Reporter's notebook

Amid plenty of pro-Palestine talk, Irish temper their tone on Israel

Home to an outspoken anti-Israel camp, Ireland also counts plenty of supporters — including at the highest levels of government

Demonstrators in Dublin protest Israeli military operations in Gaza in early 2009. (CC BY/albertw via
Demonstrators in Dublin protest Israeli military operations in Gaza in early 2009. (CC BY/albertw via

DUBLIN — Leave it to Ireland’s capital city to host an EU CounterSummit where one of the topics is “Palestine.”

The idea of the gathering, held over the weekend, was to be a “radical alternative” to the usual showpiece European summits, attended by the continent’s leaders and foreign ministers.

Billed as “Discussions on Austerity, Resistance and the Left Alternative,” the event was organized by Paul Murphy, the socialist Irish member of the European Parliament, and attended by various European leftists. The agenda on the flyer was ambitious: “Militarisation, Democracy, Women’s Rights, Palestine, The Far Right and Building to Defeat EU Austerity.”

Yes, Palestine was just dropped in there like a political football. There were no other foreign policy issues. No Kurds, Kashmir or Syria, currently being torn apart in a civil war. Even US involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan has slipped off the radar.

This single-minded focus on “Palestine/Israel” is a feature of the hard left, and indeed of the softer left: One of the summit participants was Sinn Fein, now a centrist party in the South and North of Ireland.

In Ireland, this focus is especially obsessive, and Israel-bashing is a hot topic, which connects to a wider European agenda. One of the speakers during the “Palestine” discussion was Irishman David Cronin, the author of “Europe’s Alliance With Israel,” who twice tried to stage a citizen’s arrest of Avigdor Liberman when the former Israeli foreign minister was visiting Brussels. Many Israelis would assert that the EU has an anti-Israel slant, but Cronin believes the opposite, and accuses the EU of being complicit in the “whole Zionist project,” including the West Bank settlements.

For a small country with no geopolitical connection to the Middle East, Ireland is surprisingly active on issues related to Israel

Thus, although the anti-summit and its participants are small in scale, they are noisy, and have a disproportionate influence. As does Ireland itself. In 1980, it was a famously outspoken statement by then foreign minister Brian Lenihan supporting Palestinian “self-determination” and recognition of the PLO (the Bahrain Declaration) that led to the Venice Declaration later that year, in which the European Economic Community — the precursor to the EU — followed suit.

Since then, Ireland has consistently pushed the EU to take a harder line on Israel. Yasser Arafat used to get a warm Irish welcome. On 9/11, he was in Gaza, receiving Irish Foreign Minister Brian Cowen, who urged him to give blood on TV. On the day before the assassination of Israeli minister Rehavam Ze’evi in a Jerusalem hotel by Palestinian terrorists in October 2001, which led to Israel’s re-taking of West Bank towns, Arafat was — where else? — in Dublin.

So for a small country with no geopolitical connection to the Middle East, and with a minimal ethnic connection (there is a small Muslim population and smaller Jewish one), Ireland is surprisingly active on issues related to Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It is an interest not necessarily shown in other foreign disputes by this often insular island.

The focus may have something to do with the parallels between Irish history and perceptions of colonialism in the Middle East, but either way, Ireland has provided some of the most vocal opposition to Israeli security policy, be it through support for the Gaza flotillas, official government statements or the controversial campaign by a major charity, Trocaire, to boycott goods from Jewish settlements. Israel’s Foreign Ministry recently told a group of visiting Irish journalists, including this reporter, that Ireland is seen as the EU member state most critical of Israel. The ministry then gave us a cross-country helicopter ride — to underline how small the country is, and keep us sweet.

Not that it needed to. The journalists were open-minded, even sympathetic, which is also the case with the wider Irish media, quite in contrast to the more vocal protest lobby. Indeed, Israel has many stout defenders in the Irish media, especially among well-known pundits.

So it’s not all one-way traffic. A support group called Irish4Israel recently formed and held a rally in the center of Dublin, and there is strong support among evangelical Christians, especially in Northern Ireland, which of course is a separate jurisdiction and has its own curious relationship with the conflict (with Israeli flags flying in the Protestant areas of pro-British Unionists!).

Consumed with its own economic problems, Ireland has adopted a more balanced, less strident approach to Israel

In Dublin, the government has taken a consistently robust line — but also one, it would argue, that is at least engaged. When Ireland chairs the rotating EU presidency, there is usually a vain effort to reinsert the EU into the Middle East peace process. Not during its current presidency, however, which lasts through June: The EU and Ireland are too preoccupied with their own economic problems. There appears to be a more balanced, less strident approach to Israel by both parties. Since the start of the country’s economic collapse, Ireland’s critical rhetoric, most apparent during the long period of government by the centrist Fianna Fail party, has fallen out of favor, along with the party itself.

The present government is a coalition of the Labor party and the right-of-center Fine Gael party, both of which take a more nuanced approach. Israel has a strong supporter in Fine Gael’s Alan Shatter, the influential justice and defense minister (who is Jewish), and party chairman Charlie Flanagan has repeatedly attacked the Trocaire boycott campaign. Meanwhile, one of the ironies of the debate is that some of Israel’s most robust parliamentary defenders are in the left-leaning Irish Labor party, including the likes of Joanna Tuffy, Richard Humphreys and Education Minister Ruairi Quinn. This dates back to the days of labor Zionism, but it is an instinct that endures, and is possibly reinforced by the antagonism of the hard left.

For example, Labor leader and Deputy Prime Minister Eamon Gilmore very publicly opened an Israeli film festival in Dublin in 2011, much to the fury of noisy protesters. But Gilmore was determined to show that the Irish government seeks to be even-handed.

Of course, the absence of protests outside other cultural and foreign events in Dublin, including outside the city’s surprisingly large Iranian embassy, goes without saying.

Eamon Delaney is a journalist and author based in Dublin, where he contributes to TV and radio. He is the author of “An Accidental Diplomat — My Years in the Irish Foreign Service, 1987-1995.”

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