On Thursday night Col. Desmond Travers, the Irish member of the Goldstone mission, will be speaking in New York. (Click here or the image above if you want to get a ticket.) Yesterday I phoned him at his home in the Republic of Ireland to ask about why George Mitchell was successful in the Irish troubles but failed in the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Here’s what Travers said:
“I am not at all the least surprised by George Mitchell’s resignation. For I understand the structural impediments to his work in Israel and Palestine.
“To quote Mitchell himself, he had 700 days of failure and one day of success in northern Ireland. He showed a phenomenal comprehension of the steps that could be achieved incrementally with two communities that were implacably opposed to the idea of settlement and of the compromises that an approach to settlement would entail. And he has a genius for timing. He knew precisely when to throw an additional possibility that might just be attainable into the works.
“And the net result? We haven’t had violence since the northern Ireland accords were signed in 1998. Today you see the representatives of extreme loyalism and extreme Republicanism sitting side by side hammering out the business of statehood, and they were reelected only a week ago. The best and worst that can be said about the accords are that we are better off now than when people were blowing one another up and shooting each other. And it is quite amazing to see these sides horsetrading in democratic fora and doing it quite well. No one would have predicted that.”
So why didn’t this approach work in Israel and Palestine? Travers, the grandson of an Irish revolutionary in the years 1917-1921, points to the Irish and Jewish Diasporas in the United States.
“Diaspora Irish-Americans wanted a peace. The troubles reflected negatively on them, and they wanted them ended. In the multicultural world of the United States, nobody outside the Irish experience could comprehend anything other than Irish as troublesome, violent, aggressive terrorists, and people outside the Irish milieu were not in a position to make distinctions about cause and effect. And so when an emissary with an enormous amount of clout arrived in Ireland he didn’t have to look over his shoulder at the Diaspora Irish who were saying, we don’t want this to happen.”
By contrast, Mitchell spent a lot of his time in Israel and Palestine worrying about Diaspora Jewry, who questioned his efforts.
Also crucial was the end of Diaspora support for Irish terrorism. In the United States and in England, funding Irish republican causes became illegal. “I’m quite certain that American Jews subscribe to Israeli fundraising without being quite aware that some of that funding may not be appropriate, in the very way that Diaspora Irish were funding violence.”
“You have to convince the wider Diaspora community that a resolution is in the Jewish people’s and in Israel’s best interest. I don’t think you can convince Israel of that.” Why not? Travers lived in Israel for several years in the 80s as a military adviser to peacekeeping missions. He says the country is too caught up in a security mindset, convinced that it is surrounded by enemies, and the entire military-industrial culture of the country is built on that understanding, which also generates social “cohesion and camaraderie.”
Can Travers extract optimism for Israel/Palestine from the ending of the Irish troubles?
“I had no optimism whatsoever for George Mitchell’s venture into Northern Ireland.” And yet today the ancient divisions are softening. “For over 300 years we have had institutionalized multigenerational prejudices accumulated in our hearts. The two communities are still entrenched, but they are not shooting each other.”
But there is Partition between the largely-Catholic Republic of Ireland and majority-Protestant Northern Ireland.
“Partition in Ireland was determined by an exiting empire that [in 1921] made compromises to serve the residual majority that was pro-empire, to give them a foothold in Ireland.”
And yet Partition will not last more than a century, he says. Because of the larger forces that are driving the sides together throughout Europe. Ireland and England now need each other economically. And “the two governments are absolutely marching in step.” These processes, he said, will melt multigenerational enmities created by Reformation and Counter-Reformation, and European empire and colony, conflicts that played out in Ireland longer than anywhere else in Europe. “We are steeped in the past, when others had moved on.”
Shouldn’t there be Partition between Israel and Palestine?
It might work, Travers said, if there were a division in keeping with the 67 lines, making two viable states. But he has grave doubts.
“I am not entirely convinced that a single religious entity in the entirety of a state is in the best interests of the society that aspires to that. There is inherent prejudice in it, for starters, inherent racism in it, a propensity to draconian laws that exclude rather than include. And there is a historical propensity toward corruption, in cronyism.”
I said, You are a Roman Catholic, though, in a largely-Catholic state. Travers said the RC on his identity disc now stands for Re Considering (especially in light of the child abuse scandals in the church).
“I can say that my grandfather’s dream of a single Roman Catholic republic with an anti-British stance has outlived its purpose.
“And I would say that the great dynamism and innovation of the Jewish community may be stultified and hindered in a single religious state apparatus. The magnificent Jewish creations of the west have arisen in a multicultural environment. We’ve seen that over the last 500 years. That is the Jewish forte.”
I asked one more question about George Mitchell’s failure, but Travers objected.
“I would hate to describe George Mitchell as having failed– as I would not say that Richard Goldstone recanted. It is not for an Irishman to say that Geore Mitchell has failed– a man who did what he did over 700 days here.
“As we are speaking the Queen of England is coming to Ireland. Imagine that. This is not something that has happened in 100 years. And so the strongest statement I would make is that George Mitchell did not achieve success in Israel and Palestine.”