Jerusalem should distinguish between Irish NGOs, some of which are obsessively focused on Israel, and the Irish government that wants to deepen and extend ties with the Jewish state, Irish Justice, Equality and Defense Minister Alan Shatter told The Jerusalem Post on Thursday.

Shatter, who came to Israel on Monday for a five-day visit after spending two days in Lebanon, said the center-right government in his country believes that Israel and Ireland have a lot of common economic interests, and that “a great deal more can be done.”

Sitting in the courtyard of east Jerusalem’s American Colony Hotel, Shatter addressed charges that Ireland was among the most hostile countries toward Israel inside the EU by saying Ireland has a new government, in power now for some two years, that has taken a “balanced approach to the Palestinian issue.”

“Ireland is a friend of Israel,” he said. “We have a government in Ireland that wants a deeper engagement. But we also have a government in Ireland that is committed to the peace process. I am very conscious that the peace process has effectively ground to a halt. I think the formation of a new government, with so many new MKs and the role [Hatnua chairwoman] Tzipi Livni has been given, provides an opportunity for engagement.”

Shatter, who is Jewish, has over the years come under sharp criticism in his country for speaking out in support of Israel.

“It is legitimate to be critical of Israel,” he said. But, he added, there are “occasions when you get to the point where people attempt to delegitimize the Israeli state, and seek to deny it any international credibility, and that steps over the line from political critique to an attempt to disguise anti-Semitism. I have over the years of political life in Ireland been the target of that sort of communications, but it is extremely rare.”

Shatter, who visited the 12- man Irish contingent to the UN disengagement force on the Golan Heights, said the UN force was “not going to disappear.”

He was addressing reports and concerns that the UN force there would leave in the light of the Syrian civil war and the recent kidnapping of 21 Filipino troops.

“The force commander recognizes now that the mission is of increased importance,” he said, adding that he did not get any impression that there was an intention to “disengage.”

At the same time, he said, there were “obviously force protection issues that need to be addressed at the UN.”

Shatter also visited the 360- strong Irish contingent in Lebanon, 330 of them part of the UNIFIL forces in southern Lebanon, and said that there, too, he got no signal that anyone was considering disengagement.

“Ireland is absolutely committed to continued engagement in UNIFIL,” he said. “I met the force commander there, as well as with our troops, and got no sense of a desire to terminate that mission.”

Shatter said that amid the tensions in the region and the uncertainties in Lebanon, UNIFIL “has a role to play to contribute to continuing calm there.”

He denied that Ireland was one of the leading countries in Europe arguing against placing Hezbollah on the EU’s terrorist list, saying that his government had not yet made a decision on the matter, and that like other EU countries it was waiting for the completion of the Bulgarian investigation into last summer’s terrorist attack in Burgas.

The Bulgarian findings that Hezbollah was involved in that attack were only interim determinations, he said, and EU justice and foreign ministers would take up the issue again in the coming weeks after they received the final report. In addition, they were waiting for the ruling by a Cypriot court in the case against an alleged Hezbollah operative arrested there just before the attack in Burgas.

“I think that we have to consider how best to deal with the issue in a manner that is constructive and has some value,” Shatter said, explaining the EU’s foot-dragging in this matter.

“We have to recognize that Hezbollah plays a variety of different roles, including its participation in the Lebanese government, and in the democratic process.”

The EU also needed to factor into the implications of the decision “the very important role forces from a variety of EU states fulfill in Lebanon,” he said.

One of the arguments heard in Europe against placing Hezbollah on the terror list is that the group would retaliate by attacking UNIFIL forces.

“I think from the Israeli point of view the calm in southern Lebanon is of crucial importance,” he said, adding that “the role UNIFIL plays on the blue line [the UN-drawn border between Israel and Lebanon] – both as observers and in mediating issues as they arise between the Lebanon armed force and Israel – is of crucial importance.

It has brought some stability to the border between Israel and Lebanon. I think this is an issue of greater complexity than how to describe a particular grouping. You have to give comprehensive consideration to consequences of a decision that might be taken, and whether the decision is of genuine benefit or not.”

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