DUBLIN — Ireland’s minister of defense and justice will visit both sides of Israel’s border with Lebanon this week, then will break from tradition by celebrating Sunday’s St. Patrick’s Day in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.
Alan Shatter, a Jewish lawyer whose political career was once pronounced dead, is returning to the Middle East as a powerful force — not only as a senior member of Ireland’s coalition government, but as a representative of the European Union, whose rotating presidency is currently in his country’s possession.
“As Ireland has peacekeeping interests in the region, the principal purpose of the visit is firstly to visit the Irish troops who are serving on peacekeeping duties; secondly, to receive briefings from the mission commanders in the region; and thirdly, to meet with representatives of governments,” a spokeswoman for Ireland’s Department of Defense said.
For Shatter, much of the trip will follow longstanding Irish protocol — he’ll begin by meeting with his country’s soldiers in southern Lebanon, where they’ve been stationed continuously since 1978 as part of UNIFIL, the United Nations peacekeeping mission. In addition to meeting Lebanese officials, he’ll also travel to the West Bank to consult with representatives of the Palestinian Authority, part of an old Irish policy of “balancing” visits to Israel with meetings on the Palestinian side, often a source of irritation to Israelis.
Shatter has been passionate and outspoken on Israel — and, by the standards of Irish politicians, unusually well-informed
Yet Shatter’s trip to Israel — his first official visit as a minister — will also offer something new: a gesture of friendship from an outspoken Irish supporter.
The 62-year-old has been to Israel a number of times, including to work on a kibbutz as a young man, as well as on parliamentary delegations. His next visit will include meetings with his counterparts, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman and Neeman’s designated successor, Tzipi Livni. He will also meet Knesset members and NGOs engaged in humanitarian work in the region.
Irish government ministers have long traveled overseas for St. Patrick’s Day, traditionally to strengthen ties with the Irish diaspora and drum up investments. Destinations have typically been Irish strongholds in New York, Boston and Sydney, but the list has increasingly extended to other locations, and Shatter will this year spend St. Patrick’s Day in Israel‘s two largest cities. Instead of reaching out to overseas Irish, Shatter will instead encourage investments from Israelis, with several business and trade events on his schedule.
Irish political sympathies have often gone to the Palestinians, but business relations between Ireland and Israel grew exponentially during the former‘s “Celtic Tiger” years, when Ireland focused heavily on high-tech, and on drawing multinational investments with a low-tax, “light touch” model. The policies were lauded by Benjamin Netanyahu as an example for other small countries, including his own, and while admirers were later chastened by the collapse of Ireland’s construction and banking sectors, the economy there is now slowly improving.
Israel could not have a more understanding or reliable Irish ally than Shatter, a stalwart supporter even during times of controversy. Occasionally combative, he has been highly critical of previous governments’ strident criticisms of Israel, and he hasn’t retreated from subsequent abuse.
Indeed, some would say he is too fearless — he’s presently embroiled in a campaign to shut down many of Ireland’s aging, costly rural police stations, despite an outcry by regional interests, and ostentatiously confirmed the closure of almost 100 stations the day after the burial of a policeman shot dead in a robbery.
A member of the center-right Fine Gael party, he now represents a coalition with Labour — a government that is currently enacting austerity measures to reduce the deficit and end EU bailouts.
Identified with the socially liberal side of his party, and of the Irish political spectrum in general, Shatter was particularly active during the 1980s and ’90s in advocating for divorce and family-planning rights. His urbane Jewish background appeared to put him at an advantage, freeing him from the baggage that weighed on his Catholic counterparts. The same instinct has led him to address physical and sexual abuse in Church institutions.
Irish political sympathies have often gone to the Palestinians, but business relations with Israel have grown exponentially
He’s also kept his eyes on other historical challenges, such as the controversy over Irish soldiers who “deserted” the army to enlist in the British military during World War II. Deeply moved by the Holocaust and other crimes, Shatter believed — and eventually persuaded the Irish Government — that the war was “grave and exceptional,” and that the men should not be considered deserters for volunteering to fight the Nazis.
Thanks in part to his efforts, many who died officially dishonored were posthumously rehabilitated and publicly saluted.
Regarding Israel, Shatter has been both passionate and outspoken — and, by the standards of Irish politicians, unusually well-informed. In 1989, he blasted Ireland for considering the granting of an office to the PLO in Dublin, and in August 1990 went so far as to state, in parliament, that the country’s Middle East policies “have been dictated to this government by kidnappers in Beirut, by government ministers in Tehran and by Yasser Arafat in Tunisia.”
During another parliamentary debate, in 1995, he criticized other speakers for saying next to nothing about terror attacks on Israeli citizens — receiving vigorous support from two other Jewish MKs, Ben Briscoe of the Fianna Fail party and Mervyn Taylor of Labour.
Shatter’s dual current roles as defense and justice minister give him an exceptionally influential position in the Irish government, and mark a dramatic reversal from 2002, when he lost his seat entirely. Though his career appeared to be over, he made a determined effort to re-enter politics, and is relishing ministerial life after his party’s surge in the 2011 elections.
Israel, one imagines, may soon relish it along with him.
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