It was the 10th of April, 1998. I was sitting in my living-room watching TV late into the night as historic events unfolded in Stormont Castle, Belfast. Northern Ireland’s political parties finally settled an agreement that would begin the process of ending decades of bloodshed on the most westerly tip of Europe.
Scholars have drawn many parallels between the Northern Ireland peace process and the Oslo Accords which, at that point, were beginning to seriously unravel. The formulation of the Northern Ireland peace process owes its success to many: from moderate political leaders who sought to draw violent parties into the political process to political prisoners who took substantial risks for peace.
But one of the crucial pillars of the Good Friday agreement, and the subsequent St. Andrews agreement, was that they were built upon the support of the British and Irish governments. The British, effectively, acted as guarantors for the Unionist community while the Irish government acted as guarantors for the Nationalist community. Each government became signatories to the agreements, thus backing up their provisions with the weight of international treaty law.
In between the two governments was the US administration of Bill Clinton which acted as an ‘honest broker’ to settle disputes. Clinton deployed diplomatic and economic muscle in the face of any intransigence. Though much was made of the role played by Clinton and George Mitchell the truly important foundation stone was built on the support of the Irish and British governments who dangled carrots and sticks in front of all participants to inch the process forward.
In the Middle East the United States plays a radically different role. Despite all the hullabaloo over Obama’s UNSC abstention the US recently signed off on the largest aid package in Israel’s history. US support for Egypt and Jordan remains contingent on both States maintaining peace with Israel. In the US view stability in the Middle East is centered around protection of Israel’s interests. But the US has tried to create peace under the pretence of being an honest broker when, manifestly, it is not.
Activists concerned with Palestinian rights have long been critical of the US position. They have aspired for the US to play that role of ‘honest broker’. But ever since John F. Kennedy first released military aid to Israel this ideal has been a fantasy. But, now, with the swearing in of President Trump the United States will finally take an honest position.
During the early days of his election Trump seemed an uncertain champion of Israel’s positions. But as the election wore on it became apparent that Trump would be influenced by his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who is linked to wealthy US financiers of the settler movement. Trump’s new Ambassador David Friedman also has links to the Settler movement. Trump’s pronouncements on the re-location of the US Embassy, in line with the the ‘Jerusalem Recognition Act’, point towards a historic shift in US policy on Jerusalem. Trump’s very public critique of Obama’s UN abstention has led a nervous British government to shift its own Middle East position – breaking stride with 70 other States at the Paris Peace Conference. It all suggests Donald Trump will be a devout supporter of Netanyahu’s world view. Unlike many concerned with Palestinian rights, I welcome all of that. It draws the diplomatic battle-lines honestly. After decades of faux-prevarication by the US we now have an administration which will act in public as it does in private.
Initially, the consequences of this may seem overwhelming. Palestinians are correct to fear that Trump’s administration will give carte-blanche to Netanyahu’s government to construct settlements as it sees fit and to launch attacks on Gaza whenever the saws of the Israeli military need sharpening.
But on the geo-political level it opens up a new space to be filled by another party who can bring power to the table to guarantee the interests of the Palestinians. The obvious choice for this third-party is not any of the chaotic Arab States, nor Iran (occasional backer of Hamas). Rather the obvious choice to re-constitute the power vacuum created by the shift to US honesty is the European Union.
The EU believes the ongoing failure to secure Palestinian sovereignty is the primary wound which has infected the rest of the region. On the other hand Israel increasingly views the EU’s approach, especially on settlements, with increasing suspicion and relations continue to slowly sour. Instead of trying to placate the Israeli government the EU should stand firmly behind an assertion of Palestinian rights. Having a strong international backer in their corner would empower the Palestinians to take risks for peace knowing that the exchange of risk – upon which peace is built – would be underwritten by the US and the EU, each one representing their own interests and the interests of their proxy.
Strong EU support for Palestinian rights would serve as the ideal counter-balance to American-weight in the region. It is a space that can only open up now that Trump is in power and only because in the Middle East, as in the election campaign, we should let Trump be Trump.