’t involve Palestinian agency at all. When it comes to calling the balls and strikes of different human rights reports, it’s simply not our role.
What I would say is that labelling what is there is important. I don’t want to take away from that in any way, but also a strategy to get out of it is also incredibly important. None of these strategies should be seen as exclusive of others.
The one around accountability and the pursuing of rights and international forums is very, very important. And I would say that it shouldn’t be seen as in tension or conflict with the grassroots organisations on the ground.
We’re trying to organise Israelis and Palestinians and, from my own perspective, I’ve seen the international community let down Palestinians and Israeli / Palestinian peacemaking so often, that I would try and make sure that no strategy is purely international and that you always have a part of it that’s wrapped up in activism and political action on the ground.
The other thing with the Human Rights Watch report that I want to say is that Omar Shakir, the author of it, has been accused of some pretty awful stuff in the last 24 hours that I’ve seen.
I just want to say that – this is a slight side tangent – one of our members, Rami Aman, was imprisoned last year in Gaza for having a Zoom conversation with Israelis. Omar, and Human Rights Watch, more than any other organisation, were campaigning for his release and were doing incredible stuff behind the scenes to make it happen.
I think the way in which he applied the same norms that maybe have upset a lot of people around that report – and again, I don’t want to get into the terminology of it, but it’s obviously very difficult for a lot of people to hear it – I’d like people to remember that when there was an issue where a Palestinian was imprisoned in Gaza for activism with Israelis, which is controversial amongst many Palestinians and Palestinian solidarity activists, Omar applied the exact same moral prism to that problem as he would have if it was Israel infringing the rights of a political activist. I think that’s important to say.
Thanks for that.
You said I could ask you tough questions, so I’m going to. We’ve got a question from Ben White.
“The fact that the International Fund has attracted support across the political aisle is often presented as one of the main achievements. However, the fund’s support includes groups like AIPAC and Conservative Friends of Israel who regularly denigrate Palestinians and their rights and who actively work to thwart accountability for war crimes. What is it about the fund, do you think, that attracts those group’s support and what would an organisation have to do to have its support declined or disowned?
Well, we’ve never declined any organisation’s support for the International Fund. It’s fair to say that it has support on the pro-Israeli right, but it also has to be said that it has support on the pro-Palestinian left as well. It’s very unusual in that sense, both within Congress and amongst supporting organisations. So for every AIPAC endorsement, there is also J Street that have endorsed it. We have Churches for Middle East Peace who have endorsed it as well. The New Israel Fund have endorsed it.
One of the problems is we’ve had fewer Palestinian organisations than I would like endorse it. Part of the tension here is with the BDS, obviously, where we’re bringing together Israelis and Palestinians. We think it’s incredibly important to do that, and that sometimes gets wrapped up in a conversation around boycott.
There is a little bit of a discrepancy there in that sense, but as legislation in the United States goes, I have never seen a broader tent of organisations endorsing a piece of legislation that has passed, ever.
And I think, to answer the second part of Ben’s question, it’s probably because a lot of people can disagree on final status. I’m talking about particularly in the American context here, and on various different elements of an analysis of the Israeli / Palestinian conflict.
But when you see the attitudes that young people are coming up with – like when you see events in Jerusalem last week, for example – it’s pretty hard for people to say that’s a good thing. We have these programmes that are demonstrated in study after study to be effective in countering those attitudes and disrupting them and creating a very different environment for young Israelis and Palestinians.
So it creates, essentially, a point of commonality between actors who wouldn’t ordinarily co-sign the same legislation. I think that is true in the UK and in Europe as well.
What I would also say is: of all the organisations endorsing it, it’s nobody’s top priority, and that’s important to say. It’s a very wide concert of people who endorse it, but ALLMEP are the organisation who are pressing it every day.
I think that’s also part of the problem, lots of older initiatives and ideas that capture an awful lot of energy from organisations and from activists. And it’s important to try and find these things that some people can agree upon that politically are viable that can produce funding. And that can also allow some of the other activities and organisations to prosper as well. I think it’s important to not see something like this to be in competition or in tension with other priorities from organisations on the left or on the way.
I’ve got one from Veronica Plowden: “Do you think one of the reasons for the difference in outcome was the US started in Northern Ireland, basically, understanding and supporting the less powerful party, i.e., the nationalists; where in Israel/Palestine, they were and are heavily biased towards the occupiers: Israel?”
I think the US’s position as a mediator in Northern Ireland was far, far better than it was in in Israel/Palestine. Khalid El-Ghadi, by the way, who wrote an excellent book a couple of years ago about analysis of US policy on Israel/Palestine, says that in conflict resolution theory, the role of the mediator is to try and strengthen the hand of the weaker party in order to create something closer to parity and negotiations, because just in a cold scientific perspective, it’s more likely to result in agreement. It’s not a controversial thing to say that the US has never really performed that role in the Israeli / Palestinian sphere. It’s one of the big differences, I have to say in, in how they intervened in Northern Ireland versus Israel / Palestine.
I’d also make a point that some of this is around diaspora activism as well, which is changing. Remember what I said about what John Hume led in 1980s in Ireland, or how you self identified as an Irish American changed from being supporting weapons to being supporting peace groups? I think you’re seeing now, within the Jewish-American diaspora, maybe a change in how pro-Israeli activism or how your Jewish identity relates to things that you are prioritising politically. That is in transition and changing as well.
It’s worthwhile noting – I should’ve mentioned it earlier – in the mid-1990s when Rabin and Yossi Beilin were in power, AIPAC were pushing for the law that recognised Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, which is what the Trump administration used a few years ago to ratify it. Beilin and Rabin asked APAC not to endorse it, yet APAC did. So sometimes diaspora communities can actually be so far away from what the governments they’re supposed to be in solidarity with are pushing for and I hope some of that can be rebalanced.
It’s a continuum, right? It’s constantly changing and what people are doing, what they’re asking their politicians to do on a daily basis, that really, really matters. I think the lesson in Northern Ireland is that, whilst the United States intervened in a more even-handed way, it wouldn’t have intervened at all, if not for Irish Americans demanding it.
I think the same can be possible for a US role in Israel / Palestine, if organised groups of both diasporic communities, Palestinians, Jews together like everybody, this becomes a call to action for an administration. As President Obama said when he was being chastised in his first term for not doing enough on this issues: “I can’t hear you. I’m not getting letters from you. I’m not getting phone calls from you. You’re not pushing me to do this, but there’s other people who are pushing me to take different action on these issues.” And I think smart advocacy towards now, with the Biden administration being in place, can move to a more involved activist position from the United States on the next three and a half years.
Thanks for that.
I’m going to take the last question now because we are almost out of time, but I have said that I will be passing on the chat box to John so that he will be able to read everyone’s comments and so forth.
This comment has come from Peter Brain, but we’ve had similar questions on the same thing: “I would like to comment on whether two communities can coexist and whether in Northern Ireland they actually do now.”
That’s a great question.
So, yes and no. One of the tragedies in Northern Ireland is that more children are being educated in segregated schools than was the case before the Good Friday Agreement. One of the flaws of the Good Friday Agreement is that it crystallised power-sharing, which was necessary at the time, in a way that pits the communities against each other a little bit. And that tension is where policy is produced.
But I think it’s changing. I think what’s really interesting, is that the largest group of people in Northern Ireland are people who are self-identifying as neither republicans or unionists. The largest growing group of voters in Northern Ireland are non-Unionist Party-voting Protestants. You have now in Northern Ireland whole new ethnic identities after immigration that aren’t based upon whether you’re catholic or Protestant. And I think that the civil society capacity that generated and that helped to deliver Good Friday, and that helped to sustain it when the politicians failed: that can now be deployed.
I hope we can think toward re-imagining what comes next, because I don’t think the Good Friday Agreement is a final status agreement. It’s an interim agreement. And what it has created is the space historically, politically and socially for the violence to ebb away; for rooms where conversations can happen to be created.
Then I think the next chapter of how all citizens of Northern Ireland, regardless of their ethnicity or religion can share the land and equality can actually happen and ideas can be generated without immediate pushback.
We have to get through the challenges that Brexit has created, which I would not want to diminish in any way, but I still think that muscle, that resolve, that’s going to be Northern Ireland’s biggest asset in the coming years.
I remain optimistic of those questions being resolved.