Gabrielle Rifkind: The man to sell peace to the Middle East

George Mitchell, Obama's new US envoy, must convince Israel that the people of Gaza, too, must feel safe before they will disarm

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"There is no such thing as conflict that cannot be ended. Conflicts are created, conducted and sustained by human beings: they can be ended by human beings." The appointment of the author of those words, George Mitchell, as the US Middle East special envoy offers a glimmer of hope in the devastation wreaked by Israel in Gaza. The former senator played a key conflict resolution role in Northern Ireland. Now this region is in urgent need of his skills as an honest broker.

An established Middle East expert, Mitchell was chair of the 2000 Mitchell commission that recommended a freeze on settlements as a means of curtailing the violence. But he is better known for his leadership style; like Obama, he is an excellent listener. In Northern Ireland he encouraged the kind of dialogue that moved beyond rhetoric and posturing; he created a more open forum that addressed the security concerns of all the parties involved.

Some will question whether these are the qualities now needed in the Middle East. Ahmed Khalidi, a Palestinian former negotiator, says Mitchell is "renowned for his patience and empathy". But at the moment Khalidi is more in favour of what he calls the James Baker style – "a brusque, straight-talking model". Baker used loan guarantees in the early 1990s to press the Israelis to stop the expansion of settlements. Not being Jewish and born to a Lebanese mother, Mitchell may well be seen by many to restore some of the balance needed in the US's role as a mediator.

The Annapolis peace process established by the Bush administration in November 2007 was deeply flawed. It was predicated on the idea that you could engage with the moderate group Fatah and exclude Hamas. It ignored all the principles of peace-making, as not only had Hamas won the elections, but it had the support of at least a third of the Palestinian population. Experience tells us that if you exclude a significant group that has a large constituency, there will not be an end of conflict until mechanisms are found to engage it. Like it or not, Hamas is here to stay. It is a resilient Islamic organisation and there is little evidence that it has been weakened by the recent war.

Since Hamas's electoral victory in 2006, Western governments, lobbied by Israel, have insisted that the organisation should not be engaged with unless it fulfils three conditions: recognising Israel, giving up violence, and accepting all previous political accords. As Mitchell showed in Ireland, a subtle and nuanced approach can work. The IRA refused to recognise the British government but still engaged in a peace process that led to the end of violence. Mitchell recognised that preconditions closed doors, and the real skill is to draw groups into the political process and then encourage them to act more responsibly.

The Middle East conflict is much more complex than the one in Northern Ireland, and involves many more players. But there are still lessons that can be learnt. There were several false starts in Northern Ireland where attempts were made by the moderates to engage with one another while excluding the more hard-line voices. Breakthrough came only once it was acknowledged that it was necessary to bring in the more extreme voices. With both Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party now in a coalition, history shows that stability comes by incorporating these voices.

The Northern Ireland peace process also emphasises the limits of conditionality. In 1995, under John Major, the British government insisted negotiations could not go any further unless the IRA disarmed. In 1996, Mitchell recommended decommissioning should be carried out in parallel with the peace talks and not before. Here again there are important lessons to be learnt with Hamas. Until there is some sense of security and stability for the people of Gaza, they will do their utmost to arm themselves, not least because of the devastating consequences of the recent Israeli attack.

Key to the negotiations in Northern Ireland was the establishment of a standing conference. The parties met three days a week for seven years. Such a structure is just as necessary in this conflict, but a tighter time-frame is needed. This would have to be done in consultation with all those involved. Time is running out, and any long-term horizon would make all the parties despair. The international community has a responsibility to put this framework for talks in place. A long-term ceasefire needs to be negotiated before the talks both in the West Bank and Gaza, and the presence of international troops may be necessary on the borders.

In Northern Ireland, economic regeneration was central to ending the conflict and ensuring long-term stability. A smart move by the international community would be to actively support the rebuilding of Gaza as a model Islamic state. A failed state on Israel's border spells grave danger for the whole region. Turkey has demonstrated an active and positive role in this recent round of fighting, and has the capacity to work closely with Hamas. It could play a critical third-party role in Gaza's reconstruction.

This recent war has made the atmosphere more toxic, bankrupted the peace process and exacerbated the climate of hatred. But with the appointment of Mitchell, at last the peace process may be in good hands. The crucial question is whether his skills will cajole the Israelis to participate and make them understand that their security will depend on the security and prosperity of their neighbours – a far cry from the current devastation in Gaza.

Gabrielle Rifkind is author of 'A Standing Conference Table: A Process for Sustainable Peace in the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict'

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