For a long time Ireland has had a relatively antagonistic relationship with Israel, which can at times be more keenly felt than diplomatic tensions with many other Western nations. It is not unusual to see articles and letters by Israelis expressing bafflement at this hostility. Most visibly perhaps, the Irish element in the international pro-Palestinian movement, for example in the flotillas to Gaza, is surprisingly large for a nation with a small populace. Last year an Israeli ambassador expressed the view that officials in Israel’s Foreign Ministry thought of Ireland as a "lost cause".
It is thought the strength of pro-Palestinian sentiment developed from a perceived affinity between the Irish republican movement and the Palestinians. Certainly the links between the IRA and Arafat’s PLO have been well documented. This connection is due to historic circumstance, where the British were wrongly perceived as pro-Jewish. Yet this affinity goes beyond disaffected socialists and republicans. It has infused the culture itself and can be seen at the heart of government, whether on the left or right.
There are incidents of outright antisemitism in Ireland but such events appear to be very rare in comparison with countries like Sweden and France where there has been something of a Jewish exodus. However, a study published in May of this year found that of those Irish citizens questioned, over 1/5th would deny citizenship to Israelis. More worrying are the anti-Semitic views of some, with 11.5% stating they would deny Irish citizenship to all Jews, and less than 60% saying they would accept a Jewish person into their family. When placed in context, it is clear this is a broad trend affecting the more anti-Israeli nations across Europe, which undermines the old cliché that pro-Palestinianism is anti-Zionism disassociated from antisemitic elements.
This all-pervasive pro-Palestinianism manifests in an interesting way. The focus on this issue is intense if not obsessive, considering its distance from Irish politics, where there is no serious threat of Islamist reprisals as a result of military activity. There is a culture of blame focused exclusively on Israel, a tacit apologism for Palestinian wrongdoing when not completely ignored, whilst at the same time loudly proclaiming the need for peace. Israel’s worries are rarely regarded with anything other than contempt.
Depressingly, this is the pose many Irish politicians strike, regardless of their creed and merit in other respects. The conduct of Ireland’s last foreign minister, Michael Martin, over the 2010 Gaza Flotilla issue left an awful lot to be desired - he rushed to conclusions damning Israel as the details of the story were only emerging. Culturally speaking, it is telling when an adept mainstream politician starts acting in such a fashion.
Recently this bias was illustrated when Eamon Gilmore, Tánaiste (deputy prime minister) and current Minister for Foreign Affairs, spoke about the bid for Palestinian statehood at the United Nations in New York. He is leader of the Labour Party, which is in a coalition government. Until the early 90’s he was a member of the Workers Party which was affiliated to a relatively moderate branch of the IRA.
Gilmore’s stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict
Other than glowing comments about the UN, Gilmore’s speech mainly dealt with the Mid-East conflict
In the Middle East Peace Process, the search for freedom and equality has yet to bear fruit. The Arab-Israeli conflict remains depressingly deadlocked. Unless this deadlock is broken, the opportunities for yet another generation of children will be destroyed.Indeed the peace process is deadlocked. Gilmore doesn’t ask why directly but goes along with the common assumption that the impasse is Israel’s fault judging by what he states elsewhere in the speech about Jewish settlements. However, just a cursory look at the record of negotiations suggests the problems do not lie with Israel. Didn’t Arafat and Abbas walk out of said processes? Arafat was offered about 91% of his territorial demands at Camp David but walked about over the shared sovereignty of the Temple Mount/Haram whilst Abbas was offered almost 100% of all territorial demands (with some land swaps) by Olmert. Gilmore sides with those unwilling to compromise by strengthening their hand with his support, whilst giving the more amenable party a good talking to. Surely this is a bizarrely counter-productive approach?
The situation in the Middle East is urgent. After twenty years of failed initiatives, disillusionment about the capacity of the political process to deliver a settlement is deepening. Young Palestinians, in particular, are frustrated and despairing. The position of the moderate Palestinian leadership is under threat…
It is posited that one side is especially frustrated and despairing. Gilmore believes it is the Palestinians. Then it needs to be asked why their leaders are so unwilling to enter peace talks without preconditions from either side. Polls through the years have repeatedly attested that far from wanting peaceful co-existence, the majority of Palestinians support the opposite. Most recently, a poll from July illustrated this point starkly. By contrast, a recent poll of Israelis indicates that 66% do not ever see peace as being possible with the Palestinians. Perhaps both sides are “frustrated” etc. but for very different reasons.
Ireland has long been an advocate for the establishment of a sovereign, independent Palestinian state within borders based on those of 1967…In 1980 Ireland became the first European country to associate a Palestinian state with the rights of the Palestinian people. This was the result of the “Bahrain Declaration”, which was the work of another minister for foreign affairs, Brian Lenihan (Senior). This was done at a time when the PLO was repeatedly questioning Israel’s right to exist. Israel’s anger over the move was intense, and it was seen by the Irish opposition as an effort to curry political and economic favour with the Arab Middle-East.
It is also of note that relations were frosty since Israel’s inception. Ireland was the last member of the EEC to recognise Israel, and the sole country in the EU bloc without an Israeli embassy until 1996, almost 48 years after Israel’s creation. It was grudgingly allowed with the advent of the Oslo peace process but only after it was matched by a strong Palestinian delegation to Ireland.
The decision of President Abbas to seek Palestine’s membership of the United Nations is entirely legitimate and understandable. Palestine has the same right to membership of the United Nations as Ireland or any other Member of this Organisation.Gilmore conflates countries in existence with a notional one. He also appears to assert there is some sort of implicit or automatic right to UN membership. Surely no region has such an automatic right to full membership as a state unless they constitute an actual state? Indeed Paragraph One of Article Two of the UN Charter says: “The Organization is based on the principle of the sovereign equality of all its Members.” Whilst the intent of that paragraph is arguably to reinforce the equality of all members, it still makes some level of sovereignty a condition of membership. Similarly Article Four makes it clear statehood is effectively a requirement for membership: “Membership in the United Nations is open to all other peace-loving states…” Thus, if a notional state has any right to membership at all, it does not remotely have the same right to membership as an established state like Ireland.
Such a claim to this right of full UN membership is especially dubious if the actors that seek to constitute a given state are in conflict with an established state which is a full member of the UN. In the initial part of Gilmore’s speech he praises the Charter but the text is an inconvenience to his viewpoint. Article Two, Paragraph Four states: “All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations.” The Palestinian Authority (PLO) continues to incite against Israel and repeatedly fudged the removal of the call to annihilate Israel in the PLO charter, a vital requirement of the Oslo peace process. Hamas repeatedly denies Israel’s right to exist and has called for a mass genocide against the Jews. The PA and Hamas formed a mock government for the UN bid. If their past conduct is anything to go by, a state they constitute would surely make a mockery of Article Four.
The nature of a Palestinian state is again conflated with existent states in an assertion about borders:
Some would seek to argue that Palestine cannot be recognised as a State because its borders remain to be agreed. But if the borders of Palestine are still a matter for negotiation, then so, by definition, are those of Israel which is rightly a full member of the UN.On the face of it, his point sounds reasonable. Yet when analysed the point represents a non-sequitur that misleads as it strips each case of their differing contexts. Distilled down, he essentially argues that recognition and/or membership of a Palestinian state equates with the same status afforded to Israel: A is justified as B has already been so. He appears to argue that both are conditional on each other being valid, regardless of the matter of disputed boundaries. Since he parallels the two, we can infer that both must have some form of similarity in terms of the conditions of their recognition/membership. This could be a distant similarity where equivalencies are artfully drawn out or a closer similarity in terms of circumstance. Does this bear out? Not really. The UN afforded an extant Israel full membership in May 1949, around the time the Armistice Lines were being finalised with the other nations involved in the 1948-49 war,which the International community now seek to re-use to carve up the State permanently.
Clearly the notion there is any meaningful equivalence comes across as an absurdity simply because Israel existed as a state. It was this fact which that principally led to its UN membership. A doesn’t follow B because it remains that Israel was a fully functioning state when it was given membership, while a Palestinian state is the exact opposite: a notional abstracted idea. The status of Israel’s borders was clearly a secondary concern, if one at all, while any borders are an impossibility for a notional one.
The reality is that Gilmore’s argument strawmans the stance of those disagreeing with the UN move. A prospective Palestinian state doesn’t have any borders, temporary or otherwise, in the first instance because it is not a functioning state, just a purely notional one. It becoming a functioning state depends on negotiations, not merely for borders. Such negotiations are the key to its creation. Pre-empting them with membership just makes said negotiations on a whole gamut of issues harder to compromise over.
Membership of the UN of itself… does not remove the compelling need for negotiations. Nor will it offer a legitimate excuse to avoid negotiations…Well the need for negotiations depends on Palestinian intent. If the Palestinian leaders seek to continue conflict and eventually destroy Israel then surely it merely strengthens their hand to avoid negotiations by placing greater demands on Israel before negotiations have a chance to take place. The incitement in the Palestinian media, even under the supposedly moderate Abbas, continues to radicalise the populace.
What recognition of Palestinian statehood would do, however, would be to give dignity and support to the Palestinian people who have suffered for too long. It would also be a tangible demonstration of the commitment of the international community and the UN to an agreed settlement between two sovereign states…The international community has already demonstrated its commitment to the Palestinian people time and time again. The Palestinians receive the highest priority, and the most substantial aid from the international community. They get the most attention, and not to a marginal extent either but to a vast degree, often at the expense of considerably worse conflict zones due to the continual attention given by the UN to the Palestinian cause. One wonders how much more “support” they need bar something along the lines of UN mandated military action against Israel to help them in their cause. It is open to question whether Gilmore believes the contention himself because he contradicts himself shortly after:
The international community has invested far too much effort and resources over the past decades not to do all it can now to assist a return to direct talks by the two sides. In the words of Martin Luther King, we cannot ignore “the fierce urgency of now”.Whilst Gilmore waxes lyrical about the hardship and the apparent lack of “dignity” afforded to the Palestinian people, he never explicitly mentions of the hardship Israeli’s have faced, which is telling.
Provided that the resolution is drafted in terms that are reasonable and balanced, I expect Ireland to give its full support.Balanced in Gilmore’s terms is decidedly pro-Palestinian. In reality of course Ireland wouldn’t vote against any UN resolution favouring the Palestinians unless it explicitly called for Israel’s destruction.
There can be no doubting the hugely transformative power for the Middle East region of a final end to the Arab-Israeli conflict.In reality a solution is unlikely to change the status quo. Whether or not the presence of Israel initially inflamed the region, coming to a solution with the Palestinians will clearly not result in peace, merely another chapter in this sorry conflict. The international community is anxious to push this panacea, whilst often taking liberties with Israel’s security, since the aftermath of the 1973 oil crisis. In reality conflict between Sunni and Shiite, Muslim and Christian, is on a far greater scale in the region.
Although Gilmore briefly mentions “violent attacks” that are probably intended to apply to both sides of the conflict, his principle concern is with Jewish settlements:
I again urge the Government of Israel to halt all settlement expansion. And I also call on them to end the unjust blockade of Gaza by opening up land crossings to normal commercial, human and humanitarian traffic.It is telling that Gilmore ends the part of the speech about the conflict on a note of sharp criticism of Israel, while never once mentioning the pain Israeli’s have endured in the conflict. His failure to present a case with any balance at all is illustrated with the further demand that Israel halt the blockade of Gaza (albeit by land rather than sea), which even the UN Palmer Report asserted was legitimate. Gaza isn’t run by the “moderate” leaders that he claimed are “under threat”. Rather the blockade exists since Gaza is possessed by Hamas, which took it by force from said moderates, and initiated conflict.
Broader contextual issues
Gilmore’s speech repeatedly praised the United Nations in gushing terms, without mention of its faults:
We are living in times of breathtaking change… To respond to these multiple and interrelated challenges, we have one constant anchor: the United Nations… No other organization has the same global impact and legitimacy.The UN repeatedly failed to face the challenges of the past satisfactorily. It became a political tool for the Communist/Middle East bloc long ago. Its future does not look rosy either. It remains driven by sectional interests, e.g. the Islamic OIC bloc typically gets the support of the anti-Western Non-Aligned Movement representing a majority of UN members.
Gilmore goes on to extol the virtues of the Charter, seemingly as the basis of all that is good in the UN:
The Charter tells us that “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights”. The UN is the embodiment of freedom and equality. It is a bulwark defending these core human values in a changing and uncertain world…For decades many members that should have abided by the principles of the Charter, such as universal values, freedom, equality etc., failed to do so. It is absurd to suggest the UN is the repository of human ideals. The Charter is a reminder of the monumental failure of the UN rather than a cause for any hope.
Whilst explicit criticism of the UN might be expecting too much, it is unfortunate that Gilmore didn’t allude to the manifest problems at the UN or even temper his praise somewhat:
Ireland is deeply committed to the United Nations. We look to it to uphold and defend the universal values of peace, security, human rights and development which are set out in the UN Charter. […]
A deep attachment to the values of freedom and equality and other core human rights principles underpins our candidature for election to the Human Rights Council at the elections to be held in 2012. […]
Now more than ever, the UN is demonstrating that it is the home for these fundamental values and goals and the arena in which we can best pursue collective solutions.Sadly, the truth is that the United Nations is far from being the institution it purports to be. It is a body shielding many brutal regimes by giving them legitimacy. One blackly comic example is the UN-HRC containing some of the very worst human rights abusers in the world. The incongruity is so overt, e.g. the spectacle of Saudi Arabia on the Commission on the Status of Women, and the the antisemitic Durban anti-racism conferences, that it is really a wonder anyone can still think it a legitimate agent for good in the world. Yet many people continue to see the UN as a deeply virtuous, if at times ineffectual, institution.
A recent example is UN inaction over Syria, which appears to be as serious as conditions were in Libya. To Gilmore’s credit he mentioned Syria but all too briefly in a single sentence. The main issue of the speech dealt with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and as such represents another example of the UN’s appalling obsession with Israel at the expense of other conflicts, even when one of the latter is in full swing whilst the former is quiet.
Gilmore described the Arab Spring glowing heroic terms, as a move toward freedom when in fact it is a deeply worrying source of instability and extremism in a region already blighted by such problems:
We have watched the people of the Arab Spring who have asserted their rights and stood up to oppression and corruption. Tahrir (freedom) has now passed into all our vocabularies as a byword for all those no longer prepared to see their basic human rights suppressed… The people of the Arab Spring have stood up, and stood together, to assert their basic rights and freedoms. The right to choose their own leaders. The right not to live in fear of the knock on the door. The right to live freely and openly…While the loss of the dictatorships are not something to bewail, the Arab Spring uses motifs of Islamic supremacy, and an undercurrent of Arab racism particularly in Libya. Hostility toward Israel, and Judaism in general, is a sizeable element in the movement.
A similar aggression toward Christians has been especially damaging because they lack the protection of a state like Israel. The destruction of Mid Eastern Christians has increased in recent months. Isolated events have reached the news occasionally but the phenomenon has otherwise been completely ignored at the UN, by Western leaders and also by many branches of the faith. In Egypt it is estimated that 100,000 Christians have left since the fall of Mubarak and worse is to come.
Aftermath of the speech
Gilmore’s speech attracted quite a lot of interest before and after its delivery. During a motion in the Senate calling on the government to recognise a Palestinian state at the UN meeting, Senator Terry Leyden, of the Friends of Palestine parliamentary group, said that Alan Shatter, the sole Jewish minister in Government, had an undue influence over foreign policy on Palestine. He also accused American Jews as having an undue influence over Obama. His assertions raised the sceptre of antisemitism, which he furiously denied.
Similarly, Éamon Ó Cuív, the deputy head of an opposition party was haranguing the government with accusations of following Obama’s stance at the UN, even though they had already said they would vote in favour of a Palestinian state.
After the speech Gilmore elaborated on his criticism of Israel during one parliamentry session. It was a more frank account of his views. In reply to questions by Mick Wallace, an MP who was involved with the Gaza Flotilla campaign, Gilmore stated:
The illegal Israeli settlements are a key driver of the unresolved Arab-Israeli conflict. The expansion of settlements inherently involves the seizure of Palestinian lands, destruction of homes and eviction of families, and the exclusion of farmers from their fields.Gilmore forwards the standard rather absurd contention that the settlement issue is the prime reason for the failure of the peace process. Did Arafat walk out of Camp David over the settlements? No. During the Oslo Process, settlements were designated as a final status issue, and in fact Israel hasn’t recognised new Jewish settlements for quite a number of years.
The settlements also constitute, and are intended to constitute, an obstacle to the achievement of a comprehensive peace. If the settlements had not been put in place, the way to a comprehensive peace agreement between Israel, the Palestinians and the Arab world would now be clear and that such an agreement would be readily achievable.Gilmore makes unjustifiable myopic assumptions about the intent of Israeli policy toward settlements. For a time they were encouraged with tax breaks to provide a security buffer between Israel and the Palestinian territories. However, Israel has repeatedly shown a willingness to dismantle settlements in the West Bank in exchange for a peace agreement, and have already done so in the Sinai and Gaza. It is then nothing less than an absurdity for Gilmore to claim this is the principle issue preventing peace.
Gilmore claimed settler violence is increasing, perhaps as a result of a recent arson attack on a mosque:
Violence by settlers against Palestinians is increasing and is largely ignored by the military authorities. The whole settlement enterprise sends a clear message that there is one law for Israelis and another for Palestinians.In fact the attack was an unusual incident that drew wide condemnation from the Israeli establishment and Jewish leaders while Hamas used the event to incite violence.
The recent permission for the construction of more homes in Gilo was also a source of consternation:
… we strongly condemn the decision to go ahead with the 1,000 household settlement plan in Gilo in East Jerusalem…. the quartet statement… also sets down very clearly that provocative and pre-emptive actions should not be engaged in, and I agree with that.It would seem Gilmore thinks “provocative and pre-emptive actions” only appertain to one side of the conflict given his strong support for the UN Palestinian statehood bid loosely based on the 1949 borders!
Perhaps one of the more galling features of international criticism of Israel is their attitude towards Jerusalem. The remarkable thing is that Eastern parts of Jerusalem had a large Jewish majority before Jordan took the territory in 1949. Much of that land, which was in the ownership of Jews, was handed to Palestinians. Now even moderate levels of construction in “Arab East Jerusalem”, which only came to have such an ethnic exclusivity due to Jordanian ethnic cleansing, is regarded as a provocation!
Internationally, Jewish neighbourhoods in East Jerusalem are classed as settlements to the same extent as sites like Hebron, which are embedded in the West Bank quite deeply. It is bizarre to be so opposed to all Jewish construction beyond the Armistice Lines, without any distinction, even though sites like Gilo were intended to remain part of Israel according to the peace plans put forward for the last two decades. Meanwhile Israel also faces a well-publicised housing crisis due to shortages.
Israel must be encouraged to see that its own best interests are not served by the occupation.Gilmore’s sentiment is a commonly held view that fails to acknowledge very basic facts about the conflict. What of the deep religious/cultural and racial hostility toward Israel and Jews in general? What of the incitement and naked antisemitism that the Third Reich would have preferably concealed? Such consistent myopia allows Gilmore et al to portray the conflict as a simple fracas over territory, if only those naughty Israelis were to come to their senses by disposing of settlements. Palestinian wrongdoing is blithely ignored, and self-defence delegitimised.
Why the Irish authorities should know better
Ireland is a nation where a strong pro-Palestinian paradigm is predominant culturally. In this context it should be noted that focusing on Gilmore can give an impression that he has a deep hatred of Israel but in other respects he appears to be a proficient sensible politician, and is by no means one of the more anti-Israeli politicians in Ireland. Others like Richard Boyd-Barrett and members of Sein Fein/IRA, such as Aengus O’Snodaigh display such extreme hostility toward Israel that it is likely their views are merely a façade disguising a rank antisemitism.
Indeed it would be an oddity to see a senior Irish politician defending Israel but at least Irish society doesn’t sink to the lows found in Norway. Yet like Norway Ireland has a pugnacious desire to make its presence known on the world stage. Altruism is usually on display but doesn’t necessarily follow. Gilmore stated in New York,
Ireland will play its full part in the search for these solutions [security, human rights, etc.]… we will make our contribution. And we will stand up, in this Assembly and elsewhere, for fairness, for justice, for freedom and for equality, in the conduct of international relations.
It is common to hear comparisons between the Northern Irish conflict and that found in the Israeli-Palestinian territories. This comparison is alluded to by Gilmore:
In Ireland, we know from our own experience that peace does not come easily. It requires political will and difficult compromises. But we also know the benefits of peace. There can be no doubting the hugely transformative power for the Middle East region of a final end to the Arab-Israeli conflict.There is a tendency to parallel the catholic Irish with the Palestinians, and the Britain with Israel. Yet in reality these comparisons have only a very limited validity. The Irish have a great deal in common with the Jews historically, having been persecuted and pushed out into a diaspora by occupying empires, and Ireland is as much the homeland of the Irish as Israel is a homeland to the Jews. Indeed some Irish revolutionaries are known to have expressed sympathy for Zionism in the early 20th Century.
There are numerous divergences between these two conflicts as well so lessons from one are not easily transposed to the other. However, some understanding can legitimately be taken from the resolution of conflict in Ireland. The first is genuine compromise. The Irish have accepted that the unification of Ireland is not a precondition for ending conflict. As part of the Good Friday Agreement, a referendum removing the claim to Northern Ireland in Articles 2 and 3 of the Republic of Ireland Constitution was overwhelmingly accepted by voters. There was a mutual acceptance of the fears of the opposing sides, which were then addressed in a meaningful fashion. Within a short time a remarkable transformation took place in Northern Ireland. Even seasoned political commentators were astonished at the results.
The most depressing element of this story is perhaps that Ireland, which is largely trusted in the Arab world, was in a largely unique position to bring these lessons to a proposal for conflict solution. The Palestinians know that the International Community will offer more if they say “no”. In fact it benefits their stance since the more they reject the process, the more Israel is blamed for doing too little. With the exception of the US, the International Community does nothing to pressure the PA to make genuine gestures toward peace, even though they support the PA with a considerable amount of aid. Worse still, the Palestinian populace has been radicalised by decades of incitement towards the Jewish State, where polls indicate they do not favour peaceful co-existence. These issues need to be confronted squarely.
One Jewish resident of Jerusalem stated when faced with the likely division of his city:
I'm ready to compromise my dreams and share Jerusalem with all who love her, to defer my claim to the Temple Mount until the coming of the messiah. But only for peace. Not for a one-way process of Israeli withdrawals while the Palestinian Authority's media and schools preach holy war and deny Israel's right to exist.Peace will only come when the pro-Palestinian orthodoxy is challenged at the UN and elsewhere. Only an even-handed approach that deals with both sides in genuine fairness can possibly work. Such a fresh approach, other than the bash-Israel method, probably wouldn’t make a dramatic difference in the short term, as the religious element to the conflict is arguably more intractable, and the incitement from Palestinian quarters considerably greater, than in Ireland. Yet pushing a message of a sincere mutual recognition as a method of building confidence and trust over time would surely make a real difference.
If anyone really thinks UN membership or recognition for a conceptual Palestinian state will advance peace rather than be an impediment, they need to revisit the facts of the conflict. The Palestinians have actually shown signs of demanding more before entering talks since the meeting in New York, making a solution even harder. Truly the only “recognition” needed is the recognition between peoples. Genuine peace will come from that juncture.
This article was published at the New English Review.