FM also goes to Gaza, announces funding for solar plant

Visiting Israel, Irish FM says he’s open for ‘new thinking’ on peace process

But Simon Coveney insists on two-state solution; says Dublin ‘effectively blocked’ bill that would criminalize import of settlement goods

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

Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney, left, meets with PM Netanyahu in the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, December 2, 2019 (Koby Gideon/GPO)
Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney, left, meets with PM Netanyahu in the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, December 2, 2019 (Koby Gideon/GPO)

Ireland’s foreign minister on Tuesday said he was in favor of “new thinking” about the Israeli-Palestinian peace, acknowledging that the realities on the ground have changed since the Oslo Accords in the mid-1990s.

At the same time, Simon Coveney, who is visiting the region for the fourth time since becoming foreign minister in 2017, stressed his government continues to call for progress in the peace process and stressed that he sees a two-state solution as the only possible outcome.

In an interview with the Kan public broadcaster, Coveney reiterated Dublin’s opposition to a bill that would criminalize the import of settlement products into Ireland, saying that his government has “effectively blocked” the proposal from advancing.

“We will continue to advocate, yes, for new thinking, because I think a solution now is probably not the same as what a solution looked like 20 years ago. A lot has happened in that time,” Coveney said, in response to a question whether there is a need for new ideas given the ongoing stalemate in the peace process.

“But it’s got to be a negotiated solution, as opposed to an enforced solution on Palestinians because they’re in a weaker negotiating position, perhaps, than Israel is,” he added.

The Palestinians continue to aspire for their own state and no peace agreement will last “unless it involved two functioning states living side by side.”

Achieving such an outcome, which he acknowledged will have to take Israeli security concerns into consideration, will require lengthy negotiations.

In a subtle dig at the US administration, which has taken a clear pro-Israel stance for which it is being boycotted by the Palestinian Authority, he called for a process in which both sides feel they’re equal partners, “as opposed to people deciding what’s good for Palestinians and then presenting it to them. I don’t believe that’s the way you get a peace process successfully concluded,” he said.

“Israel is a super power in the region. It has huge support from the United States in particular but also many other friends around the world,” he added. “Palestinians are in a much, much weaker place in terms of poverty, in terms of being marginalized, in the case of Gaza being cut off from the outside world. Not entirely but certainly substantially.”

Senator Frances Black at an Irish Senate discussion of her bill to ban settlement goods, November 28, 2018 (screen shot Irish Senate)

In the interview, Coveney said that his government had buried the so-called settlements bill, advanced by independent lawmaker Frances Black, which declares it an offense “for a person to import or attempt to import settlement goods.”

The bill, which already passed in the upper house of Ireland’s parliament and has progressed to the lower house, also calls for five-year prison sentences for people who “assist another person to import or attempt to import settlement goods.”

“We don’t believe that it is legally sound because trade issues are EU competence as opposed to national competence in Ireland. And because we don’t believe it’s legally sound we have effectively blocked the legislation from moving through parliament as it normally would,” Coveney said.

“It’s essentially frozen in the process and it isn’t making progress. And I don’t expect that it will make progress, either, unless the government supports it, and the government won’t be supporting it.”

At the same time, Coveney defended Black’s effort as a “reflection of the frustration” about the stalling peace process. “This isn’t anti-Israel. It is trying to raise awareness and to try to increase the profile of the Middle East Peace Process in terms of the lack of progress that we’ve been seen,” he said.

In July, Senator Black said she was working with colleagues to “ensure that the Government won’t be able to use a technical rule known as a ‘money message’ to stall the Bill on cost grounds,” and expressed the hope that it would eventually be signed into law.

Also on Tuesday, Coveney traveled to Gaza, where he announced that his government is donating a solar plant to treat the coastal enclave’s contaminated water supply in Gaza.

“Ireland will fund the construction of a 7.5MW solar power plant providing clean, reliable energy to the NGEST wastewater treatment plant in Northern Gaza,” his office said in a statement.

“Water pollution is the leading cause of child mortality in Gaza,” the foreign minister said.
“Undrinkable water is keeping families poor, as they spend up to one third of their income buying water. Gaza has a critical energy shortage, which means that it is particularly difficult to power water treatment facilities.”

Many of these solar panels will be located in areas “previously designated as off-limits by the Israeli authorities,” Coveney added. “Opening up this land for humanitarian uses, and particularly for solar installations, has huge potential in a place where land is so scarce. Investments like this are critical to counter the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Gaza.”

He stressed that “only a political solution” can help fully rehabilitate the strip. “In particular, we need to see an end to the blockade of Gaza, an end to the cycle of conflict, and an end to the political division between Gaza and the West Bank.”

Coveney on Monday evening met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. On Tuesday, he is set to visit Ramallah for discussions with PA President Mahmoud Abbas and other senior officials.

“I will use this opportunity to discuss how Ireland can support efforts towards a durable two state solution to the conflict, and to convey clearly and firmly Ireland’s concerns about the impact of the occupation, including in relation to settlement activity and the blockade of Gaza,” he said Monday, before arriving in Israel.

A brief readout of his meeting with Netanyahu provided by the Prime Minister’s Office said that the two “discussed regional issues and threats to the State of Israel, especially the Iranian threat, and recent developments vis-à-vis the Gaza Strip.”

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