Even before the freshly acquitted Gwyneth Paltrow gave us what we are obliged to call the Slalom Witch Trial, she had already made an enduring gift to the language. For a quarter century, we have spoken of Sliding Doors moments, in homage to the otherwise slight Paltrow romcom in which a single, small action has life-altering consequences – opening up two very different futures.
People use the phrase to refer to forks in the road of their personal lives, but it also applies to the bloodiest kind of international politics. I look at the contrasting journeys taken by Northern Ireland and by Israel in the last 25 years and conclude that one got on the right train and the other missed it – with consequences that get only more tragic.
To be sure, not everything in Northern Ireland is rosy. The institutions of self-government remain suspended, and this week MI5 raised the threat level from substantial to severe. But talk to those involved in brokering the Good Friday agreement, whose 25th anniversary is approaching, and they are clear that thousands of people are alive now who would be dead, murdered, had it not been for that accord. Less than a fortnight ago we marked the 20th anniversary of one of the worst acts ever committed by a UK government. In less than a fortnight, we can remember one of the best. (Strange to think they both occurred under the same prime minister.)
Now consider Israel. As it happens, the Northern Ireland peace process ran in parallel with a sustained effort to end the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. Both went through 1990s Washington, where I was a correspondent for this newspaper, with representatives of both sides in both conflicts constantly in and out of the city, each one benefiting from the direct involvement of President Bill Clinton. The exhausted peacemakers of Northern Ireland got their deal across the line on that famous, bleary-eyed Easter morning. The peacemakers of Israel-Palestine never did.
The result was a second intifada and round after round of bloodshed. Israel’s occupation is now in its 56th year, and that has been a disaster for the Palestinians most obviously, but it has also been a calamity for Israel itself. As the occupation’s opponents always warned, it oppresses the occupied and corrupts the occupier. There is only so long a democracy can survive while ruling over another people.
That has come to a head in the last three months, with a move by Benjamin Netanyahu that would imperil, if not destroy, Israeli democracy. He wants to neuter the country’s supreme court, which is all but the only check on an Israeli government’s power. Amid warnings of an imminent descent into dictatorship, Israelis have demonstrated en masse for 12 straight weeks. Reservist fighter pilots, Israel’s most elite warriors, announced they would not train but would join the protests instead. The president warned of civil war.
Last weekend, Israel went to the brink. Netanyahu fired his defence minister, who had called for a pause in the judicial “reforms”, prompting hundreds of thousands to pour into the streets, spontaneously and late at night, to say no. The trade union movement called a general strike, which, incredibly, was supported by their bosses: imagine the TUC and CBI in joint strike action to oppose the UK government. Leaders of local councils, including some from Netanyahu’s own Likud party, went on hunger strike to protest against their leader’s “judicial coup”.
Eventually, Netanyahu backed down, announcing a “time out” on his plans. But he has not dropped them. He could well bring them back in a tactically smarter way: piecemeal, so that there’s no single, rallying focus to galvanise the opposition. What’s more, he threw a terrifying bone to one of his most extreme coalition allies. To win backing for the pause, Netanyahu announced that his security minister, Itamar Ben-Gvir, a far-rightist with convictions for racist incitement and support of a terror organisation, would be allowed to form a new “national guard” directly under his own command. That ugly sound you hear is the echo of a dark history.
All this matters for Israel, obviously, which is facing what many regard as the greatest threat since its founding 75 years ago. A government with unlimited power, with no supreme court standing in its way, would face no obstacle if it moved towards theocracy, as some in the coalition wish, or if it decided to annex the West Bank while granting no citizenship or rights to the millions of Palestinians who live there. Those scenarios sound extreme, but this is a government packed with extremists.
It’s no use saying that the voters can simply kick Netanyahu out next time. If the supreme court is gutted, there will be nothing to stop him changing the electoral rules – say, banning those parties he deems a threat to national security. This is why Israelis have been on the streets: they understand that the only time to stop a dictatorship is when it’s being established. If you wait, it’s too late.
But this is not a matter for Israelis and Palestinians alone. This week I spoke to the bestselling historian Yuval Noah Harari, who warned that while some have said Netanyahu’s changes would turn Israel into Turkey or Hungary, it would be much worse than that: “Hungary is still a member of the European Union. Hungary doesn’t hold millions of people under occupation. Hungary doesn’t have nuclear weapons. Hungary doesn’t have hundreds of thousands of religious zealots with an expansionist plan. If we don’t stop the anti-democratic coup in Israel, it could set the entire Middle East on fire.”
It’s hard to imagine we’d have reached this point if Israelis and Palestinians had made a breakthrough in 1998, when the Good Friday agreement was signed (funnily enough, the same year Sliding Doors was released). If the occupation had ended then, if the West Bank settlers had been confronted, if there were now two states living side by side. If, if, if.
Instead, Israel is fated to look towards Belfast and think of what might have been – and perhaps to learn one unexpected lesson. All the stars aligned for Northern Ireland 25 years ago, but a crucial one has been underplayed: the role of Irish Americans, not least in persuading Clinton to engage in the first place. It’s been heartening to see the Jewish diaspora speak out against Netanyahu, mounting their own demonstrations, alongside expatriate Israelis, in London, New York, Sydney and across the world, breaking several longstanding taboos as they have done so. The diaspora needs to do much, much more – including making the connection between Israel’s internal democratic struggle and the occupation – but this could prove an important start.
Finally, a word on those who took the right train 25 years ago. The people of Northern Ireland have much to contend with still, including a Brexit they never voted for. But in Israel they can see what the alternative might have looked like: a conflict without end, and all the pain that brings. The right door slid open for them – they should give thanks every day that they walked through it.
On next week’s Politics America Weekly podcast, Jonathan Freedland talks to New York publisher Niall O’Dowd about the role he and the Irish American diaspora played in the Good Friday peace process
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