No peace for the morally bankrupt

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THE CURRENT peace processes being conducted over Ireland and Israel have some significant characteristics in common. Both have been grossly over-hyped in the media, and both are now at a dead end. Peace cannot be built on the basis either of the Downing Street declaration of 15 December 1993, or of the limited self-government interim agreement on Palestine hailed with such euphoria on the White House lawn last summer.

All those involved in these peace processes - Israelis, Arabs, British, Irish and Americans - know this, although they continue to act as if they did not. For they know also that if you seem to be working earnestly for peace you can always count on a good press, even if you are getting nowhere. Perhaps, indeed, especially if you are getting nowhere.

In the domain of peace-processing, more than in any other, to travel hopefully is better than to arrive.

So much for the things in common. In other respects, the two peace processes are widely different. The agreement reached in Oslo was an agreement between adversaries in a conflict - the government of Israel and Yasser Arafat's section of the PLO (misleadingly described as 'the PLO' in the news coverage). The Downing Street declaration was a joint statement between two governments, neither of which represents any of the parties to the actual conflict, nor has any control over any of them. The partner governments were in fact dancing to the tune of one of these parties - the IRA - without knowing, or perhaps much caring, what they were doing. But they ought by now to know, and to care.

Unlike the Downing Street peace process - which was intellectually and morally bankrupt from the start - the Oslo peace process was a serious effort, a brave try. It fails because one of the partners - Arafat - is found not to be in a position to deliver. To deliver, he would need to be able to control Gaza and Jericho in such a way as to prevent these areas being used as a basis for fedayeen attacks on Israel. To do that he would need to take on, and defeat, Hamas and other rejectionist groups.

And with what could he do that? Even before the massacre in the mosque at Hebron on 25 February, Arafat was reported as having lost the support of at least half of his own core organisation, Fatah. After the massacre, Fatah in Hebron was calling for renewal of the struggle against 'the Zionist enemy'. Palestinians were reported to be cursing Arafat and spitting at the mention of his name.

In these conditions, Arafat would not be able to control Gaza and Jericho if he ever acquired them, which is now most unlikely. Yitzhak Rabin knows that if he wants meaningful peace talks with anyone who can deliver anything, it is to Syria and President Hafez al- Assad that he will have to turn. Arafat may be brought back to the negotiating table as a result of American assiduity. This would be a big media event, but a media event only. What could Israel negotiate with a partner who couldn't deliver anything on the ground, if he were ever to have the misfortune to be accorded nominal responsibility for any ground?

The failure of the Oslo peace process has had a tragic dimension to it. The - equally unacknowledged - failure of the Downing Street declaration is rapidly degenerating into black farce. John Hume is now on a St Patrick's week tour of the United States, where he is delighting Noraid and other friends of the IRA and bravely alarming those respectable 'Friends of Ireland' who have been, up to now, his warmest admirers. It was, of course, Mr Hume who persuaded Albert Reynolds, who in turn persuaded John Major, that if only a bit about self-determination were pushed into a joint Anglo-Irish agreement, a grateful and 'war-weary' IRA would promptly accord a 'permanent cessation of violence'.

Three months later, with the 'IRA offensive' still continuing and achieving new spectaculars at Heathrow, Mr Hume is preaching the Sinn Fein-IRA line that the continuing violence is the fault of the British, and nobody else, for not giving the IRA the rest of what they want. As for the Heathrow mortar attacks, these are really a sign that the IRA is preparing for peace. The New York Times reported on Monday that Mr Hume believed that 'the IRA was sending a clear message because none of the shells that hit Heathrow exploded'. The New York Times report went on to quote Mr Hume directly: 'It was their (the IRA's) intention to demonstrate to the British government what they are capable of, so that if there is a total cessation of violence, they are not backing or standing down from a position of weakness, but from a position of strength.'

It is interesting that the same people depicted last year by the same Mr Hume as being so war-weary that they were on the verge of giving up in response to a single verbal concession, are now deemed by Mr Hume as working 'from a position of strength'. And indeed they are. Security forces reckon the present number of the IRA's 'active-service volunteers' to be three times the normal level: about 1,500 as against 500. Sinn Fein's newly won access to Irish national television - something never accorded by any previous Irish government - boosts IRA morale and recruiting. Gerry Adams's visit to the United States, on a visa engineered for him by the Dublin government through its friends in Congress, works in the same way for the benefit of the IRA's armed struggle. All in all the Downing Street declaration and the efforts of the two governments - especially Dublin - to sell it have been a propaganda bonanza for Sinn Fein and consequently a great morale booster for the Heathrow bombers.

Despite his inconsistency, the implication of Mr Hume's language is clear: if the British government gives the IRA whatever the IRA wants, it can get 'a total cessation of violence'. (It can get this 'in an hour' Mr Hume later said.) On the other hand, if the British government doesn't give the IRA whatever it wants, pretty soon the next lot of bombs on Heathrow are going to explode. And this will not be the fault of the peace-loving IRA but of the British government, for failing to follow through on the Downing Street peace process.

I don't know whether there is still a Conservative Party in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, but if there is it should by now be sending its own clear message to Mr Major: enough is enough. To return to our cross-comparison: if Arafat's PLO were to bomb Ben-Gurion airport, and claim credit for that attack, Mr Rabin's response would not be to declare his determination to persevere with the peace process.

(Photograph omitted)