A Response to J Street: Consider the Irish Model

A Response to J Street: Consider the Irish Model

A Response to J Street: Consider the Irish Model

The peaceful, democratic end to violence in Northern Ireland could be a model for a way out of the Israel-Palestine stalemate. UN recognition of Palestinian statehood would be the first step.


J Street’s Jeremy Ben-Ami claims that I “dramatically misstate” the group’s position on the upcoming Palestinian issue before the United Nations. Not so.

As the headline of my recent Nation essay stated, “J Street Opposes Palestine’s UN Bid.” Ben-Ami says, “Let’s be clear. J Street supports statehood for the Palestinians.” So do George Bush, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. Even Bibi Netanyahu has endorsed some sort of a Palestinian state.

Supporting statehood is not the point. J Street clearly states that it is opposed to UN Security Council recognition of a Palestinian state as proposed by the Palestinian delegation and supported by most member states of the UN.

J Street wants the American government to veto the resolution if and when it comes before the Security Council. According to Ben-Ami, the Israelis and the US should have veto power over Palestinian statehood unless “agreed by both sides” and is based on “a deal on borders and security arrangements first.” The chances of that happening are zero in the near future.

J Street also avoids taking any position on a more modest proposal to seek Palestinian recognition by the General Assembly: “J Street’s position on that resolution will be based on whether the text accords with our basic principles,” he writes. I agree with Ben-Ami’s criticism of my statement that with passage of a UN resolution “a two-state solution would be achieved.” I was citing the paradigm shift offered by Yossi Alpher in the New York Times, who sees the beginning of a Palestinian state, even if partial, as quite different from the PLO’s previous identity as an organization representing refugees. Unfortunately, J Street’s position leaves an Israeli analyst like Alpher stranded.

With General Assembly recognition, the Palestinians would have observer-state status as opposed to their present observer-entity status. The Palestinians would still be negotiating with the Israelis, Americans and others, but with an enhanced status entitling them to participation in UN bodies.

The Case of Northern Ireland

Though the cases are different, the Israel-Palestinian crisis reminds me of the long struggle preceding the 1998 Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland, after a three-decade war in which thousands were killed. Through that conflict, the US supported the British position that the status of Northern Ireland was an “internal matter” for the UK. The British supported the loyalists of the Orange Order in that conflict, which meant an “Orange veto” blocked any peaceful, democratic transition to self-determination for Irish Catholics, nationalists and Republicans.

Responding to political pressure from the Irish Catholic community in the US, President Bill Clinton broke with the long-standing UK position, granted visas to Sinn Fein leaders Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, and appointed former Sen. George Mitchell as lead negotiator in the peace process. In the compromise that followed, Irish nationalists were recognized, equality mechanisms were established, barriers to censorship and free elections were swept away, paramilitary weapons were gradually decommissioned, the Irish language was recognized, and cross-border institutions were built, all while the rights of Unionists in the United Kingdom were guaranteed.

Irish-Americans were a key political force in supporting the negotiations that led to peaceful coexistence. In the case of the Israel-Palestine conflict, it would be enormously helpful for J Street to play a similar role to that of Irish-Americans in the Irish conflict. They supported Clinton and Mitchell when the CIA, State Department and British government were strongly opposed, for example on the question of granting visas to leaders like Adams. In 2010, Adams was elected to be a member of the parliament in the south, and McGuinness is running for the presidency of all the island. Meanwhile, it appears that George Mitchell has given up playing any such role in the Israel-Palestine conflict, and his silence in retirement speaks volumes.

As long as the Israelis have in hand the American veto power at the UN, there is little reason for them to recognize a viable Palestinian state anytime soon, while their settlements keep expanding. To end this blockage, the Palestinians have chosen to seek recognition at the UN. The more radical anti-Israel forces of Hamas have lost the initiative to the moderates for now, just as the hard-line Irish partisans of armed struggle watched as the Irish peace process unfolded.

Some will quarrel over these lessons of Northern Ireland as they apply to the Middle East. But two points remain relevant. First, the leadership of the UK eventually tired of supporting one side in a permanent civil war, and seized the chance for peace when a compromise peace process was on the table. Second, as the Arab Spring unfolds, global support is rapidly disappearing for continued Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories.  Political and diplomatic leadership is urgently needed to break the stalemate and prevent another war. J Street could take that leadership. If not now, when?

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