InterviewIf you didn’t put settlements there in the first place, you wouldn’t have to make 'painful concessions' and withdraw from them

Israeli-Palestinian deal is ‘inevitable,’ says Irish envoy

The hard part begins after the treaty is signed, says Ambassador Eamonn McKee, drawing on Northern Ireland experiences

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

President Shimon Peres receives incoming Ambassador of Ireland to Israel, Eamonn McKee, at the President's Residence in Jerusalem, on October 10, 2013. (photo credit: Isaac Harari/Flash90)
President Shimon Peres receives incoming Ambassador of Ireland to Israel, Eamonn McKee, at the President's Residence in Jerusalem, on October 10, 2013. (photo credit: Isaac Harari/Flash90)

Ireland is perceived as particularly critical of Israel because as a small state it emphasizes international law and human rights more than other, more powerful European states, Dublin’s ambassador in Tel Aviv said in an interview.

Despite his country’s staunch opposition to Israeli settlement expansion, Eamonn McKee said Ireland considers itself an honest broker in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as its positions reflect a wide international consensus.

Having been deeply involved in the peace process in Northern Ireland, the ambassador said that while all conflicts are different, some universal lessons learned by the Irish could be applied to the Middle East as well.

“The idea of international rule of law, of human rights at the United Nations, are core principles for us when it comes to the Middle East and issues surrounding Palestine,” McKee told The Times of Israel in his office at the Irish Embassy in Tel Aviv.

Israeli officials and analysts who assert that Dublin’s strong support for the Palestinian cause reflects hostility toward Israel are entirely mistaken, he insisted. “Our position is that [we are in favor of] a two-state solution, and that’s pretty much where the consensus is.”

As opposed to larger nations within the European Union, such as Germany and Britain, smaller countries like Denmark or Ireland tend to automatically insist on the rule of law and on positions adopted by the UN, McKee added. “Very often what you have with bigger powers is that they have less regard for the international rule of law because they are simply powerful and they don’t need it.”

The establishment of human rights law was inspired by the events of World War II — war crimes, genocide and the Holocaust, the ambassador said. “There was a feeling we can’t go back to it and we need to create a different framework in terms of how countries deal with other. And that framework has to be universal rights and the international rule of law.”

Many officials in Jerusalem privately agree with McKee’s theory that powerful nations can afford to do whatever they please while smaller countries with no other leverage can only cling to adherence to international law.

However, Ireland does not apply this position equally to all situations in which international law is supposedly violated, one Israeli diplomatic official said. “How come they don’t condemn what Turkey does in Northern Cyprus or what Morocco does in Western Sahara with the same force as they condemn settlements in the West Bank?”

While Ireland is still “among the very worst” European countries when it comes to its position on Israel, there has been “some improvement,” this diplomatic official said. “One can point to some more realistic positions and statements coming from Dublin. There’s a curve that’s steadily going up. But in comparison with other countries, or seen on the general background of relationships we have with other EU states, it’s still not something to write home about.”

Before Ireland assumed the EU presidency during the first half of 2013, Dublin “committed to lead the way in number of initiatives we do not consider particularly friendly,” the official charged.

In April, for instance, Irish Foreign Minister Eamon Gilmore was one of 13 EU ministers to sign a letter calling for the union to advance efforts to label goods from Israeli settlements.

PM Benjamin Netanyahu with Irish Foreign Minister Eamon Gilmore in Jerusalem, January 2012 (photo credit: Moshe Milner/GPO/Flash90)
PM Benjamin Netanyahu with Irish Foreign Minister Eamon Gilmore in Jerusalem, January 2012 (photo credit: Moshe Milner/GPO/Flash90)

The Irish were also among the most steadfast countries in opposing Israel’s admission to the UN Human Rights Council’s Western European and Others Group last month, together with Iceland and Turkey, the Israeli diplomatic official said. “What could possibly move Ireland to oppose Israel joining, for the first time, a regional group in the HRC, so that it could finally get some work done?” This “morally broke” position showed that Ireland couldn’t claim to be an honest broker in the peace process, the official concluded.

McKee, who has been Ireland’s ambassador in Tel Aviv since October, insisted that his government could “absolutely” be considered an honest broker. While some organs of civil society in Ireland might take a strong anti-Israel stance, including calls for boycotts, the government does not endorse such positions, he asserted. Dublin, for instance, is “not campaigning” for the EU to start labeling Israeli goods produced beyond the Green Line, he said.

Dublin’s decisions are all geared toward “progress on the Palestinian issue; [they include] votes in favor of a two-state solution, votes on human rights issues and humanitarian access,” McKee said. “There’s no debating that these are issues that cause controversy in terms of Israel’s approach to the occupation of territory and the role of security forces and human rights generally. We’re not going to airbrush these out; these are issues that need to be tackled head on.”

Ireland is looking for a future of peace and economic development in the region, he said. “We’re only going to get there if we look at these issues straight on and talk candidly about them.”

Israel’s settlements in the West Bank, for instance, “are a real problem,” he said. “They’re illegal; they’re causing huge problems when it comes to reaching the kind of accommodation in a two-state solution that we want.” Some segments of Israel’s population are in favor of expanding settlements, yet “we think that’s wrong, this all has to be pulled back. And we make no apologies for that.”

To be sure, the settlements are not the only problem, he clarified. But because they are establishing facts on the ground that “run contrary to a contiguous, viable Palestinian state,” Ireland feels the need to take a strong stand on the issue. Israel itself says that it in case of a final peace deal it would have to make painful concessions, referring to the withdrawal from settlements, McKee said. “Well, if you didn’t put them there in the first place, you wouldn’t have to do that.”

What about other issues that obstruct the peace process, such as Palestinian incitement? McKee said that obviously nobody agrees with hate speech and the demonization of Israel, adding that his previous experiences with the Northern Irish peace process taught him that incitement and nonrecognition of the other are the “most intractable issues that will take the longest to sort out.”

Ambassador Eamonn McKee (photo credit: Isaac Harari/Flash90)
Ambassador Eamonn McKee (photo credit: Isaac Harari/Flash90)

A native of Dublin, McKee spent years working with the teams that negotiated the 1998 Good Friday agreement, a milestone on the way to the resolution of a centuries-old conflict that cost thousands of lives. Although he has conducted workshops in the past on conflict resolution, drawing lessons from Northern Ireland, he was reluctant to give any concrete advice to the Israelis and Palestinians currently negotiating.

“The one lesson you can draw from the Northern Ireland peace process is you keep going,” he said. “You can bridge these gaps and you can find an accommodation. It’s about persistence, really. By being persistent, things begin to align, going from a malign cycle of events that seem to frustrate peace — eventually you reach a tipping point where things begin to come together.”

McKee, 53, said he himself had been skeptical about peace in Northern Ireland, as negotiators were tackling a deeply rooted conflict, with arguments over identity, sovereignty, self-determination, human rights and other issues seemingly unsolvable. “I’m not saying that it was on the same scale as in the Middle East. But I’m simply saying that the difficulties were huge. The apparently intractable conundrums were there, and yet we managed to bridge all of these things and create not only a peace but a political modus operandi that works.”

Looking at the actual issues to be sorted out — in Israel/Palestine, it’s about security, borders, refugees and the status of Jerusalem — McKee said one couldn’t really compare Ireland with the Middle East. And yet, he added, “all solutions are very similar. So while conflicts can have very different roots, the outcomes have to be the same: It has to be about mutual respect, defined borders, democratic institutions and managed relationships between these two institutions.”

It’s not going to be easy, but when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, McKee believes that a peace treaty is possible. Indeed, he suggested, it is inevitable. “There is the irreducible fact that you have got a Jewish democracy here, and you have got a Palestinian people, a Palestinian Authority, a Palestinian proto-state, as it were — that is not going away. It’s not just going to vanish; there has got to be a rapprochement between these two entities and a modus vivendi between these two entities. And it’s simply a question of how soon can we get there. Because we will get there eventually.”

However, he cautioned, signing a piece of paper is going to be the easy part. “When a deal is reached, and inevitably there will be a deal, that really is the start of the hard work. Because then you are into an implementation phase that is going to be long and difficult.”

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