Ireland’s relations with Israel have been in the news quite a bit recently, including in the pages of The Jerusalem Post. Many of the people who I meet in Israel these days feel that the Irish government is particularly hostile to Israel, and that Irish people seem obsessed with the Israel/Palestinian conflict. It comes up all the time, at official, cultural and even personal encounters. When my wife went through security at Ben-Gurion Airport last month, the security officer looked at her Irish passport and asked if she was from the country that condemned Israel. In many ways, this is understandable. People are entitled to have strong views on things that affect their security and safety. And I can’t – and don’t – expect Israelis going about their daily lives to delve too deeply into why foreign governments say what they say. So I thought I’d try to explain.

Behind the headlines and the tweets, there are indeed real differences of opinion. Some of these differences are due to our respective points of view. People who live with the threat of terrorist attacks and atrocities, and who even last month underwent another barrage of rockets from terrorist groups such as Hamas, cannot afford to look at things in the same way as people who do not live with this threat.

Some of these differences reflect the historical experience of the Israeli and Irish people, before and after we came to be independent republics in the middle of the last century. Ireland became a republic on April 18, 1949 – and Israel eleven months earlier on May 14, 1948 – but both of our peoples would claim a much longer history than that. In the early decades of statehood – and right up to the 1980s – there was much more sympathy between the people in both countries. This has waned.

Ireland – and Northern Ireland especially – went through a period of violence and conflict from the late 1960s to the mid-1990s, which has left a deep impression on our country. Israelis lived through far more deadly wars, conflict and terrorism during these same years, and the issue of the Green Line and what happens beyond it remains unresolved.

Our governments do see some things differently, but of course we agree on many global issues, from climate change to development assistance to trade liberalization. And we agree that international relations should be based on the principles of the UN Charter, and that government should be based on the rule of law, on democracy and on respect for human rights and human dignity. When we differ, we differ about the application of these principles and values in a particular case, not about the principles themselves. 

But why do we appear to differ so much on something so important as the situation here in this region? It is true that in Ireland there is widespread public sympathy for the humanitarian situation of the Palestinian people. The images from Gaza last month are just the latest powerful influences on public opinion. I know that there are many in Israel who are also saddened by these images and the plight of the Palestinians. 

Beyond simple humanitarian concern, public opinion in Ireland is also deeply sympathetic to any national group that seeks a nation state of their own. For many Irish people, this evokes Ireland’s own national independence struggle. For some, this connection leads to an emotive and single-minded view of the Israel/Palestinian conflict. 

To be clear, the Irish government has always supported Israel’s right to exist, including with its Jewish character, and its right to defend itself in accordance with international law. The Irish government supports Israel’s right to be treated equally with the other sovereign states of the world, as a full and equal member of the international community with all the rights and obligations that go with that. The Irish government opposes any form of sanctions or boycotts against Israelis or Israel. And there is no question of an equivalence between a sovereign state defending itself, and a terrorist group indiscriminately attacking civilians. 

But there is still the situation of the Palestinian people. 

Many of the Israeli officials I meet here tell me that Israel is doing its best to manage the conflict, while providing some economic and social space for the Palestinians. A substantive peace process which might address the Palestinian aspiration for a country of their own is not practical at the moment, I am told, and the best that can be done is to manage the situation for now. I can follow the logic, and recognize the good faith with which this view is held by many. In the honest and disinterested view of the Irish government, however, it is not enough. 

Fifty-four years after the Six Day War, greater ambition is needed. No other workable and decent alternative has been proposed than a two-state solution, difficult and imperfect as it is. Steps towards it will be difficult, but necessary. Steps away from it, such as expanding Israeli settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, must stop. To us, further settlement construction preempts future negotiations with the Palestinians over the territory to be part of each state, given that in many respects the settlements are treated as effectively part of Israel.

I know our messages are unwelcome to many Israelis, and often disputed by the Israeli government. Many Israelis wonder why a country like Ireland is speaking so much, and why we are calling on Israel to take risks, when we are not sharing them, and to pay costs, when we are not contributing to them. 

As most Israelis know, for decades Irish soldiers have served in UN peacekeeping roles to Israel’s north and east, all of them in harm’s way and dozens have even paid the ultimate price. This is one of our contributions to international peace and security. Our current membership in the UN Security Council is another, as is our development assistance.

The Irish government strongly believes that a system of international law benefits everyone, but particularly states like Ireland and like Israel who do not have the geopolitical muscle to simply impose their preferences. When any state breaks the rules with impunity, it undermines the protection that international law gives to everyone. 

The Israel/Palestinian conflict is not the only unresolved conflict in the world, but it is one of the most resonant. It feeds instability throughout the region and the world. Israel’s new agreements with some Arab states are truly welcome and positive, but do not remove this source of instability. Along with the other European Union member states, we urge Israel and the Palestinians to enter into direct talks sooner rather than later, and to take the hard decisions needed to find a solution.

Ireland does speak out about what we believe Israel should do (as well as what others should do). We do so because we believe that it will encourage progress rather than entrenching positions, even if, at times, these messages can be unwelcome. The Irish government tries always to speak respectfully and carefully, but also in the belief that honesty to a friend is a true sign of respect.

The writer is the Ambassador of Ireland to the State of Israel.

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