In what is being seen as Tony Blair's valedictory address to his American fan club, the speech yesterday at Georgetown University contained one argument that came across as making the opposite point to what was intended:
The frustrating thing is that whatever people say, everyone knows the following: the state of Israel is here to stay; the Palestinian people aren't going to disappear; and the only possible solution is two states, side by side. In fact, when President Bush became the first US President openly to articulate this, everyone more or less accepted it. The problem we have had in Northern Ireland is that there has never been agreement on the basic nature of the final outcome, one part wanting Union with the UK, the other with the Republic of Ireland. Nonetheless we have achieved extraordinary progress, by relentless working at it through every stop and start. In the case of Israel and Palestine, we do now have agreement as to the basic nature of the settlement: two states. Yes, there are innumerable difficult aspects, not least Jerusalem and of course a negotiation about territory; but the constitutional outcome is essentially agreed.
This was by way of his general theme that progress in world peace is primarily a matter of establishing common values, and the rest flows from that. But look at his argument to see the problem: if he's right, then peace between Israel and Palestine should be easier than in Northern Ireland, since in the former, everyone is apparently agreed on the final outcome whereas in the latter, they're not.
Now while some might argue that in fact Britain is implementing a two-state solution in Northern Ireland via Peter Hain's super-councils, the comparison also illustrates something else: politically motivated violence can be curtailed when the "hard men" think they can get more from sitting around a table than from killing people. We'd argue that most civil conflicts in the world have ended not because of some sudden alignment around a final outcome, but because the combatants (to the extent that they could) traded off another year of fighting with the prospect of some concessions and relative peace and quiet, and decided they liked the latter more. Final outcomes could eventually wait.
Hence the IRA's acceptance of a peace deal not hugely different from 1974, but the intervening period showing that nothing better was coming. But conversely, Blair's misplaced optimism about the Middle East. With Israel shifting to a unilateral peace strategy, there is nothing on offer to hardline Palestinian groups. Whatever "peace" comes will be due to the efficiency of the Israeli counter-terrorism strategy. But unlike Northern Ireland, there is no default outcome for the disaffected group that they can live with.