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Mixed Irish Blessing

Obama's peace negotiator thinks his success in Northern Ireland should give us hope in the Middle East. But does the analogy really hold?

The prospect of next week's direct talks between Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu offers no obvious grounds for enthusiasm, or even hope. Abbas has agreed to the talks with a reluctance that seems to border on dread, while Netanyahu, his public firmly behind him, feels little pressure to make real concessions. Middle East experts have set expectations at subbasement levels. But George Mitchell, U.S. President Barack Obama's special envoy to the Middle East, believes he knows something the handicappers don't: With enough patience and persistence, you can bring the most bitter enemies to see their common interest. That was the lesson he learned from his role in the Northern Ireland peace process in the 1990s. "We had about 700 days of failure and one day of success," as he put it recently. As then, so now: "Past efforts at peace that did not succeed cannot deter us from trying again."

Having conducted successful negotiations under very trying conditions not only in Northern Ireland but between baseball's owners and players, Mitchell has earned a right to his quiet and undemonstrative optimism. Hopefulness is itself an important ingredient for negotiations: You often have to believe in the possibility of a successful outcome more than the adversaries do just to get them talking to one another. In short, we should not want Mitchell to feel any less positive about the Middle East than he apparently does. But that's different from the question of whether his hopefulness is justified. Does the Northern Ireland peace process offer a meaningful precedent for next week's talks? What are the lessons of Mitchell's first foray into global diplomacy, which were crowned with success in 1998?

It's not hard to see why Mitchell would draw hope from the analogy. By the time then-President Bill Clinton appointed him as an envoy in 1994, the Catholic "loyalists" and Protestant "unionists" had spent decades killing and maiming each other, as well as innocent civilians on both sides. Their fight was not over land, as in the Middle East, but over the status of their country: The Catholics wanted to join largely Catholic Ireland, while the Protestants  wanted to remain within the United Kingdom. But as in the Middle East, religious differences had deeply envenomed a struggle over conflicting national aspirations. As Mitchell writes in Making Peace, his account of his role in the process, "Centuries of conflict have generated hatreds that make it virtually impossible for the two communities to trust each another.... Each assumes the worst about the other." As Nancy Soderberg, then Clinton's deputy national security advisor, puts it, Mitchell "forced them to see that there was a win-win side to moving forward, that it didn't have to be a zero-sum game." Mitchell's gifts for getting adversaries to see reason are "directly transferable" to the Middle East, Soderberg told me.

The negotiations themselves at times sound eerily familiar: The endless, sterile fight over process, over the ground rules for discussion, the preliminary agenda, the final agenda, consumed the overwhelming fraction of those 700 days. Extremists on both sides kept trying to derail the talks through calculated acts of violence. As a "precondition" to talks, unionists demanded that the Irish Republican Army (IRA), the Catholic paramilitary, "decommission" its weapons. The loyalists insisted, as Israel now does, on negotiation without precondition. Mitchell ultimately cut the Gordian knot by persuading both sides to accept a set of principles, including a commitment to "democratic and exclusively peaceful means of resolving political issues" and total and verifiable disarmament of paramilitaries on both sides. The two sides then agreed to hold "proximity" talks with the British and Irish governments before moving on to direct negotiations.

And now, after 18 months, Mitchell has brought the Israelis and the Palestinians to the same point. The lesson he seems to draw from his experience in Northern Ireland is: Don't surrender to the apparent hopelessness of the situation. If you insist on preserving forward motion, good things will happen. But you can draw another, very different lesson from Mitchell's own account. The reason both sides ultimately agreed to painful concessions, he writes, was that "the vast majority of people had had enough" of funerals and violence and were desperate for peace. Although extremists remained, hard-liners on both sides had already backed off their maximalist demand: the IRA for a united Ireland, the unionists for a Protestant-controlled north. The remaining stakes, though fiercely contested, were susceptible to difference-splitting: How would an elected assembly in the North protect the rights of the Catholic minority, and under what terms would the new Northern institutions be bound to Ireland?

Another way of understanding the lesson of Northern Ireland is thus: Readiness is all. The adversaries must conclude that their maximalist demands stand in the way of a peaceful settlement. Abbas has arguably reached this point, which is why he has agreed to engage in direct talks after fruitlessly insisting on clear "terms of reference," above all an end to Israeli settlement-building and a return to pre-1967 borders. In the face of public skepticism bordering on hostility, Abbas accepted a statement by the Mideast "Quartet" that simply reaffirms an earlier commitment to direct negotiations that "lead to a settlement ... that ends the occupation which began in 1967." Hamas, which occupies a position analogous to that of the IRA, has repudiated the talks and remains formally committed to Israel's destruction. As an Israeli official puts it, "The IRA was looking at the end of the day to negotiate with the British, which you can't say of Hamas, and of Syria and Hezbollah and other parties to the conflict." Instead, the hard-liners plan to make hay from the failure of these latest talks.

But Israel's position constitutes an equal and reciprocal obstacle to peace. Israel is the occupying power in Palestine, as Britain was in Northern Ireland. But well before Mitchell came along, the British had undergone a drastic change of heart. In the 1993 Downing Street Declaration, Britain forswore any "selfish strategic or economic interest in Northern Ireland" and pledged to permit the people to determine their own fate. Successive British governments made painful concessions to bring the Troubles to an end. Israel's position of course is scarcely analogous because its very survival as a state is at risk, but neither the Netanyahu government nor the broader public has proved willing to make the concessions, above all on settlements, that would strengthen Abbas's hands vis-à-vis Hamas and his own public. Meanwhile, irreversible "facts on the ground" accumulate. Although it's often said that "everyone knows" what a peace deal would look like, the settlement policy is well on its way to turning a two-state solution into a dead letter. There are now roughly half a million Israeli settlers in the West Bank. It's virtually unimaginable that Israel will dismantle enough of their homes to allow a viable Palestinian state to exist, given how difficult it was to extricate just a few thousand Israelis from Gaza.

The comparison of the two situations only points to the much greater intractability of Israel/Palestine and to the limits under which a talented and dedicated negotiator like Mitchell operates. But does that mean that the Obama administration should let the two sides keep clawing at each other until their weary publics call for peace? That may be necessary; but given the neighborhood, it's a very dangerous proposition. The plight of the Palestinians fuels hatred of both Israel and the United States across the Islamic world. Indeed, the larger Arab region is a party to any settlement in a way that has no analogy at all to the situation in Ireland. One of the few hopeful aspects of next week's talks is that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Jordan's King Abdullah II have agreed to attend. Abbas cannot make any concessions at all without cover from the major Arab states. The only way to marginalize Hamas would be through such a broad endorsement of any possible outcome. Only if Hamas were marginalized could Israel be persuaded to act in ways that might otherwise be seen to jeopardize its safety. Neither Mubarak nor Abdullah has much of a following among Arab publics, so it's a very slender reed, but there aren't any other kind of reeds in the Middle East.

Whether with Iran, Syria, or Lebanon, not to mention Iraq or Afghanistan, the Obama administration has discovered how very frustrating it is to try to shape good outcomes in the region. Next week may mark the beginning of another such exercise in painful education. George Mitchell will need all the hopefulness, and all the patience, he can muster.

MIGUEL MEDINA/AFP/Getty Images

Terms of Engagement

The Georgia Syndrome

Two years after a disastrous war, Tbilisi is booming, but Georgians remain on edge, for one overriding reason: They're not sure Barack Obama loves them enough.

Over the course of the last week, Russia has celebrated the second anniversary of its war with Georgia in typical style: A visit by President Dmitry Medvedev to the breakaway province of Abkhazia, which Russia now recognizes as an independent country, and the announcement by a Russian general that the air force had stationed in Abkhazia the S-300, a highly sophisticated anti-aircraft system, to counter unspecified Georgian threats. While the Georgians, who tend to treat each new act of Russian provocation as a prelude to apocalypse, reacted with alarm, a State Department spokesman waved off the S-300 as old news. President Barack Obama's administration has tried -- successfully, so far -- to strike a balance between defending Georgia and preserving the "reset" with Russia. But what will it do if Russia simply refuses to withdraw from territories seized in an illegal and unjust war?

Grossly inferior to Russia in all matters of hard power, Georgia enjoys a crushing soft-power advantage that the Russians must find both bewildering and infuriating. Like Israel, Georgia is a country that many Americans find impossible to think about rationally. Visitors to Tbilisi, the country's charming and ancient capital, quickly succumb to Georgia Syndrome, a blissful capitulation to hand-on-heart sentimentality, sodden feasts, Mitteleuropean boulevards, and passionate devotion to Western values in the face of threats both real and imagined. I've been half in the bag myself since writing an account of the run-up to the war in the New York Times that President Mikheil Saakashvili apparently found highly satisfying. I'm in Tbilisi now at the invitation of the government to deliver a series of lectures, though really to visit my son, who is working as a summer intern with the Ministry of Finance.

It's not just me, of course. When George W. Bush came here in 2005, he danced a little jig of happiness that made him an instant national hero -- and the namesake of Tbilisi's George W. Bush Avenue. Georgia quickly became the unofficial mascot of the president's crusade for democracy; Bush supported providing Georgia a path to NATO membership in the teeth of furious Russian opposition. (He failed.) Sen. John McCain nominated Saakashvili for the Nobel Peace Prize in honor of Saakashvili's central role in the 2003 "Rose Revolution" that brought democracy to Georgia, and Saakashvili to power. (Then-Senator Hillary Clinton was co-nominator.) McCain remains a single-minded Georgia booster: His recent Washington Post op-ed, in which he alleged that the Obama administration "has appeared more eager to placate an autocratic Russia than to support a friendly Georgian democracy," was reprinted in full in the Messenger, Georgia's highly pro-government English-language daily.

Georgian leaders take a more sanguine view, at least publicly. Temuri Yakobashvili, Georgia's minister for reintegration and a Saakashvili intimate who shares many of his boss's leading traits -- total self-assurance, reckless candor, and spontaneous wit -- said to me, "We believe that the Obama administration is not selling out Georgia." As a candidate, Obama issued a sharp -- if ever so slightly belated -- condemnation of the invasion, and as president he has been unambiguous in his repudiation of Russia's de facto annexation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the breakaway region where the 2008 war began. Yakobashvili and others were much reassured last month when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Tbilisi and bluntly described the ongoing Russian presence in the two regions as "occupation."

Nevertheless, Georgia has not yet had the chance to work its voodoo on Obama, and Georgians fret that this dispassionate and unfamiliar figure is not the type to succumb to the Syndrome. Insiders worry that while Michael McFaul, the National Security Council (NSC) official responsible for Russia and Eurasia, is philo-Georgian -- McFaul once worked in Georgia for the National Democratic Institute -- Denis McDonough, Obama's longtime advisor and McFaul's superior at the NSC, is a cold-hearted realist. Outsiders ask whether Obama has discarded the principle of "Eurocentrism," which is code for "Western values," or whether he is prepared to sacrifice Georgia to the reset with Russia.

Like Israelis, Georgians are plagued by the uneasy sense that their claims on the United States are moral rather than strategic. Yakobashvili makes the wild assertion that the Russian presence in the South Caucasus threatens NATO's commitment to stopping terrorism, organized crime, and nuclear proliferation -- he says that Russian passports issued to Ossetians have been found on Chechen separatists -- but the truth is that the current stalemate is hardly destabilizing. When I asked Irakli Porchkhidze, deputy secretary of Georgia's national security council, why the West should pressure Russia to withdraw from Abkhazia and South Ossetia, he said, "Russia has violated the principle of the inviolability of borders; Russia has engaged in ethnic cleansing. Are these not human rights issues?"

The answer is yes, mostly. The ethnic cleansing in question occurred chiefly during the savage civil war of the early 1990s, when forces on all sides committed atrocities. But though disputes remain over who fired the first shot in 2008, in the course of the war Russia violated Georgia's territorial integrity as brutally and unequivocally as Iraq did Kuwait's in 1990. And despite signing a cease-fire agreement requiring both sides to withdraw from the disputed region, Russia has maintained thousands of troops in the region, held the territories as dependencies, and flaunted its contempt for the agreement by moves like the announcement of the S-300, which serves no conceivable defensive purpose. "Our air force has like three and a half planes," Yakobashvili said to me. "What are they going to shoot down -- UFOs?"

Georgia really does pose a problem for its friends. Most of its neighbors in the post-Soviet space have knuckled under to Russia's demand for regional hegemony. Georgia, defiantly, has not. Many of those not wholly under the spell of Georgia Syndrome have urged Saakashvili to stop taunting Russia and its volcanic prime minister, Vladimir Putin; to put aside his aspirations to join NATO; and to mute his strident nationalism. In a recent Financial Times op-ed, Thomas de Waal, a regional expert, suggested that Russia is seeking its own "reset" with the West, which could well include reconciliation with Georgia, but added that such change would be impossible so long as Saakashvili, "the sworn enemy of Moscow," as de Waal put it, remained in office. (His tenure runs to 2013.)

Saakashvili is a tempestuous and reckless figure, but Georgians seem to like him that way. He's recouped some, though hardly all, of his popularity from the fiasco of the war, which Georgia lost quickly and decisively, and his opposition is hopelessly divided. The country is booming, and Saakashvili is erecting mighty public works to cement his claim as the second coming of David the Builder, the great 12th-century Georgian leader he has vowed to emulate. He may run as prime minister when his presidential tenure expires, as Putin did (a comparison Saakashvili would not care to encourage). He is, in short scarcely an alien presence. Moreover, it's not too easy to find the alleged signs of Russian moderation toward its neighbors. Putin's Russia -- or Medvedev's -- seems to want compliance, not reconciliation. If Russia's goal were simply to liberate the Abkhaz and Ossetian people from the Georgian yoke, some kind of solution involving substantial autonomy might well be found. But if Russia's goal is to bring Georgia to heel, then it will not withdraw its military presence in the region save under concerted pressure from the West.

And there's the rub. If Russia makes another bid to crush Georgia, the West may react. But what if Moscow is content simply to consolidate its gains? European leaders, many of whom depend on Russia for oil and natural gas, will hardly deem the stalemate sufficient cause to jeopardize relations with Russia. A McCain administration might sacrifice arms control or Iran policy to the great cause of Georgia's sovereign integrity, but neither Obama nor any other president not under the spell of the Syndrome would do so. Russia's occupation of Georgian territory is one of those abuses that one must keep insisting is unacceptable -- even as, in practice, one accepts it, and waits for the moment when compromise solutions become possible.

This is the kind of reality Georgian leaders, so addicted to maximalist claims, need to hear from their friends rather than their adversaries. As we were leaving our conversation at the bar of the Tbilisi Marriott, Yakobashvili told me something an ambassador had recently said to him: "We love Georgia, but we will not love you unconditionally."

JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images