Sadly, four years of peace in Ireland offers little hope for the Middle East

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It is a tragic coincidence that, on the day the people of Northern Ireland reflected on the satisfactions of peace four years after the Good Friday Agreement, the people of Israel and Palestine were hurled deeper into the vortex of violence and despair.

It is a tragic coincidence that, on the day the people of Northern Ireland reflected on the satisfactions of peace four years after the Good Friday Agreement, the people of Israel and Palestine were hurled deeper into the vortex of violence and despair.

It is tempting to draw lessons from one situation for the other, but – as Tolstoy did not quite say – while all wars are alike, every peace process is resolved in its own way. John Reid, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, was wise simply to draw attention to the tit-for-tat killings in Israel as a reminder of how far Northern Ireland has come since 1998. Even so, he went too far when he said, of this week's tit-for-tat attacks in Israel: "Northern Ireland used to be like that." No it did not. Without in any way diminishing the scale of what has been achieved by the Good Friday Agreement, the situation in Northern Ireland was never as awful and bloody as that in the Middle East.

There are, of course, many superficial similarities between the two situations. Land was taken by one people from another; a two-state solution was agreed but failed to settle the issue; a minority on one side resorted to terrorism, provoking a punitive reaction that increased support for violence. In both cases ceasefires came and went, talks started and stopped and Senator George Mitchell delivered a report.

However, the differences are more important than the similarities. The IRA never used suicide tactics, while the British Government, although it strayed into "shoot to kill", never adopted a policy of assassination. But the differences go deeper than the mere tactics deployed on either side. The styles of thought that brought the IRA to realise that it could better further the interests of its people by peaceful means are Western, secular and Marxist-influenced. Those that drive the leaders of Fatah and Hamas to send their footsoldiers to kill Israeli citizens at random and without warning are quite different. Yasser Arafat, who once led a secular liberation movement recognisable to Western Marxists, was driven yesterday to talk of dying as a martyr.

Equally, the attitudes of the Israeli people are unlike those of Northern Irish Protestants, and those of the Israeli government totally unlike the pragmatism of the British Government. The horrors suffered by Jews in the last century, and the psychology of a tiny, isolated Jewish state fighting for its existence, ensure as much.

To the extent that it is possible to make broad generalisations about both situations, they only emphasise further how far apart they are. Two things made peace possible in Northern Ireland: both sides felt they had an interest in a settlement; and both sides – and other influential parties – were represented by individuals who showed leadership. None of those conditions is met in the Holy Land.

The Israelis feel, with considerable justification, that they have tried negotiation, only to be rejected by Mr Arafat, and that the only option is to try to control the Palestinian extremists by force. They are mistaken, not in principle but in practice, although it may take many more awful deaths for the ineffectiveness of ever-heavier repression to become evident. The Palestinians, meanwhile, under the ineffective leadership of Mr Arafat, are ever more prone to the nihilistic appeal of a holy war.

Unfortunately, just because peace was possible in Northern Ireland after hundreds of years in which it was deemed impossible, does not mean it will happen in the Middle East. Until the outside world – principally the United States – can alter the participants' perceptions of where their interests lie, and until both sides throw up new leaders who are prepared to persist in making the painful compromises needed, the prospects of peace remain distant indeed.

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