Splitting the differences


BOSTON — The murder of two British soldiers and a policeman in Antrim and Armagh, after more than a decade of peace in Northern Ireland, sent a chill down the spines of Ireland and Great Britain. The Good Friday agreement, signed 11 years ago, was supposed to end “The Troubles,” as those lost years of violence were called.

Former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell, who put so much time into negotiating the Good Friday agreement, is now embarked on trying to settle an even more intractable and violent problem, the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. He will use some of the skills he honed in bringing the Irish together.

Although no two such disputes are the same, there are similarities. The most difficult to resolve come when two peoples inhabit the same land, but are divided by either race or religion. Disagreements, such as that between Muslims and Jews in the Middle East, or Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, usually end one of three ways: partition, power-sharing, or one side taking over from the other.

In the early years of the last century, it looked as if there might be civil war in Ireland between the majority Catholic population and the Protestant north. In 1920, the British tried partition: Protestant Northern Ireland was split off from the mostly Catholic south to remain with Britain. But when the Irish Free State emerged it refused to recognize the partition as permanent.

Partition might have eventually avoided strife had there not been a sizable Catholic population within the new northern province. When Catholics in the north came to feel like a persecuted minority, many of them in effect said to their Protestant neighbors: We don’t want to be a minority in your country, so you come and be a minority in ours. Thus began the armed effort to wrest the province away from Britain in order join it with the Irish Republic, while the Protestant majority sought to stay British.

After years of fruitless violence both sides saw that neither could win outright. So rather than re-partition the province, the Good Friday accord established power sharing, to which the Irish Republican Army agreed, but which IRA splinter groups now seek to de-rail.

On the subcontinent, when the end of empire came to India in 1947, the British again chose partition between competing religious groups rather than power sharing, just as they had done in Ireland 27 years earlier. The result was Pakistan for the minority Muslims, and India for the majority Hindus. Uncontrollable communal violence ensued as Hindus and Muslims resettled across the new borders, and today the two states live in mutual suspicion when they are not actually at war with each other. A large Muslim minority left within India, when confronted by Hindu nationalism, is also a source of continuing communal violence a half century later.

In Lebanon, the French set up an elaborate power-sharing arrangement before they left that exists, more or less in tact, until this day. But the result has been civil strife and civil war as Christians, Muslims — both Shia and Sunni — along with the Druse, have periodically clashed.

In South Africa, a white minority simply turned political power over to a black majority. Talk of partition among die-hard Boers to create a white homeland, as they had created black homelands, came to nothing more than bravado.

In Kosovo, a mostly Muslim Albanian majority objected to being part of Christian Serbia. But in Kosovo’s case there was no Good Friday-style agreement. NATO bombers loosened Serbia’s grip, and the United States brokered Kosovo’s independence — an independence not recognized by Serbia.

The original idea for the British Mandate of Palestine was partition between Jews and Arabs who had been at each other’s throats for many years. The Israelis accepted the UN partition plan. The Arabs did not. The British left with the situation unresolved, and after further fighting, a ceasefire resulted in de facto partition with Israel ending up with more than the UN plan had envisioned.

In 1967, Israel captured all of what was left of the British mandate, an example of one side simply taking over the other. The result has been 40 years of strife, which George Mitchell now hopes to help end. The chosen vehicle is partition again, a two-state solution, but with Israel unwilling to give up Jewish settlements in the lands it occupied in 1967, and with the Palestinians split between compromise and intransigence, the prospects for Mitchell are not as promising as they were in Northern Ireland.

Power sharing is not a good option for the Israelis, who have a large Arab minority within their borders already. Israel wants to stay a Jewish state and a democracy, and, with all the Palestinians from the Jordan River to the sea within its borders, it could not remain both. Many Israelis see in a Good Friday-style, power-sharing agreement nothing but the ultimate end of the Zionist dream.

As for the Palestinians, they might yet unite to form their own country in a newly partitioned land. But the fear would be that die-hard splinter groups would not accept compromise and resort to violence, just as the IRA splinters seem to be doing in the green and pleasant lands of Armagh and Antrim.

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