Gaza conflict: Unionists and republicans need to be 'critical friends' to both Israel and Palestine
Instead of unionists and republicans falling into predictable camps when it comes to Israel and Palestine, they would be much better speaking frankly to those they claim to support, says Henry McDonald.
Amos Oz, Israel's greatest living writer and surely soon to be winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, must be feeling very lonely at present. Unlike his fellow Israelis, more than 80% of whom support the current Gaza military offensive, Oz still puts his faith in peace and dialogue with the Palestinians, and no doubt opposes Operation Protective Edge.
While a bitter critic of Hamas and its nihilistic ideology, Oz is one of those voices on the Israeli left who fear their own country is being further brutalised and desensitised by the incursion that has caused so much human suffering among ordinary Gazans.
However, Oz has never been a misty-eyed peacenik or an advocate of his own country's destruction. The author of such brilliant novels as To Know A Woman and Black Box has instead put forward practical, non-utopian solutions to enable two peoples to live together in two sovereign states.
In 2003, two years before Israel pulled out of the Strip, Oz called on the international community "to help us to divorce". Writing in a pamphlet of the same title, Oz argued that the best arrangement for Palestinians and Israelis was akin to a settlement between two married partners who, for the sake of their children, their sanities and their futures, should divorce. By divorce Oz meant two states living contiguous to one another but that were separate and self-determined.
His analogy with marital breakdown and the possibility of amicable permanent separation is a useful one when thinking about all those on either side of the Israel-Palestine debate here in Northern Ireland.
Because when partners split, usually in fractious circumstances, the chances of a relatively civilised break-up are often damaged by the intervention of so-called friends who only take one side against the other.
Millions of partners, ex-partners and their families have been through this common, often traumatising experience. It is one in which the atmosphere is made further toxic by the whispering games, the hidden personal agendas and the spiteful goading of outsiders who masquerade as friends.
Instead of offering sensible, rounded advice that could help each party move on with their lives, these "friends" poison the well further and either ruin or at least postpone the possibility of a just settlement for all parties.
In the political context here there appears to be very few friends, other than those with their own narrow tribal agendas and ego-tripping, genuinely concerned at helping Palestine and Israel to divorce.
On the one hand you have the usually squabbling factions of the far left and republicanism who have never forgiven Israel for being on the winning side of the Cold War, while on the other you have an alliance of unionists, loyalists and Evangelical Christians whose pro-Israeli position seems motivated either by fairy tale-laden Biblical prophecies or else simply a binary urge to back the opposing side just to "p*** off the Taigs".
The far left and hardline republican pro-Palestinian groupies pander to the more extremist tendencies in the Palestine national movement, indulging their fantasies about wiping Israel off the map or else offering some vague, utterly unrealistic Marxist-Leninist pipedream of a unitary, secular state embracing all faiths... although in reality for Hamas such a state has nothing to do with Marx and is dictated solely by the dictates of the mosque and the imam.
The mainly unionist-loyalist pro-Israel coat-trailers pretend to see nothing wrong with the Jewish State's actions even when they launch disproportionate attacks on Gaza's civilian population or impose general collective punishment on an entire people.
Their blanket support for the Israeli Defence Forces' actions is in effect another fantasy, this time where they imagine if only their own forces of law and order could have been allowed to shell and bombard the likes of west Belfast or the city side of Derry during the Troubles.
The Star of David and the green, white, black and red of the Palestinian flag are mere camouflage under which lurks more localised, tribalistic agendas, and it is a deeply depressing scenario.
For those who protest against such binary categorisation, who say their solidarity with the besieged Gazans or the southern Israelis is heartfelt and pure, perhaps then they should consider the importance of being "critical friends". Just as in partners splitting and children caught in post-marital crossfire, "critical friends" are the best friends to have in a crisis.
If you really want to be a true friend of Israel then be a critical one.
This means telling the Israelis whom you support that their overreaction in Gaza has been a terrible mistake in terms of civilian death toll, the country's image abroad, the prospects for lasting peace.
"Critical friends" would also inform them that eventually there is no solution other than a two-state one and that requires the closing down of most settlements on the West Bank and ultimately (with conditions that ensure Hamas doesn't again turn Gaza into one giant rocket launching pad) to end the siege of the Strip and allow the economy there to develop.
And if you want to be a true friend of Palestine you start as a "critical one" by telling them to their face that they have to give up some of their fantasy politics.
Which means they must forget about reclaiming Jaffa or Haifa or Tel Aviv and accept Israel is here to stay.
You have to persuade them that boycotts are not the new Saladin on a white horse leading them into Jerusalem/Al Quds and final victory.
"Critical friends" should inform the Palestinians that making alliances with some of the nastiest tyrants on Earth like Assad, the mullahs in Iran or even the nut job regime of North Korea will get them nowhere.
As someone who has worked in the Middle East and regards himself as a "critical friend" of both Palestinians and Israelis for decades, here are two inter-related practical suggestions to build up long-term confidence between the two parties.
They should each be invited to join Nato and sign the organisation's charter that forbids two nations under that alliance from attacking each other.
They should also in turn be allowed to join the European Union given their centuries-long connections to the Continent and their joint presence in the eastern Mediterranean and its ancient civilisation.
The two states could keep their unique faith and culture based identities and should note that the moderate, mainly Muslim Morocco made serious attempts in the 1990s to gain special trading status with the EU with a view to eventually joining the union.
Some may regard these suggestions as unrealistic.
But compare these to the rabid rhetoric and chest beating sloganeering of Palestine and Israel's so-called friends here in Northern Ireland as they re-enact old domestic battles in the garb of two peoples they should instead be helping to divorce.
Henry McDonald is author of Irishbatt – the story of Ireland's Blue Berets in Lebanon, published by Gill & Macmillan. He writes in a personal capacity.
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