Peace on Hold—Again: Northern Ireland and the Middle East

Updated August 5, 2020 | Infoplease Staff

Another recent Nobel Peace Prize winner, David Trimble, leader of the Ulster Unionists and first minister of the coalition government of Northern Ireland, found himself on shaky political ground in the fall of 2000, with both the Irish peace accord and his own political future uncertain. Trimble, who received the peace prize in 1998 for his role in the Good Friday Agreement, faced increasing disaffection from fellow Protestant politicians regarding his handling of the IRA's disarmament.

The first “devolved” government formed on Dec. 2, 1999, when the British government formally transferred governing powers to the Northern Irish parliament. Trimble became first minister, and two leaders of Sinn Fein, Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, received seats in the four-party, twelve-member parliament. But this milestone in Irish self-government quickly crumbled. Protestant politicians had taken a difficult leap of faith in agreeing to allow the IRA to begin giving up its illegal weapons after the government formed. Sinn Fein, however, failed to live up to its promise of home rule first, disarmament later. As a result, the British government suspended parliament on Feb. 12, 2000, and once again imposed direct rule. On May 30, 2000, Sinn Fein again pledged to put the IRA's weapons “beyond use,” and Britain restored parliamentary powers. While the IRA did allow for the inspection of some of its arms dumps, the months limped by without real progress, and Sinn Fein's commitment to disarmament once again appeared strikingly disingenuous. Trimble, caught in the middle, appeared to many of his Protestant compatriots as a pawn of the Republicans, and was nearly ousted by his own party on Oct. 28. Had he been forced to step down, there is little doubt that the Good Friday Agreement would have toppled with him. But Trimble survived, pledging to get tough by imposing sanctions on Sinn Fein.

Under Prime Minister Ehud Barak of the Labour Party, who took office in July 1999, Israel made promising forays into peace on three fronts—with Syria, Lebanon, and the Palestinian Authority > but only its withdrawal from Lebanon proved an enduring, positive change. After 22 years of occupation, on May 24, 2000, the remaining Israeli troops pulled out of the Lebanese security zone Israel had set up to safeguard its borders. Public pressure in Israel had been mounting for years to end the war of attrition between Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon, backed by Syria, and Israeli troops and their allies, the South Lebanon Army militia.

In Dec. 1999, Israeli-Syrian talks resumed after an almost four-year hiatus, fostered on the Syrian side by President Hafez al-Assad's wish to shore up his legacy (the ailing leader died in June). From Syria's point of view, normalization of relations between the two countries largely depended on Israel's withdrawal from the Golan Heights, which was territory that Israel had captured from Syria during the Middle East war of 1967. From Israel's point of view, relinquishing the Golan Heights, which serves as a buffer zone between the two nations, could not occur without a guarantee of Israel's security from Syria. By Jan. 2000, however, talks ended when Syria rejected an Israeli offer to withdraw from most but not all of the Golan Heights.

Despite President Clinton's strongest efforts, July 2000 peace talks at Camp David between Barak and the Palestinian Authority's president Yasir Arafat ended unsuccessfully—although the negotiations made some progress, the status of Jerusalem remained the primary sticking point. Clinton lauded Barak's flexibility and called Arafat intransigent, but Palestinian supporters and much of the Arab world praised Arafat's strong stand. Barak, on the other hand, returned to a volatile political situation, with conservatives angered by his concessions and threatening to abandon his fragile parliamentary coalition.

At the end of September, however, the stalemate disintegrated into the worst violence between Israelis and Palestinians in years, provoked by right-wing Likud leader Ariel Sharon's incendiary visit on Sept. 28 to a Jerusalem religious complex sacred to both Jews and Muslims—the fiercely contested holy site is known as the Temple Mount to Jews and as Haram al Sharif to Muslims. Clashes between Palestinians and the Israeli police followed, giving rise to what has been called the Al Aksa intifada (named after the Al Aksa mosque where the fighting originated). The violence continued unabated through October, with no foreseeable end in sight, and with the political futures of Arafat and Barak in flux.

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