Whether the peace process in Northern Ireland is of real benefit to bringing peace to the Middle East has suddenly become a hot topic in diplomatic circles. Since the appointment of George Mitchell as Mideast special envoy there has been an increased focus in the world press on Mitchell's role in securing the Good Friday Agreement, and what that may portend for the Middle East. The Jerusalem Post, for instance, has carried two articles in the past week arguing that Mitchell's experience in Northern Ireland will not be helpful to him in the Middle East. Journalist Ed Moloney, who became noted for mis-calling the Irish peace process on numerous occasions, stated categorically in the Israeli paper that Mitchell actually had little to do with forging the final agreement, and that it merely suited both the British and Irish governments to pretend he did. Moloney is again rewriting history here. Mitchell was the glue that held the talks together through the time of greatest stress as the landmark Good Friday Agreement was finally being cobbled together. At precisely the right moment, as the parties vacillated, Mitchell called an end to the negotiations and forced all parties to choose to either sign or walk. It was a gutsy call that neither the British or Irish governments could or would ever have made, and it succeeded against all the odds. Was he the only architect of the deal? Of course not, but without him and his incredible sense of timing and fairness to all sides it could not have happened. An op-ed article by Irish journalist Sean Gannon called "Resist the Irish Model" in The Jerusalem Post stated categorically that the notion of talking to Hamas, the way British, Irish and Americans talked to the IRA, would be a huge mistake. "Given that the U.S. complicity played a major role in legitimizing the spurious Sinn Fein/IRA divide, Washington's insistence that Hamas cannot 'have one foot in politics and the other in terror' should be treated with caution," Gannon writes. Gannon is completely wrong. There was a real Sinn Fein/IRA divide. I know because for two years, leading up to the Gerry Adams visa, I was the interlocutor between the Republican movement and the White House and got to know the inside working of the Republican movement as well as any outsider could. Like any movement there were hawks and doves, those who saw a political approach as the only way to progress their goals, and those who were convinced that the only way forward was to continue the military war against the British. The genius of Adams and a few others was the ability to patrol that narrow path between the two sides and eventually bring the vast majority of them together in a common policy approach. The subsequent split off by a few leading figures into the Continuity and Real IRA splinter groups proves the point about the deep division. Keeping the movement 99% together and united was an extraordinary feat by Adams and McGuinness. Gannon is worried because several senior American officials, including Richard Haass, former Middle East adviser to the senior George Bush and U.S. special envoy to Northern Ireland under President George W. Bush, has argued that Israel must "find a way to gradually bring them (Hamas) into the (political) tent" and that Washington "ought to sit down with Hamas officials, much as they have with the leaders of (Irish Republicanism." Gannon also points out that "former British Prime Minister Tony Blair (who will be working closely with Mitchell) has also recently been citing Northern Ireland as a valuable precedent for Middle East peace, and his chief of staff at the time of the Belfast negotiations, Jonathan Powell, has said that Britain should be talking to Hamas and even to al-Qaeda." Blair and Haass and Powell are exactly right that Israel must involve Hamas in negotiations. They have won democratic elections, elections that were propelled into being by the U.S. as well as the regional powers. Hamas should be talked to. Otherwise what price democracy? Mitchell will instinctively understand that from his time in Ireland. The fact that Mitchell and his boss, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, have the experience of Northern Ireland to draw on when seeking to resolve the conflict in the Middle East is of tremendous benefit to them. Anyone who believes differently is simply uniformed.

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