Alastair Crooke interviewed by Aisling Byrne, Conflicts Forum, Beirut, November, 2007
Alastair Crooke, former special Mid-East adviser to European Union’s Foreign Policy Chief, Javier Solana, and adviser to the International Quartet, is the Co-director of Conflicts Forum. An edited version of this interview was published by BADIL Resource Center for Palestinian Residency and Refugee Rights, Al-Majdal, Issue No. 35, Autumn 2007 (special issue on Accountability and the Peace Making Process).
Can you describe your role in your former position as EU Middle East Envoy:
My role was to co-ordinate a bottom-up process to compliment a diplomatic top-down process - typically an effort by the diplomatic community or politicians to come up with an agreement; often quite simply are back of envelope-types of agreement. But unless this agreement has some connection with reality and is practical in terms of real power relationships and security, and has a certain acquiescence of support at the grassroots level, then the agreement will fail at this plane: it just can’t be implemented, or it just won’t be implemented because there isn’t the support or the conviction that this is a practical start. Issues then bounce between the political and implementation plane, and back to the political plane, and there is no effective outcome from it.
One of the lessons that came out of Northern Ireland was that it was important to work both at the political level, but also at the practical and the street level in order to make the two move in the same direction. Both had to be prepared in parallel. It wasn’t possible to come in at the top table and sit down with half a dozen people in Ramallah, agree on the back of an envelope a five-point plan and fly away the next day and think the job was done - because that was usually the stage when things became unpicked.
An important factor is not simply to have preparation and contacts at the grassroots level, but it is also important to attend to the psychology and the moment, and particularly to convince people that there really was a plan and a constructive process. Conflict produces a sense of resignation amongst people; it builds its own momentum, and pursues its own dynamic. Many people involved in conflict - whether in Afghanistan, Ireland or Palestine - have an interest in the continuance of conflict. The conflicts itself becomes the end, and any stopping of it almost becomes a breach of trust or a breach of principle for those directly involved. War can become an end or a principle for some people. So it is very important to try and build up a sense that there is a different process afoot, that a real change in direction is in prospect.
Can you explain what you have called your ‘town hall’ meetings - who participated in these meetings and what did they achieve?
The town hall meetings we organised served three purposes: one part was to explain what was being proposed. All sorts of people came to the meetings: political and city representatives, representatives from trade unions; essentially people who were considered to have influence in the community at a city or refugee camp level. Given the few number of people we had working on the project, the meetings were generally held in cities, so there was a limit to the number of people we could invite. But explaining the process was very important. It was extraordinary how many people had completely the wrong idea of what was being proposed at the national level, and who had misunderstood the basis and background to the proposal. They thought that the Mitchell Committee had all sorts of provisions in it which simply just didn’t exist. It was very difficult to find out where these ideas came from, but the extent of misconception that surrounds a political process is vital because it has the potential to undermine the initiative.
The second point of the meetings was to show people that the process was not hidden, that it was transparent; that it was not something that was being hidden from them and hatched in 5 star hotels, but that it was something about which they could have their say. In a sense it was like holding a sort of shura - people would come and make their points. And the third point was that they provided an opportunity for people to vent their frustrations and anger at the international community and the West and to get this off their chest. But also there is a general tendency that when people are not consulted, they oppose something. But once they are consulted they may grudgingly express reservations, but generally they would not sabotage it. So it was very important in bringing along this degree of wider public support.
The importance of these meetings was to explain to people the process. And the second most important element in this peace-building process was something that was very trying and very time-consuming which was the process of giving impetus and making sure that there was action taken. This meant, for example, meeting with Arafat and discussing with him things that needed to be done, and to come every day with a list of ideas for taking the process forward. For example, this might include sending someone who enjoyed genuine public confidence to the city of Rafah, someone who had confidence and credibility in the city, and who could deal with problems in a way that had respect from the community, not someone posted in from another part of Gaza or worse still, from the West Bank. This daily step-by-step approach with the visible signs of daily new measures was vital.
Every day I met with President Arafat to update him on what was done, and then I took Arafat’s responses back to the community and people – commanders, political leaders - who had been at the meetings. Sometimes they would say: ‘well, we’ve never heard of this, we don’t know anything about it’. I’d reply: ‘these are the people who were in the meeting with Arafat, please telephone them and check with them that this is a correct version, and I will be going back to meet with Arafat tonight to discuss it again’. This process of push-starting daily developments gave the process substance and momentum. Every night I would go back to meet with Arafat and say that general so-and-so couldn’t do something for the following reasons, and then he’d call them and speak to them and push them in a certain direction. It was very time-consuming, but it was a fundamental component in the process - there was no alternative. It couldn’t be done by telephone; it couldn’t be done in big meetings; it had to be one-to-one, explaining and bringing people along.
The third element was of presence - people wanted and needed to see visible signs of something happening. We had a very small group of about 4 Europeans, and it was very important that they should be seen at key places - Jenin, Nablus, Beit Jala - and be visible as observers to demonstrate visibly and publicly that there was a real outside element to the process. So this was an important element – going out and physically being seen and for people to know that there were outsiders, Europeans, who’d come to hear, and then be willing to listen while people complained about a check point or another issue. Usually there was little we could do to resolve the issues, but it was important to be there and to listen to the problem actual problems and realities faced on the ground.
Did you have a channel to the Israeli side to take up issues? Were there positive outcomes from this, for example, problems with checkpoints?
Yes, we had an indirect channel. Sometimes the Israeli authorities wouldn’t speak directly to us, but sometimes they did. Checkpoints were particularly difficult because it took, I think, 17 different agencies in Israel to lift a checkpoint. People imagine it is in the gift of the security people, but it isn’t. There are realms of different interests in the checkpoints: settlers committees, the interests of customs and revenue people, the interests of the Civil Administration, and several sorts of military, intelligence and internal security interests. So it was never easy to get checkpoints lifted. But there were also other issues we managed to solve - like at that time, opening the market in Bethlehem. Persuading the Israelis to open the market as part of the ceasefire process changed the situation dramatically. Suddenly commercial life resumed. In Gaza, for example, with the support of the former German Foreign Minister, Josca Fischer, he would query “what do you need?”. And I would say: “it would help if you could get cooking gas or diesel supplies into Gaza”. He would try for days, but there were always problems - ‘technical reasons’ - why it didn’t happen.
Essentially, de-escalation of violence requires an accelerating dynamic towards improvement in people’s lives. We needed immediate improvements for people to see and to feel in their daily lives. I proposed to the EU that what they needed was a quick, feel-good factor that would absolutely and directly impact. This was often misunderstood: it was not about economic development or long-term planning, it was simply, how you could put cash in someone’s pocket within days. We proposed this to the EU, but they were incapable of doing this unfortunately. We proposed that they pay an additional unemployment payment to all unemployed families in the West Bank. It was very little - unemployed people at that time got 2 payments per family per year of $500, that’s all - and we suggested they pay a third one. If the EU could have done this to start generating the momentum to demonstrate improvement. This would have had very beneficial results, I believe. Visible feel-good factors are very important - opening a market, getting rid of checkpoints - were all key ones. Opening a checkpoint, paradoxically, seemed to be the most difficult for Israelis to do.
It was these things that, I feel, the EU neglected. They would say: ‘well, this isn’t economic development, we need to have a plan or a long-term structure’. But this is the point: the first 2 weeks of an attempt to de-escalate conflict are the critical ones. You have a small horizon of good will; you may not have a very long one, and what was apparent in the period 2001-2002 was that the period of goodwill when you could bring about a change was getting shorter and shorter. Skepticism was reducing the period in which people were prepared to wait and see. So the sooner you could develop a sense of momentum, that there was a feel-good factor of some sort that ordinary people could feel, was vital. It wasn’t about long-term economic development and should have been understood to be quite separate from it.
Was this the first time that you are aware of that the EU had been involved in this type of bottom-up peace-building at the grassroots community level? How did it come about?
Yes, it was. There wasn’t really a plan for this initiative, I just stared doing it. I recruited some people from European embassies to help with the project, so we did it informally on a personal basis, and this evolved into the EU Observer group. The Israelis were initially opposed to this, they objected but never came to try and throw people out, and reluctantly they had to acquiesce it. It was a fine judgment; if we had expanded it too fast, probably Israel would have taken formal action against it, but we kept it fairly small. This was the first time that we had a visible presence; we had support from some countries, but not others.
What were the lessons learnt from this initiative from your perspective, as well as for the EU at a policy-level?
I worked on this initiative from 2000 until the end of 2003 on a daily basis. Before 2000 which was a period when Palestinians and Israelis had no communication between each other, my role had been to try and get the Israelis to talk to an EU person about security. They had steadfastly refused to do this. Their position when I arrived was that the EU was there to sign cheques but not to involve in itself in policy, but eventually the isolation broke down and discussion began with the Israelis without which the next stages would not have been possible.
My aim with the Palestinians was to build trust; for them, the hardest thing was that there was an Israeli policy not to engage with the EU and breaking that was harder than talking to the Palestinian factions. I had built up trust with political leaders on the Palestinian side from my work during the previous 3 years, although at that stage, this had not been with the political leaders of Hamas and Islamic Jihad although it was with their rank and file, but not their political leadership. It was mostly with the Tanzeem and Fateh political leaders. We, the EU, first engaged with the leadership of Hamas in 2000 as it had been difficult for the EU to accept this. It was generally viewed that Israel would be so angered by it that it would damage relations. The EU special envoy was worried that if there was contact with Hamas that he would loose his ability to work and talk to Israelis. Basically, European efforts of venturing into the political process was resisted quite strongly at the outset by Israel.
What did the EU learn from this 3-year engagement at the grassroots level?
I think they understood clearly that there needed to be a practical element to peace-building and that this had to be on the ground and needed to be part of an overall process. Secondly, they understood clearly that this was the way into the political process; that you couldn’t simply just come in at the top level and expect there to be a place and a role for the EU; they had to be able to work up and develop a role, and that meant having some credibility on underlying issues, which actually meant people on the ground who knew what was going on. I think they came away with the idea that this was an essential approach, but they also found it quite difficult to deal with in the EU because the natural instinct of the EU was to go to their own member states and to do things not in a genuinely European way, but to revert back to their national structures for doing things.
The overall lesson at the policy level is that any political process needs continual attention at various levels - this needs attention both from the ground, but also at a higher level and it needs political clout to be on call to put pressure to resolve key issues. The problem was that the EU was very intermittent in its attention in both aspects. There would be a high level visit by someone like a minister who would deal with some issues, but then he would go away and you would hear nothing for a month. I suggested that the EU set up a contact group of 2 or 3 European ministers who would be willing and ready to intervene at short notice, by telephone, to sort problems out, so that key issues that came up on the ground could be dealt with quickly. These issues cannot be dealt with sporadically, they need daily attention to solve things and move the process forward.
What is your experience from working in other areas of conflict on peace-building in a context of asymmetrical power where there is such a lack of trust?
Clearly in most of these processes there is a lack of trust but I don’t think this is an obstacle to a process - I think that is what you should expect at the outset. A process should be designed for that purpose with that expectation. Therefore a great deal of preparation for a political process must be preparing people psychologically which means first of all, treating people with respect, courtesy and not getting impatient. This may sound very obvious but it is one of the most important lessons which is often ignored. Often mediators start getting irritated because people take time or don’t want to shift positions and they start trying to instruct them on what is in their interests; this is a mistake. Establishing a good relationship and understating the prospects - not overstating them - being very clear about what you are trying to achieve, what is not going to be achievable, what is hopeless, giving a very frank explanation of the situation and avoiding what are called ‘constructive ambiguities’ in diplomatic terms is fundamental. Trying to paint an optimistic picture in the hope that you can get some movement and that the momentum will carry people through when they discover that the picture was inaccurate does not help build trust. When you start the process, inevitably it has to go stage by stage to build trust. That is how it has got to be done. You can’t ask someone to do something which requires a large element of trust at the front end of a process.
After you left, did the EU continue with this initiative?
I don’t know the answer as to why it wasn’t continued after I was removed from my position. Many people asked me and complained why there wasn’t a successor. With the breakdown of the trust and then putting Hamas on the proscribed list, this had created too many uncertainties for people to agree how to go ahead. Presumably, in addition, there was the opposition of the Israelis to the initiative.
Do you have any idea of what both the Israelis and Palestinians felt about this initiative?
Israel had divided views on it - some in Israel were opposed because they were opposed to the internationalization of the conflict and wanted it to be dealt with only by America; they refused to allow Europeans to be involved. Then there were those that did not believe that there was any process and who believed that the war on terror should be taken advantage of in order to undermine the Palestinian national project - calling them and framing the conflict as one between Israel and international terrorism. But there were many Israelis in the security services who actually welcomed this as a way to prevent crises flaring and also occasionally to save lives. Many believed that some of the things we had done had saved lives and they said so publicly and in the press. My relationship with PM Sharon was not antagonistic; I had no personal relationship with him. I met him a few times, but I know that everything major that I did was reported to him. He was probably a little skeptical but at that stage he was still thinking of going for a 2 state political solution - he was torn between that and going for the unilateral approach. So he was ready to listen, but when he then opted for the unilateral approach, I don’t think he wanted mediators or people in the middle doing the job I was doing. I think this was one of the reasons for my removal.
On the Palestinian side, they felt it was a very positive approach, but they argued that the EU did not back it up sufficiently. They thought we were too thin on the ground and had too little resources for this project. Arafat wanted it expanded. There had always been a sense that it was important to the Palestinians to have eyes on the ground that could report back to the international community the reality of Palestinian life. However imperfect, they found it important that there were people who were actually seeing the results of Israeli actions on the ground in their areas and to be able to report back to the EU. I think Palestinians believed that if it could be expanded, that it could be effective in changing the situation by making it less easy for Israel to take certain actions as there were people on the ground who could see what was happening, and who could intervene on an on-going basis.
Which country or institution has the credibility to play this role now in the Palestinian-Israeli context?
I think it could be done by someone like the Swiss or Norwegians. I think they would have the resources if they wanted to do it. The Swiss have quite a few resources in the ICRC which plays an important role already. Norway is already engaged in a process like this in Sri Lanka. It could possibly be done by an EU country such as Sweden or Ireland, although I think neither France nor Germany, nor of course the US or Britain, would have the credibility for this. And as Alvaro de Soto and John Dugard have recently pointed out, it is also not clear that the UN nor the Quartet would have any credibility for an initiative like this at present. In fact, both de Soto and Dugard have called for the UN to withdraw from the Quartet because of the damage its participation is causing to its credibility and authority.
What changes would be needed in understanding peace-building or conflict transformation at a policy level in the EU or certain European countries for them to develop a policy and approach like this, rather than the current top-down approach?
You are right, the EU currently has only a top-down approach. The two areas where I think they misunderstand the situation is that they look at these issues as simply technical issues: that the president just needs to order things to happen and they will just happen. This is very much the American view, but the Europeans too share this perspective; that it is just for the police chief to be instructed and he goes and does it. It was never like this because quite often the police chief lived next door to a leader from Hamas or Islamic Jihad, or one of his brothers or children belonged to these movements. They could not understand the dynamics and complexity of the conflict and the divisions within Palestinian society, as opposed to the Western structures where orders can be given and will be implemented. The Europeans continue to look at these as technical issues. This is a legacy of their experience of the Western nation state. Secondly, as before, they don’t sufficiently understand the psychology of conflict - people believed it was self-evidently in the Palestinians interest to stop the firing: “why can’t they just understand that it is in their self-interest to stop the firing?” The reality is that conflict gives rise to complex emotions, to anger and a desire for revenge.
The other thing is the need to give focus and time to a process. It is seldom a short-term commitment.
Has EU policy gone backwards since 2000-2003 to where they now essentially give tacit support to US policy?
I think that EU policy has retreated out of fright at what happened over Iraq - the schism with the US - and the resulting internal divisions within the EU which the attack on Iraq provoked. They see this as something that imperiled the EU project by contributing to the failure to be able to get an EU constitution passed. The personal animosity generated by Iraq between key EU leaders subsequently poisoned their ability to work together on other areas of policy. This animus spilled over into the constitutional debate contributing to its failure.
In the Oslo process Norway took a top-down approach. Is your sense that one could convince one country to develop an approach like this, and develop the necessary capacity for this?
I don’t think it is very hard to convince people that this is the right approach - most people know and understand this; it is just doing it that seems to be so difficult for Europe. At this time within the EU there seems to be little chance of this.
Partly this is because there is internal competition from national states and structures that don’t like others getting involved, and it would be harder now to take forward an approach like this.
In a sense, capacity-building needs to be done with the mediators; they are the ones who need it rather than Palestinians or Israelis. One of the first lessons that all contexts show is how poor mediation efforts have been by the West as a whole; the claim to be objective and of seeking a political position which will work has been hollow. They tend to go for political positions that skew the intended outcome towards western interests and that will pursue a course of least resistance has been the norm - rather than taking a tough line in terms of a solution, particularly when there is one dominant party to a conflict.
Given talk of a long-term hudna (cessation of violence), do you think this offers a context within which this kind of bottom-up peace-building could be initiated? Linked to this, what are Islamist movements’ perspectives on peace-building that would support this kind of a process?
Yes, a hudna offers a good opportunity. The de-escalation of violence provides the opportunity to build steps that can be reciprocated between the parties. It is the only way to begin to build trust. Trust is not going to come from signing of a paper so a de-escalation offers the opportunity to reach a ceasefire.
Secondly, Islamist movements differ from secular movements in that it is very important for them that there should be psychological parity in the process between the parties. There has to be a sense in which a just solution is the focus, rather than a pragmatic or compromise solution. They tend do look more closely at how to create the right psychological framework in which a real value-modifying approach to negotiations can be found. I think Islamists tend to be much more self-reliant, and not look to outside forces to balance the equation for them. They prefer having a third party group or mediator to engage with them and work on these first stages with them; they believe these stages are better done by a mediator. It is only when they get to the stage where they see a real see a real political process underway that they would be interested then in sitting down with the other side.
Islam has a long tradition of conflict resolution that is different from the Western one. They all start with the idea of mediation; mediation is something which is held in much greater value in Islam than Christianity: when there is a problem or a conflict, it is the duty of other Muslims to try and push the parties to negotiation and talking and some form of reconciliation of differences. So there is, if you like, a structure within Islam that supports this approach. The idea of a practical step-by step practical approach to resolution fits closely with the early history of the first Muslim communities and the type of arrangements that were made for ceasefires in conflicts that the Prophet was involved with. So there is both precedent and also if you like an approach which fits with this. I think also there is also a strong sense that these steps help integrity and Islamists pay much greater importance to integrity of intentions and the integrity of participants in their approach to a process than secular or Westerners do –who are often under pressure to side-step difficult issues in the interest of achieving a political ‘success’.
How does the Islamist approach challenge Western models on conflict resolution which build in certain assumptions on paradigms of violence that are basically Eurocentric?
Because of the asymmetry of power, Muslims have a view that continuing resistance and continuing armed action is not detrimental to a political process; that a political process can continue with this happening. Their view of this type of the process is very different from Western models which tend to see violence as an obstacle to political process, rather than to understand it as a necessary component to arriving at a solution. In an Islamist view, resistance sometimes is necessary to create circumstances in which a political process can begin. This relates to the point about capacity-building with western negotiators, and how to think more widely about the psychological elements of this and to find ways to understand the psychology of people who are involved in an armed conflict that have different perspectives and needs from the political mediators. In practical terms, it means the emphasis should be on circumscribing violence rather than demanding its apriori cessation.
How can communities and grassroots actors can be mobilized in support of ideas for pre-negotiation - what you’ve called mental preparation and post-conflict consequences of negotiation?
First, I think you have to introduce ideas in the community because one way of influencing people with weapons is to influence the community that supports them. So this is one of the reasons why you need to work at a grassroots level. The second thing is to do it in such a way that it is part of a natural process. For example, when we were working with Hamas leaders, we would ask: what do you think of this speech? The aim was to start the debate to get people to think about political options. One of my rules of thumb during my work in the OPT was never to try to diminish or undermine the concept of resistance. What you have to do is to try and change some of the meaning of these words, and to say, of course there is armed resistance, of course there is no question that everyone has the right to resist occupation, but there are other ways of continuing resistance, other types of resistance. You have to look at the right tool for the right circumstances. So it is a process of preparing people slowly and gradually for those ideas. And this cannot be done quickly. I think that the post-conflict period is a major weakness by Western countries. The moment they have got an agreement, everyone’s interest is gone; you see politicians walk away with a piece of paper feeling that things are solved. And this is often when things fall apart. They assume that the post-conflict problems are ‘technical issues’ that do not deserve their attention.
How could one develop a better understanding of the management of the interface between a non-Western Islamist and Western approach? You’ve said that for Islamists the continuation of armed resistance is a necessary part of peace-building and conflict transformation until such a point where it is felt that it is no longer needed, yet this goes completely against Western perspectives.
The only thing you can do is to try talking with, and preparing, negotiators. When we have a hostage case, in terms of negotiating with the hostage takers, there is a pool of people who have been trained in hostage negotiating, and the training is generally quite good. It involves such things as how to listen to people, how to show that you are listening, how to put difficult issues to people in such a way which is non-confrontational. Often people who are negotiating or who are trying to get involved in a political process fail to show evidence of these traits. So an element of formal training and looking at similar situations would be the way to do it.
How do you bring into negotiation processes psychological requirements for conflict transformation where conflicts have gone on for a long time - for example occupation, where a ‘culture of occupation’ has built up and where the occupation is so integrated in Israeli society and institutions?
I don’t think there is an easy answer to this, but one of the prime answers is to try and find other tasks for the military people. On the Palestinian side, for example, even if they cannot be armed, they can act as a sort of citizens committees to get them involved in directly organizing and managing the population in their communities. This will give them a sense of value so they feel they are still needed even if their military skills are no longer needed and seem to them being devalued by their own communities.
The institutionalization of occupation mindset for Israel constitutes a major problem. One Israeli army commander told me that it took him 2 years as commander to effect a change in the ethos of toleration of unnecessary Palestinian casualties caused by his troops. It took a sustained effort to squeeze out the monthly total of unnecessary Palestinian deaths – and this at a time when relations were not exacerbated. He knew that these deaths were not happening for any purpose, but were just part of the fact of an army being on the ground and getting into local conflicts. To try and squeeze that element out of his soldiers took him 2 years. It is very difficult to change an army’s ethos, an ethos that has developed over a period where people are seen as enemies and this becomes deeply engrained. You can’t change this in the short term; it takes 5 to 10 years to really have much impact on this, so the only thing you can do is to ensure that people give clear, very strict orders from the very top in a conventional army.
So on the Israeli side you are saying it will require major political decisions?
In terms of the military side, of course it has to be. They have to do their own internal consensus-building. They have different processes for this, but they do not easily come to agreement. Part of my role was also to talk to Israelis - journalists and others - to explain what we were doing, that we weren’t involved with the Palestinians in some conspiracy against Israel, that we were there to try and bring about the de-escalation of violence that would allow a political process to start.
How would you try to sell an approach like this to Israelis knowing the kind of reactions you would be likely to get?
I think the only way you can sell it to Israelis is to advocate a step-by-step approach. The point in this sort of process is that the parties will not be irrevocably committed to something until they choose to be. The problem has been that Israel has traditionally set preconditions that are intended to commit the Palestinians, whilst leaving Israel unencumbered. Third party mediators generally have acquiesced to Israeli demands. I remember Senator Mitchell telling me that you can’t have a political process until the sides at least can see that the other side has a case. If they don’t see that the other side has a case, then there isn’t a political process available. So maybe you have step even further back and you have to start by convincing people that the other side has valid aspirations – even if these aspirations are contested.
Were there lessons from your involvement in the Mitchell Committee that you incorporated or implemented as part of this initiative? You talked before about the importance of narrative, so you’re saying this would have to be the first step of conceptualizing an initiative like this?
Narrative – by which I mean a parties perception of its own history, its vulnerabilities and its view of the future - was preeminently important in this process. The ability to listen and to hear this narrative is crucial. I think the Mitchell Committee was successful in part, but principally, because of Senator Mitchell’s extraordinary abilities to listen to what people were saying, and to be interested to hear what each person had to say. He had an enormous ability to listen effectively. Other lessons were the need to focus on key core issues and not get bogged down with too many subsidiary issues. The key issues for Senator Mitchell, on one side, were the settlements, and, on the other, the security issue - the trade off had to be a cessation of settlement building in return for security from the Palestinians. That was the key to the process - at least at the beginning the first phase we insisted on a real stopping of settlement expansion. There has to be a core to the process that you then build around. The second element is to keep it simple. We were not allowed to write more than 20 pages for the final report, so it cut down a lot of the things that you would have otherwise included.
Did it help having an individual like Senator Mitchell, someone with genuine credibility, from outside?
Elements of a process like this do need to progress behind the scenes. A mediator with credibility can give a strong element of integrity and essentially symbolizes the process. There will be a huge sense among people that something to their disadvantage is being cooked up behind their backs, so the sense of how they regard the person that is in overall charge overseeing the process is vital. If this person has a sense of quiet confidence and an ability to listen to people; if they radiate the right sort of body language and the right signals, this can make a lot of difference. I think it made a huge difference in Northern Ireland. Lord Alderdice told me that George Mitchell’s ability simply to listen and to go on listening and to being patient with people was key to the whole process there.
Given current political conditions in the OPT, where the situation is so polarized and with the West supporting one side against the other, could such a process be developed now?
I think the situation [in the OPT] is totally different now. I don’t think it could be done by people being drafted in to take this role because I’m not sure that they would survive unless they went in armored cars with protection, and you can’t do this sort of job in those circumstances. You can’t be transparent, you don’t have the ability for people to see you doing your tasks in an open way if you are surrounded by body guards and armored cars. There would have to be a tremendous amount of trust in the individual leading this. I think there is only one person who could do this at the moment in Palestine and Israel and that is George Mitchell. Palestinians would give him the opportunity to do this. The idea of people just coming in now and having the ability or the time to make those connections or those links is just not there. We have cut ourselves off from that.
Aisling Byrne is Projects Co-ordinator with Conflicts Forum and is based in Beirut.