Irish president meets leader of anti-Israel boycott movement

Israel protests after Michael Higgins shakes hands with Omar Barghouti at trade union conference and praises organizers for inviting him

Raphael Ahren is a former diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

BDS activist Omar Barghouti at a pro-boycott rally in Ramallah, February 2016. (YouTube screen capture)
BDS activist Omar Barghouti at a pro-boycott rally in Ramallah, February 2016. (YouTube screen capture)

Ireland’s president met with Omar Barghouti, the co-founder of the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, a move Israel denounced.

Michael Higgins shook Barghouti’s hand and warmly acknowledged him at a conference of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, the largest civil society organization on the island of Ireland with 80,000 members.

“You give a great example of your internationalism by organizing fringe events and by inviting Omar Barghouti who will speak on the challenge ahead for Palestine,” Higgins said during a July 4 speech at the organization’s biennial conference, which take place in Belfast.

The conference delegates endorsed the BDS movement.

Speaking at the conference, Barghouti sought support for his calls for a boycott of Israel. BDS targets “complicity” in Israeli crimes, “not ethnicity,” he said.

Responding to a Times of Israel query, the president’s spokesperson, Hans Zomer, said Higgins was “briefly introduced” to the guest speakers by the organization’s general secretary before he proceeded to deliver his keynote address. “After his address, the President then departed for Dublin to attend to State business, which included meeting Justin Trudeau, Prime Minister of Canada,” Zomer wrote in an email.

He did not reply to repeated questions regarding the president’s position on boycotts of Israel.

Israel’s embassies in Dublin and London were aware of Barghouti’s visit to the trade union conference, according to Foreign Ministry spokesperson Emmanuel Nahshon. “The ambassador in Dublin [Ze’ev Boker] delivered his protest at the appropriate levels on the inclusion of Barghouti in the Irish president’s greetings to the conference participants,” he told The Times of Israel on Tuesday.

Higgins, 76, was a senior member of Ireland’s Labour party before becoming president in 2011.

Ties between Dublin and Jerusalem remain tense due to what the Israeli government perceives as an Irish bias in favor of the Palestinians.

Ireland’s new foreign minister, Simon Coveney, last week visited Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “expressed his dissatisfaction over Ireland’s traditional stance and told the Foreign Minister that his country does not condemn Palestinians for incitement and for glorifying those who commit terrorist attacks,” according to a readout of their meeting provided by the Israeli government.

“The Prime Minister also asked him why Ireland helps NGOs that call for the destruction of Israel and noted that many European countries are overlooking the core problem of the conflict – the Palestinian refusal to recognize the state of the Jews.”

Coveney himself characterized his meeting as “constructive and frank.”

“Of course, we have clear differences on some issues, but these differences are honestly held and openly expressed,” he said. “Our discussions touched on a range of issues, including settlements, the humanitarian and political situation in Gaza and, more broadly, the prospects for the resumption of meaningful negotiations in the Middle East Peace Process.”

Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney (left) meets Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, July 11, 2017 (GPO)
Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney (left) meets Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, July 11, 2017 (GPO)

Coveney also met with President Reuven Rivlin, who hailed bilateral ties despite differences of opinion on the Palestinian file.

“I think the relationship between Israel and Ireland is very important, in spite of differences of opinion which we have from time to time,” Rivlin said. “We have differences of opinion and we can respect that, but we really are against the idea of boycott, I believe that among people who respect one another we have the ability to criticize from time to time, and also to explain the real facts according to our beliefs.”

Coveney acknowledged that many Israelis feel Ireland is biased in favor of the Palestinians but that in the end all yearn for peace. Irish people are so interested in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict “because we have had a violent past ourselves, and we see this as one of the great conflicts and divisions in the world,” he said.

“My reason for being here — the first visit I have made as foreign minister outside Europe — is despite what people may sometimes feel about Ireland, we do care about this region, and want to be helpful.”

After his meeting in Ramallah, his office released a statement about the “difficult” humanitarian situation in the West Bank. “Demolition of houses and restrictions on freedom of movement and on access to essential services have all impacted negatively on vulnerable Palestinian communities,” the statement read.

“Ireland and our EU partners have consistently condemned the building of illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank, and the evictions, demolitions and land seizures from Palestinians which are an integral part of that project. Ireland’s foreign policy accords a high priority to efforts to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and we consider that a comprehensive peace based on two sovereign states, and the ending of the occupation, is essential to the future of both Palestinians and Israelis.”

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