A hard lesson in the dilemmas of leadership

To deliver peace, strong leaders must have the courage to stand outside their own biography and that of their own people.

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Taking a break "to devote more time to deal with family matters" is a variation on one of the most hackneyed departure lines in politics. But when the First Minister of Northern Ireland Peter Robinson said it this week, he meant it. Revelations about his wife's infidelity and the alleged financial improprieties related to her affair require his urgent attention. Still, he is an integral player in a peace process that remains just that: a process. If he does not return, a figure with his experience and reputation cannot be replaced overnight.
The compromises and leadership that peace in Northern Ireland required - and still demands - serve as a template for so many other parts of the world. It was Mr Robinson's political duty to advance a fragile reconciliation effort to its next stage, while bringing with him a constituency for whom the wounds of a bloody 30-year conflict remain deep. Moving forward without losing touch with your base, the imperative to lead rather than follow: does that sound familiar? It should, for it is a requirement of leaders from Kabul to Washington, fulfilled with varying degrees of success; and perhaps nowhere more than the Middle East is such leadership desperately needed. The president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, and the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, must attempt a similar high-wire balancing act if the peace process is to move forward.
Mr Netanyahu pretended to offer the compromise of a statesman with his conditional acceptance of a Palestinian state last year. But the best litmus test for his sincerity was how this proposal was received by his own base - and the Israeli hawks were silent. Their protests would have been loud and clear if they had believed he was serious. Balancing the demands of peace with those of politics may be more difficult for Mr Netanyahu than it was for many of his predecessors. He does not have the military heroics of an Ariel Sharon or an Yitzak Rabin to lend him credibility and leverage among the hawks. And even this, it should be noted, did not save Mr Rabin from the most rabid opponents of peace within his own country.
To get to a position where a leader can make peace often requires a credibility that can be built only through a biography of sacrifice and struggle. But actually to deliver peace, strong leaders must have the courage to stand outside their own biography and that of their own people. They must re-imagine a future without the burdens - and identity - that a generational struggle provides. Leaders in Northern Ireland, both Catholic and Protestant, have shown this courage in the past 10 years. Other parts of the world might learn from their example.

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