Monday, January 26, 2009

The Luck of the Palestinians

Since Obama became prez, things are looking up for the Palestinians:-

Obama has just made former senator George Mitchell his Middle East envoy. Media accounts here suggest he's eminently qualified for (as one journalist put it) "the hardest job on the planet" because a) he headed peace negotiations between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Island that led to the 1998 Good Friday accord; and b) he wrote a report, which dared to name names, on illegal steroid use in baseball. Impressive, no?

The 'Yes we can' Mitchell is very much evident in the following sound-byte. Here's how it was reported in The Sydney Morning Herald: "[Mitchell] also noted by way of a joke, that the 800 years of fighting in Northern Ireland made it a relatively young dispute compared with the Middle East. 'Eight hundred years may be recent, but from my experience there, I formed a conviction that there is no such thing as a conflict that can't be ended'." (Envoy, 75, says 'yes we can' end conflict, Ann Davies, 24/1/09) And here is The Australian's version: "A story told by Mitchell yesterday puts his new challenge into perspective. On a recent trip to Israel, he gave a speech about Northern Ireland and what it was like trying to resolve the enmities that had been passed from generation to generation. After the speech, an Israeli man came up to him. How long had that dispute been going on, he asked. Mitchell replied: 800 years. The Israeli man said: such a short time." (Best chance for Mid-East peace, John Lyons, 24/1/09) Bonza story, George, Did the typically witty Israeli shrug his shoulders too?

Now as much as I hate to spoil a party, in my capacity as MERC I'm obliged to pick Mitchell up on this particular sound-byte. If Santayana is correct in his assertion that Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it, then I'm afraid that, if for no other reason (and that's another story), his inability to remember the past could mean that, like all who have gone before him, his efforts will be in vain.

There are two aspects to Mitchell's ignorance of history here. The obvious one relates to Palestinian history, where he is quoted as saying that the problem of Northern Ireland, at 800 years (and I'll get to that in a minute), is younger than the Palestine problem, the implication being that the conflict in Palestine is one whose origins are somehow swathed in the proverbial mists of time. If Mitchell really believes this rubbish, then he is clearly not qualified to be Middle East peace envoy.

So just how old is the Palestine problem, or Middle East conflict, or Arab-Israeli dispute - call it what you will? Only 92 years old if we reckon from Britain's idiotic Balfour Declaration of 1917, promising the nascent Zionist movement a Jewish 'homeland' in Palestine, or, if we take it from the Zionist takeover of 78% of Palestine in 1948, a mere 60 years old. Has Mitchell ever read one reputable study of the issue? Just one for Christ's sake? It appears not. If that sound-byte is anything to go by, Obama's 'We can do peace' man hasn't got a clue as to how Palestine became a problem in the first place. How reassuring.

But that's not all. Remember the bit about the Northern Ireland problem being 800 years old? Really? There was an Anglo-Norman invasion of Ireland in the 12th Century, but as Irish historian Liam de Paor has pointed out "Late medieval Ulster was for the most part Gaelic... and beyond English law." (Divided Ulster, 1970, p 3) In fact, to move forward, "Ulster at the beginning of the 17th century was... the last Gaelic area to come under the control of the English administration. Its economy was pastoral.. It had no towns. For a thousand years its people had lived under Irish law... For a thousand years they had, in their own fashion... been Christian - Catholic. There were ancient churches, there were medieval friaries and abbeys. There were some, a few, stone castles, but lake dwellings and raths were still inhabited and had been defended in the war [of Hugh O'Neill, Earl of Tyrone, against Queen Elizabeth]. The Reformation had made as little headway as other innovations among the Ulster forests. The long war had brought hunger, disease, and... despair. England now had a king who was king of Scotland, and early in the century lowland Scots from King James's northern kingdom began to change the whole character of Ulster. This came about partly through... the policy of plantation... By means which were, as often as not, unscrupulous, a great deal of land in the 2 counties [of Antrim and Down] was acquired from its Irish proprietors and a determined immigration and energetic colonization by lowland [Presbyterian] Scots followed... The situation thus established in early 17th-century Ulster was an easy one... those who settled the confiscated lands lived among a hostile people who harboured a deep sense of wrong. The situation has often been compared to the early colonists of North America, whose little settlements lived under threat of Indian attack." (ibid, pp 4-8) It could as easily have been compared with the pre-state Zionist colonization of Palestine in the 20s, 30s and 40s. The point I wish to make, however, is that the Northern Ireland problem had its roots in the 17th century. Which made it around 370 years old when the 'Troubles' erupted there in 1968.

But hey, what the hell, he sorted out Northern Ireland anyway, didn't he?

How fortunate then are the Palestinians to have a peace envoy for whom a grasp of history is neither here (Palestine) nor there (Ireland)? But there's more, because, according to The Australian, "[t]he appointment of... George Mitchell as special envoy to the Middle East has raised the possibility that he will team up with former British prime minister Tony Blair in a peace initiative drawing on their experience of ending the Troubles in Northern Ireland." (Blair's Mid-East peace bid helped by Mitchell posting, Sarah Baxter, 26/1/09) Not to mention Blair's experience as Middle East representative of the so-called quartet (US, EU, Russia & the UN)!

With Blair as his sidekick, Mitchell will have the benefit of the latter's clarity of thought and unique perspective on the Palestine problem, which comes through loud and clear in this interview with the ABC's Geraldine Doogue: "Probably for me the key lesson which I understand better now... with my new role out in the Middle East peace process is just the deep roots of the problem, of the struggle that's going on within Islam, the relationship between Islam and the West, and therefore I think September 11 was an extraordinary and tragic and terrible event and for the first time we got to know about this extremism and its nature. But I think I didn't understand sufficiently at the time, I think other people didn't, the depth of it, and how long it had been building. I think it's very clear to me now that this is something that has been building up over decades, that it's got a multiplicity of different roots, round not just the Middle East region, but the wider world, that it is very much a struggle to do with how we come to terms with peaceful coexistence in the world, and that it has a strong religious dimension to it. I know in one sense that's obvious, but sometimes people say, 'Well, it's not really religious, it's to do with politics or deprivation or a sense of injustice', and all of those things are facets, but I think at heart it is indeed, a religious phenomenon." (Radio National, 20/9/08)

But it gets even better: "[Mitchell] is regarded as an honest broker in the Middle East - as the son of an American janitor and a Christian Lebanese-American mother, he has a nuanced understanding of the region's problems." (Baxter, ibid)

Alas, all is not as it seems. Just when you're thinking the Palestinians couldn't get any luckier, what with Mitchell being half Arab, comes that right pooper of Middle East parties, The Angry Arab, with this anecdote from 2006: "Back to the daily From Lebanon segment on LBC-TV, which features 'rich and famous' Lebanese, even if they are not Lebanese. Today it featured former Senator George J Mitchell from Maine. Here is a story about Sen. Mitchell (whose mother emigrated from Lebanon). A former student of mine in Washington DC was working part-time in the US Senate. He was half-Lebanese. He once found himself in the same elevator with Sen. Mitchell, and he greeted him warmly and asked him: 'Do you speak Arabic? I heard that you are Lebanese'. Very rudely, Sen. Mitchell told him: 'I am Irish. I am not Lebanese'." (The Angry Arab News Service, 11/4/06) Irish, begosh, begorrah!

So let's pull all this together: Obama, who has sworn to love, honour & obey Israel, appoints Mitchell, an Irishman, who knows nothing about Ireland or Palestine (and is most emphatically not Lebanese) to solve the Palestine problem. And in this noble endeavour, he will be ably assisted by Blair of Basra, failed prime minister and co-destroyer of Iraq, who also knows nothing about Palestine and sounds like a suitable case for treatment.

The Palestinians should be so lucky.

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