"Societies are nothing more than a collection of individuals who ultimately act in their self-interest. The best way to resolve differences and conflict is through peaceful, democratic means."
Peace-building requires persistence, patience and political will. That was the message shared by former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell during a talk held March 1 at UCLA. (listen to podcast)
Mitchell, who was on campus to deliver the 2012 Bernard Brodie Distinguished Lecture on the Conditions of Peace organized by UCLA's Burkle Center for International Relations, is no stranger to the process, having served as chairman of peace negotiations in Northern Ireland in the late 1990s and as President Obama's special envoy for Middle East peace from 2009 to 2011.
He said there is no conflict that is beyond resolution, no matter how deep-seated and complex.
"Societies are nothing more than a collection of individuals who ultimately act in their self-interest," Mitchell said. "The best way to resolve differences and conflict is through peaceful, democratic means."
Much of his talk focused on current events in the Middle East. He told the packed house of more than 500 at UCLA's Schoenberg Hall that he considers the Arab Spring to be a turning point for the region.
"There will be some steps forward and some backward," he said. "There will be different outcomes in different countries. There will some good results and some bad results. What happens in Syria and particularly in Egypt, a proud country with a long history, will be of great significance. History tells us that revolutions are unpredictable and often take years, even decades to play out."
Mitchell reminded the audience that with the American Revolution, which occurred during a much less complicated time, seven years passed between the end of our fight for independence and the establishment of the United States of America as a nation.
He also noted that in several historical instances involving sharp and violent changes in leadership, "very bad governments removed by revolutions were followed by governments that were even worse.
"We must be patient and realistic in our expectations regarding the Middle East, even as we do all we can to support the transition to democracy ... We must always bear in mind that these changes came from within and will succeed or fail from within, and we must also continue our effort to help end the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians."
Mitchell went on to say that he believes that a peaceful resolution between Israel and the Palestinians is not only is possible — it is critical to the survival of both parties.
"While it will be politically difficult," he said, "and it will entail some degree of risk for both Israelis and Palestinians to reach an agreement that would create a Palestinian state and provide security to Israel, I believe that the risk to both is much greater if they do not reach agreement."
Mitchell said that this conflict, like any, cannot be resolved through outside intervention. It will only be accomplished through negotiation, compromise, flexibility and the willingness to make brave political decisions.
"It will require leadership by all concerned, leaders willing to take risks for peace," he said. "I believe this conflict can be ended, in part because the pain from negotiating an agreement, while substantial on both sides, will be much less than the pain their societies will endure if they do not."
If the conflict continues, both parties face uncertain futures and continued violence. Mitchell said that a change in demographics will in time result in a Palestinian majority, which will require Israel to choose between being a Jewish state or a democratic state.
He also said that while the wall separating Israel from the West Bank continues to serve as a deterrent to suicide bombers, it would not be sufficient should Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran opt to launch rockets at Israel. For Palestinians, an indefinite occupation means a continuation of their lack of self-governance. He also said the United States is committed to supporting both parties' efforts to achieve peace.
"It's a truly daunting challenge to rebuild trust, not only between political leaders but between societies with a long and bitter history of conflict," Mitchell said. "But they must find a way to renew hope, to see that peace does prevail. And we must do all we can to help them. That will be the ultimate test of leadership, theirs and ours."