Had you asked diplomatic officials in Israel before the March election in Ireland to name pro-Israel Irish parliamentarians, they would have rattled off a few solitary names: Alan Shatter, a Jewish MP from the centrist- right Fine Gael Party and a former justice and defense minister; Joanna Tuffy, a Labor MP; and Foreign Minister Charles Flanagan.
The Irish-Israel Parliamentary Friendship Caucus has never exactly been a dominant force in the Irish legislature.
Ask the same diplomats the same question today, following the election and the formation in May of a minority government, with Fine Gael the dominant partner, and the list dwindles to one: Fine Gael’s Flanagan. (Tuffy retired, and Shatter lost in the election.) But if you’re going to have one friend in Irish politics, one official quipped this week, it’s good if he happens to be the foreign minister.
But don’t get too excited. Even with Flanagan – who visited Israel and the Palestinian Authority this week – at the helm of the Foreign Ministry, Ireland is considered among the harshest critics of Israel inside the EU, though the tone of that criticism has mellowed since Fine Gael Prime Minister Enda Kenny took office in 2011.
The Teachers’ Union of Ireland, which represents some 14,500 teachers and lecturers, was the first educational trade union in Europe to decide to boycott Israel, in 2013; many of the country’s artists constantly call for artistic and cultural boycotts; and the country can generally be counted on to vote against Israel in international forums when the 28 EU bloc splits, with half voting against Israel, and the other half either abstaining or voting for.
But within that universe, Flanagan is a friend. He has slammed the Irish press for demonizing Israel and “slavishly dancing to the Palestinian drumbeat for decades,” and has come out firmly against boycotts.
Flanagan’s friendship is even more interesting considering his lineage: his father – Oliver J. Flanagan – was one of the longest-serving Irish parliamentarians, winning 14 elections and serving from 1943 to 1982. He first entered the Dail in 1943 on an anti-Semitic ticket, and his maiden speech in the parliament that year – as the Holocaust was raging in Europe – dripped with anti-Semitism.
“How is it that we do not see any of these [Emergency Powers] Acts directed against the Jews, who crucified our savior nineteen-hundred years ago, and who are crucifying us every day in the week?” he asked.
“There is one thing that Germany did, and that was to rout the Jews out of their country.
Until we rout the Jews out of this country, it does not matter a hair’s breadth what orders you make. Where the bees are there is the honey, and where the Jews are there is the money.”
And now, ironically, Flanagan’s son is skewered from time to time by far-left activists in his country for being pro-Israel.
“I THINK that the relationship between Ireland and Israel should be far more than just being seated at close proximity to each other at international forums,” Flanagan says in an interview with The Jerusalem Post at the King David Hotel on Wednesday, referring to the alphabetical seating of countries at world meetings. Israeli delegates generally sit between those of Ireland and Italy.
“I’m less than two years in office, and I am anxious that there be objectivity, balance and reason in terms of our engagement with the region. I would like to continue in that vein.”
The sentiment is noble, though one would be hard pressed to find Israeli officials who say that it actually reflects Irish policy toward Israel. For this reason, perhaps, the Prime Minister’s Office did not put out any statement after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with Flanagan on Tuesday.
While not always the case, the PMO generally issues a communique following meetings such as these, as it did the very next day with a brief statement following Netanyahu’s meeting with the visiting Polish foreign minister.
The soft-spoken and unpretentious Flanagan deflects charges that Ireland is especially tough on Israel, saying “it may be perhaps a little unfair to characterize or single out Ireland as a state that is unduly [critical] or overcritical. As a member of the EU, I work closely with my EU colleagues, so I endeavor to be fair and reasonable.”
As for voting patterns at international forums, he says he could cite “many votes where Ireland votes alongside our EU colleges. I could site many votes were Ireland votes in favor of Israel. However, there are areas of disagreement.”
One of those areas of disagreement has to do with the notorious UN Human Rights Council’s Agenda Item 7, which requires debate on alleged Israeli human rights abuses at every session. Israel has in the past urged countries to boycott participation in debates on this agenda item, but Ireland – unlike many of its EU colleagues – continues to participate.
Asked why, he replies: “Because we like to make our voice clear on these issues. I believe it’s important that where there are areas of disagreement, that is acknowledged. But there are other areas where we haven’t adhered to Item 7, in a manner which may have been expected of us.”
Regarding the unabashedly anti-Israel UN Human Rights Council itself, Flanagan says the following: “I acknowledge that at times there has been something of an imbalance – the undue proliferation of resolutions and motion items on the agenda aimed at Israel. This is something I have voiced concern about myself to my EU colleagues. But I think that in general we attempt to be reasonable and fair in the circumstances, acknowledging that there are areas upon which we have a fundamental disagreement.”
FLANAGAN TOOK took the floor of the Dail last month and, while expressing his clear opposition to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement – a movement that has gained traction over the years in Ireland – he also said supporting the movement is a “legitimate viewpoint.”
On Wednesday he stresses that “I am fundamentally against boycotts. I don’t agree with the BDS campaign. I made that clear in parliament, in public and here in Jerusalem.”
But at the same time, he adds, he is not in favor of any legislative moves, such as some under way in the US, to shut down BDS.
“I don’t want to exclude that there is another view,” he says. “I don’t share that view, but I acknowledge that it is a legitimate one.”
When Israelis hear the argument that BDS is a legitimate view, many rub their ears, since a number of leaders of the movement acknowledge that its aim is the elimination of the Jewish state, Flanagan is told.
His response: “But the voice in Ireland has been encouraging boycott of Israeli goods and services, and I disagree with that.”
Ultimately, he argues, BDS is an issue the consumers will have to decide in terms of the trading, display and purchase of goods.
Another issue with which there is a fundamental disagreement between Ireland and Israel has to do with left-wing NGOs, with Ireland backing a number of NGOs active in Israel and the territories.
When asked about the matter, Flanagan argues that NGOs “play a huge role” in civil society around the globe.
“I believe that it is important that there be balance, that there be objectivity, but at the same time if facts are to be unfolded and relayed and published, I very much accept that. I do believe that there is a fundamentally important role for NGOs in civil society, and I say that as an elected member of government.”
Regarding NGOs that Israel claims are either engaging in lawfare against it or advocating boycotts, he says: “It is my hope, and the policy of my government, that NGOS would be objective, fair and balanced.”
Asked whether the legislation winding its way through the Knesset that would require any NGO receiving more than half of its funding from a foreign government to identify itself as such would hurt Israeli-Irish relations, he replies: “No, I’m here to further advance and foster our relationship between our respective countries. I think it is important, and I said this to Prime Minister Netanyahu, that while there are areas where we have fundamental disagreement, I believe it is important that we accentuate the positive.”
FLANAGAN CAME to Jerusalem less than two weeks after attending – along with some 30 other foreign ministers and officials – the launch of the French diplomatic initiative at a summit in Paris. That initiative is adamantly opposed by Netanyahu and the Israeli government.
“I know from my own experience with the peace process on the island of Ireland that there were times when matters seemed fundamentally intractable, with absolutely no solution on the horizon, and the engagement from time to time of the international community proved vital as well as welcome,” he says, defending the initiative. “And I believe that in any peace process there may be a possibility for third party facilitation, and that opportunity may well arise in the context of the French initiative.”
One of Netanyahu’s fundamental objections to the initiative has been that if the Palestinians know that the world will get together and possibly impose a solution, they will have no reason to negotiate directly with Israel.
Flanagan, asked about this position, says all he sees now is the status quo, “and I don’t believe the status quo is in the best interest of the people in the region; in fact, the status quo is a backward step.
“I feel that in the context of Paris, in the context of the European Union, there may well be opportunities that haven’t presented themselves,” he says. “I say no more than that. I do urge people to consider the type of engagement that has proven elusive over the last number of years.
“Again, looking at the opportunity for people-to-people contacts between Ireland and Israel, they can only flourish in the context of there being peace and stability, and that obligation lies on the political leaders.”