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Saturday 2 December 2023 Dublin: 2°C
Alamy Stock Photo An Israeli soldier stands in an apartment during a ground operation in the Gaza Strip, Wednesday, Nov. 8, 2023.

Bobby McDonagh on Israel/Gaza 'Peace requires both sides to accept that they can never win'

The former Irish ambassador says Israel and Hamas both believe victory is possible, and this will only lead to more conflict.

LAST UPDATE | Nov 10th 2023, 6:10 AM

I ONCE ASKED Martin McGuinness what had made the peace process possible. He mentioned two factors.

First, he said, the IRA had been reading the doctorates being written by British army officers at UK universities which were all reaching the conclusion that a British military victory was not possible. The IRA, he said, was likewise obliged to look at the reality of the conflict and it came to the same conclusion about its own campaign. Second, given that victory for neither side was possible, there was an awareness that, without a peace agreement, at least another generation in Northern Ireland would be condemned to suffer.

While there are very limited parallels between the IRA and the Palestinian struggle, watching the horror unfolding in Israel last month and now in Gaza has reminded me of both of the factors mentioned by McGuinness.

His first comment concerned power. Both sides of the conflict in Northern Ireland had come, belatedly, to understand their own inability to emerge militarily triumphant. This perception, alas, is absent from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Peace requires an understanding by both parties to any conflict of the limits of their power and of the impossibility of total victory.

Power, unchecked

Israel understandably feels that it is under an existential threat. However, it also seems to have believed for many decades, especially under Prime Minister Netanyahu, that its overwhelming military power in the region, especially given US backing, does not require any serious compromise on its part.

This misjudgement has been reflected in its relentless, illegal and ever-expanding occupation of land that belongs to Palestinians.

If Israeli governments had not had such a sense of their own absolute power, of their potential for military domination, they would have moved long ago – as the parties in Northern Ireland eventually did – to seek compromise with their opponents. They would have explored ways of living peacefully with their Palestinian neighbours rather than inflicting further injustice on them.

That same sense of absolute power seems to shape the Israeli Government’s current approach in Gaza. Blinded by entirely understandable anger at the grotesque Hamas attacks on 7 October, it apparently believes that its overwhelming military strength, deployed in a self-evidently disproportionate way, will enable it to eliminate Hamas and to guarantee Israel’s future security purely through the force of arms.

While they may succeed in eliminating the current leadership of Hamas, they are at the same time radicalising not just one more generation of Palestinians but probably several.

Hamas, driven by its fanatical ideology and supported by Iran, has similarly deluded itself into believing that, someday, it will be able to achieve military victory. This madness led to their evil assault on Israeli civilians last month and contributed directly, and probably deliberately, to the suffering now being inflicted on Gaza.

As long as either or both parties to the conflict believe that they are powerful enough, in their different ways, to achieve a definitive outright military victory, the peace that all the people of the region deserve will remain a mirage.

Global political weakness

One potential source of real power in the Middle East is the United States. Militarily and economically, the US could have compelled Israeli governments over the years to seek peace. In particular, they could have blocked the extension of illegal Israeli settlements on the West Bank which are stealing more and more land from Palestinians, even as I write this article. The US has the power, even today, to put an immediate stop to those settlements which make real peace progressively harder to achieve.

To be fair, the US does use its tentative influence in that regard from time to time but, crucially, it does not use its power.

The real constraint on the exercise of US power does not lie in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem or in the region more generally. It lies in the United States where the hands of US Governments are still tied by a significant and influential section of public opinion.

It does seem as if Joe Biden is doing his best. He’s certainly a huge improvement on Trump who, as always, deliberately poured oil on the fire, including by provocatively moving the US Embassy to Jerusalem. Biden’s Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken, likewise, comes over as a decent man as he undertakes his shuttle diplomacy around the region. However, Biden and Blinken both have their hands tied behind their backs by domestic politics.

Politics of peace

McGuinness’s second point was about the effect that the ongoing conflict in Northern Ireland would have on another generation of children. Blinken was, I believe, sincere when he said recently that the death of each Palestinian child affects him personally, given that he has children of his own.

However, more than 4,000 Palestinian children have already been killed in recent days; more than 8,000 have been injured; and perhaps every child in Gaza has been traumatised for life. Yet Blinken finds himself obliged to insist that the US has set “no red lines” for Israel, something, were it not for domestic opinion, it could easily do.

I doubt if Blinken believes that setting “no red lines” is either the moral approach or in US interests.

The Israeli government is thus left free for the moment to pursue its illusion of military victory. In the short term, they will, of course, win. But in the longer term, lasting peace will necessarily involve justice for Palestinians as well as security for Israelis. If that is to happen, the United States will be obliged, at long last, to confront Israel’s dangerous sense of invincibility with its own power and values.

John Le Carré wrote, several decades ago, a fictional account of the bombing of a Palestinian refugee camp. He observed that an Israeli claim that the attack had killed only terrorist leaders was untrue “unless they meant future leaders for many of the dead were children”.

Bobby McDonagh is a former Irish Ambassador to the EU, UK and Italy. He is an executive coach and commentator on subjects around EU and Brexit.