George Mitchell’s reappearance on the Middle Eastern scene earlier this year has reignited speculation as to whether he’ll be able, with President Barack Obama’s more hands-on approach, to repeat his success in Northern Ireland and help mediate peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Given the parallels between the two conflicts, the Northern Irish peace process has been held up as an example of how Israelis and Palestinians can proceed on the road to resolution.
While I have expressed scepticism vis-à-vis Mitchell’s chances of success – because the shift in US foreign policy has been mainly rhetorical, the Israeli position has hardened and the Palestinians are in disarray – there are certainly lessons to be learnt from Northern Ireland. These include the need to involve all the parties in a conflict, even if they are viewed as “terrorists” by the other side, and for the self-appointed peace broker to pursue a relatively even-handed approach when dealing with the antagonists.
Another country that can point the way forward in conflict resolution for Israelis and Palestinians is Belgium. In fact, Israelis and Palestinians could well use a dose of Belgian pragmatism.
Uninformed outsiders may be excused for thinking that nothing much happens in Belgium, a quaint land of mild-mannered and polite chocolate connoisseurs, beer aficionados and comic-strip lovers. As one Israeli friend asked me incredulously when I drew an analogy between Belgium and Israel-Palestine: “What have Belgians got to fight over except for chocolate?”
But Belgium has been gripped by a nonviolent conflict which has its roots, like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in the late 19th century. And the similarities don’t end there: both Belgium and Israel-Palestine are about the same size geographically, have a similar population density, and are made up of two main communities.
While there is no raging conflict between Belgium’s two language groups, there are major tensions which could have prove a recipe for disaster, and still can, if the wrong dynamics were ever to be set in motion to prise open the country’s fault lines. I was especially struck by these undercurrents when I returned from Israel and Palestine.
So, how have the Flemings and Walloons avoided coming to blows for all this time?
The answer partly lies in their pragmatic penchant for negotiation – marathon, all-night talks are an integral part of the political culture here – and finding the kind of middle ground where, although neither side may be entirely satisfied, they are not disgruntled enough to take up arms.
In addition, there is such a commitment to consensus politics that “Belgian compromise” has become a term recognised internationally, despite recent frictions and the growing intensity of Flemish nationalism and Walloon inflexibility, which led to premature reports of Belgium’s imminent demise. But even if Belgium does break up one day, it is unlikely to collapse into bloodshed in the Balkan manner, but will continue to be dismantled one brick at a time.
Interestingly, Jerusalem and Brussels are quite similar in surprising ways. Both cities are disputed territories which are hotly contested as capitals by the two communities. Brussels has undergone gradual Frenchification and Jerusalem rapid Hebrewisation. However, while Jerusalem currently divides Israelis and Palestinians and is one of the major stumbling blocks on the path to peace, Brussels cements the Belgians together, and the power-sharing compromise reached in Belgium’s capital could be useful for Jerusalem. Perhaps declaring the Holy City the capital of the two peoples would carry enormous symbolic significance and have a benign bonding effect for Palestinians and Israelis.
While Belgium highlights the critical importance of pragmatism, negotiation and compromise, Palestinians and Israelis will need a much higher measure of it than Walloons and Flemings, if they are to find peace and, one day, live peacefully side by side. After all, Belgium is a prosperous European state whose two communities are of similar power, have been established there for centuries and who became a single country voluntarily. And though they may carry historical baggage and political grievances, there is little in the way of actual bad blood between them.
In contrast, Israelis and Palestinians carry the burden of decades of bloodshed and violence, dispossession, insecurity, economic inequality, and the balance of power is so skewed that it makes compromise difficult. But even if Mitchell’s efforts fail, as they probably will, I agree wholeheartedly with his view that:
There is no such thing as a conflict that can’t be ended. Conflicts are created by human beings, and can be ended by human beings. It may take a long time. But with committed, active and strong leadership, it can happen here in the Middle East.
Khaled Diab, a Brussels-based journalist and writer.