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Interview

Despite pro-Palestinian bent, Dublin resists threatening Israel over annexation

Irish envoy says he’s not giving up on 2-state solution until both sides drop it; says Security Council, where Ireland recently won a seat, will respond to West Bank moves

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

Ambassador Kyle O'Sullivan (L) presents his credentials to President Reuven Rivlin, August 7, 2019 (Irish Embassy in Israel/Twitter)
Ambassador Kyle O'Sullivan (L) presents his credentials to President Reuven Rivlin, August 7, 2019 (Irish Embassy in Israel/Twitter)

While Ireland enjoys a robust relationship with Israel, with its foreign minister visiting the Jewish state four times in the past three years, it has also gained a reputation as Jerusalem’s fiercest critic in the European Union.

In 2018, Dublin’s city council passed resolutions endorsing the boycott of Israel and a year later, the second of Ireland’s two houses of parliament advanced legislation that would criminalize the import of Israeli settlement goods.

The Irish public’s strong allegiance to the Palestinian people and fervent opposition to the settlement movement has made the country a top candidate to come out with one of the more forceful responses to Israeli plans to annex large parts of the West Bank.

But in a Wednesday interview with The Times of Israel, Ireland’s envoy to the Jewish state rather purposefully avoided giving any ultimatums, stressing Dublin’s desire for a united international response to annexation even though it will almost certainly fall short of the unforgiving reaction many on the Irish street are seeking.

“We see annexation as a breach of international law that is dangerous and requires a response,” said Ambassador Kyle O’Sullivan. “But we don’t issue threats, we don’t issue warnings.”

‘We don’t rely on threat of force’

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed to annex as much as 30 percent of the West Bank, including all Israeli settlements as well as the Jordan Valley. Whether he goes through with the controversial move largely depends on the Trump administration’s willingness to back it. A White House spokeswoman said Wednesday that the US president would be making an announcement on the matter shortly.

The premier has told settler leaders and senior members of the government that he is considering various options, including a phased annexation, in what appears to be an effort to take into account opposition from the international community.

But O’Sullivan made clear that “regardless of the scale or size, annexation would be a problem” for his government.

The Palestinian flag flies over Dublin’s City Hall for first time ever May 9, 2017, following a vote by the city council. (Michael Riordan/Times of Israel)

Explaining his country’s position, the envoy said, “we’re not a superpower, so don’t rely on the threat of force to protect our interests.”

“Instead, we rely on international law and international consensus,” O’Sullivan said. “And if there’s no rules-based system, our interests are seriously affected.”

Although not a superpower, Ireland is gearing up for a considerable boost in its international standing when it takes a spot on the UN Security Council at the beginning of 2021.

O’Sullivan acknowledged that Ireland would likely face an uphill battle to sanction Israel in the Security Council, where the US reserves veto power, but “just because we can’t see a measure like sanctions being adopted doesn’t mean the Security Council doesn’t have a role to play.”

He went on to express certainty that annexation would be addressed in some manner by the top UN body.

The UN Security Council holds a meeting at United Nations headquarters, November 20, 2019 (Mary Altaffer/AP)

Will settlement goods be banned in response?

The ambassador was reluctant to outline the kind of international response his government would like to see to annexation, but he said the EU has a “full range of foreign policy tools from sanctions to statements to diplomatic measures.”

While just about all of the EU’s 27 member states have expressed their opposition to annexation, the international body has not yet formulated any punitive measures against Jerusalem if it goes through with the plan. Some more right-wing countries such as Hungary and Austria have reportedly expressed reservations about the desires of fellow EU members to sanction Israel.

Asked if Ireland would take its own steps if the EU failed to reach a consensus on the matter, O’Sullivan balked. “Individual countries either don’t have the traction or the right even to [respond on their own],” he said.

Illustrative: Palestinian and left-wing Jewish groups stage a rally walking from Times Square to United Nations Building in New York Thursday, Sept. 15, 2011. The marchers are calling to end all US aid to Israel, end the Occupation and support Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) against Israel (AP Photo/David Karp)

He added that Ireland was in the middle of forming a new government that is expected to be sworn in in the coming days, which could impact Dublin’s position on the matter.

The new coalition is slated to include parties both supportive and against the Occupied Territories Bill criminalizing settlement good imports, but the ratification of the legislation was not included in the incoming government’s five-year draft plan. O’Sullivan suggested that its absence hinted at the new coalition’s priorities.

The outgoing government has resisted signing the bill into law, saying it does not have the legal authority to apply customs regulations different from those in the rest of the EU. “I think that there’s no indication that the policy would change on this,” the envoy said, acknowledging that Dublin could eventually use the anti-settlement legislation as a response to a unilateral Israeli move.

The envoy gave a similarly noncommittal answer when asked whether Ireland is considering recognizing the State of Palestine as an alternative response to annexation. He cited the draft program pledge to honor its commitment to making such a recognition, while stipulating that it will only do so “in the context of an agreed upon two-state solution or at a time when it might be necessary to protect integrity of the process.”

While many analysts have warned that annexation would mark a death knell for the two-state solution, O’Sullivan said Ireland would not give up on the long-accepted paradigm until the parties do so themselves.

Ireland’s Ambassadr to Israel Kyle O’Sullivan. (Foreign Affairs Ministry)

Netanyahu, ahead of previous elections, vowed to prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state on his watch and has more recently told settler leaders that while he supports the Trump plan he does not consider what is being offered to the Palestinians to be a state. However, the Irish ambassador pointed out that the Israeli government has yet to officially walk back its support for two states or renounce the 2009 Bar-Ilan University speech in which Netanyahu expressed his support for Palestinian statehood.

“Until the sides turn around and say that it is no longer working, we have to presume that it’s the working hypothesis,” O’Sullivan said.

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