The Washington Post Column

The Ulster Example

Are Israel and Northern Ireland similar? The short answer is no, and the reasons — religious, cultural and political — hardly need listing. There is a longer, more interesting answer as well, however: No, they are not similar, but the dynamics of war and peace in both places are very similar indeed.

The incident that reminded me of this strange likeness was the terrible funeral, last weekend, of two boys who died in the suicide bomb attack on an Israeli hotel in Kenya. Their father, Rami Anter, told the crowd not to cry: He didn’t, he said, want Israel’s enemies to get “motivation” from pictures of mourners. The mayor of Ariel, their West Bank settlement, vowed that “we will beat the terror and win.” Once again, provoked by murder, Israelis vowed to fight back even harder.

The sentiments aren’t surprising, and they aren’t unjustified. This is a war that Israel and the Palestinians are fighting, even if it isn’t a war fought with conventional weapons or within conventional boundaries. In a war, an attack justifies a response. Palestinian suicide bombs justify Israeli raids on the houses of suspected terrorists, they justify assassinations of terrorist leaders, and they justify the targeting of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. They also justify the Israeli Likud party’s renomination of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon last weekend. After all, Sharon has always believed that the Palestinians could be defeated militarily, and that, in a war, is a legitimate position.

In a similar way, and for similar reasons, the British government’s harsher tactics in Northern Ireland were also justified. When, in 1971, the British began to intern terrorist suspects without trial in Northern Ireland, they were justified by the IRA’s terror campaign. When, in 1981, they allowed IRA terrorists to starve themselves to death in prison, that was justified, too.

Yes, a military response to terrorism is justified — but does it always work? That is a very different question and one to which the British, by the middle of the 1980s, had begun to formulate a different answer. In part because harsh action against the IRA served to make the IRA more popular, in part because terrorism continued, and in part because she was a pragmatist, Margaret Thatcher in 1985 signed the Anglo-Irish Agreement, involving the Irish government in negotiations. A furor followed: The agreement seemed to many Northern Irish Protestants both an act of treachery and a “reward” for terrorism, and it led to mass strikes and protest all over the province.

Although it certainly doesn’t seem to be the case at the moment, we could be approaching a similar point in the Middle East. As I say, the Israeli support for Ariel Sharon’s tactics is, in part, emotional, and rightly so: His raids on Palestinian communities are popular because they are justified. But many Israelis support Sharon also because they believe he will be effective. Even during the illusory years of the Oslo peace process, there were Israelis who continued to perpetuate the myth of “Arik,” the man who would come back, win the war against the Palestinians and bring what Sharon himself called “peace, true peace . . . peace that will protect us.” That myth, which remained part of the national consciousness throughout Oslo, is what got him elected last year.

Yet, at some point, the myth of Arik will have to confront the reality of Prime Minister Sharon, who has now delivered several surprise attacks but has not won the war. That confrontation may take place during the coming Israeli election campaign, which, starting this week, pits Sharon against Amram Mitzna, the first Israeli leader to put forward a credible challenge to the military option in some time. Mitzna has called recent Israeli raids on Arafat’s headquarters “ridiculous” — because they were ineffective — and he openly proposes a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from occupied territory.

The confrontation may not happen so soon. But if the majority of Israelis do lose faith in the military option — and they will eventually, if terrorism continues — there will certainly be cries of treachery and cowardice from the minority who haven’t. Listen to them, but with care. British politicians resigned in protest against the Anglo-Irish Agreement, which wound up becoming the kernel of the current Irish peace settlement. Fifteen years after Thatcher’s brave and surprising decision, the IRA has been outflanked, and Ireland, while not wholly cured, is on the mend. Far from being the decision of a weak leader, sometimes it takes an unusually brave one to recognize the difference between legitimacy and effectiveness.