Essay: When Irish eyes aren't smiling

The country's consensus is that Israel is a neo-colonial power subjugating an entire people.

UNIFIL 224.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
UNIFIL 224.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
Ireland's reaction to Operation Cast Lead certainly supports the Foreign Ministry's assertion that it is, in Herb Keinon's words, "currently one of the European countries most antagonistic to Israel." But then, Irish attitudes to Israel have always been ambivalent at best. Early Irish anti-Zionism sprang fully formed from the head of a Catholic anti-Semitism which presented Jewish sovereignty over the cradle of Christianity as not only improper in the theological abstract but (drawing on contemporary ideas about Judaeo-communist anti-Christian plots) as constituting a very real threat to Catholic interests. However, by the mid-1950s it had largely unburdened itself of its anti-Jewish baggage and became progressively preoccupied with the Palestinian question. Mindful of its own history, Ireland viewed the refugees in a colonial context, as a dispossessed nation, denied its legitimate right to self-determination as the Irish had been by England for 700 years. Post-1967, this evolved into support for Palestinian national demands culminating, in 1980, in Ireland becoming the first EU country to recognize the "role of the PLO in representing the Palestinian people" and to endorse their "right" to statehood. While Jerusalem has accepted that Ireland long ago nailed its colors to the Palestinian mast, it is aggrieved by what it sees as the recent hardening of Dublin's traditional anti-Israeli positions. In December 2003, the Foreign Ministry director-general Yoav Biran accused Ireland of "lacking the kind of balance and understanding... of Israel that one would expect," and the past 10 years have undeniably been distinguished by an increased pro-Palestinian proactivism. For instance, Dublin demonstrated unstinting diplomatic support for Yasser Arafat and waged a determined campaign against the security fence, including both cosponsorship of the October 2003 General Assembly resolution declaring it illegal and a national submission to the International Court of Justice so hard-line that the Palestinian Authority described it as one of Europe's best. Ireland also supported the formal adoption of the Geneva Initiative as the EU's Middle East peace plan. Jerusalem's disenchantment peaked during the Irish EU presidency of January-June 2004. It lambasted as "callous" and "hypocritical" Ireland's relentless criticism of Israeli security policy, particularly its equating the accidental killing of four Palestinian children in Gaza with Islamic Jihad's shooting dead at point-blank range of the four Hatuel sisters in May. This resulted in the summoning of the Irish ambassador for what one Foreign Ministry official described as the most harshly worded protest he could recall. The following day this newspaper quoted a senior MFA official as saying that future EU business would likely be conducted through non-Irish channels due to Ireland's "systematic attempt to delegitimize Israel and cast doubts on its morality." Nevertheless, by January 2006 the situation had improved to the extent that Dublin could claim Irish-Israeli relations were "excellent on every level." Seven short months later, the opposite was true. FOR IN what one Irish commentator called a "period of rare directness, coherence and unanimity in Irish foreign policy," the entire political establishment rounded on Israel over its conduct of the Second Lebanon War. While the government acknowledged Israel's right to self-defense, it condemned its use of "reckless and disproportionate force" which, it said, amounted to "blowing ordinary civilians out of existence." It repeatedly pushed for a harder line on Israel at the EU level and a cross-party parliamentary committee demanded "sanctions against Israel under the terms of... the Euro-Med Trade Agreement on the grounds of human rights abuses." The Irish media's blanket coverage of the conflict was also harshly critical, from the supermarket tabloid-type Irish Mirror in which the IDF was described as Nazi-like child-killers to the self-styled "paper of record," the Irish Times, whose security correspondent claimed the timing of the July 30 Kana shelling spoke of "a retaliatory or punitive" strike "designed simply to kill members of the Shi'a community from which Hizbullah is drawn and receives its moral support." Ireland's furious reaction to the war was informed by its own UNIFIL experience, which greatly colored Irish attitudes toward Israel. Deployed in 1978, the Irish battalion constantly clashed with Saad Haddad's Israeli-sponsored militias, culminating in April 1980 in the abduction and murder of two Irish soldiers. Despite Jerusalem's vehement denials, this was linked by Dublin to its own pro-PLO positions. The suspicion that Irish soldiers were being deliberately targeted soured bilateral relations for 21 years and, in fact, has never been fully dispelled. Consequently, Israel's July 25, 2006 killing of four UN personnel at al-Khiyam elicited the strongest Irish diplomatic protest in recent memory when the government summoned Israeli ambassador Daniel Megiddo to account for the attack before publicly dismissing his explanation as incredible. The opposition parties concurred, describing it as "a targeted deliberate attack on a UN base" and restating the widely-held view that "historically Israel has had little regard for UNIFIL forces" and that "Irish troops had suffered badly" as a result. THE IRISH political establishment has been equally united in its criticism of Operation Cast Lead. Foreign Minister Micheal Martin strongly condemned Israel's action before the dust had settled on December 27 and the sheer one-sidedness of his subsequent statements jarred with those of his EU counterparts. The Labor Party agreed, denouncing it as "disproportionate" and "clearly illegal" and fully one-fifth of Irish parliamentary representatives signed a letter describing it as "an outrage." Meanwhile, Sinn Fein compared the Israeli ambassador, Zion Evrony, to Nazi propagandist Josef Goebbels, and calls for Dr. Evrony's expulsion have been a recurring theme in the political debate. Popular protests against Cast Lead have been not just uncommonly well-attended, but marked by a radicalism exceptional by Irish standards. One demonstration outside the Irish parliament featured not only Israeli flag burning, but an attempted self-immolation and toddlers sporting military fatigues and Hamas headbands. In what was described as a "sinister... shabby and truly scary" episode in Belfast, a Dead Sea skin care products stand was swarmed by protesters and its terrified staff bombarded with anti-Israel propaganda. Ten days later a package containing white powder was delivered to the Israeli Embassy in Dublin (fortunately a hoax) - a probable protest at the forcefully proactive approach taken by the ambassador in arguing Israel's case. The Irish Palestinian solidarity movement has described those responsible for these incidents as a lunatic fringe. But as the historian of Catholic Ireland, J. H. Whyte, once noted: "One can learn something of the tendencies in a [movement] by observing on which particular fringe of it the lunatics break out." These passions have been stoked by the Irish media's coverage of the conflict. Apart from perhaps one Sunday broadsheet, reporting is starkly unsympathetic to Israel and the op-ed and letters pages are also overwhelmingly hostile (although the Irish Times's influential opinion/letters page is, due to personnel changes since 2006, showing signs of a more fair-minded approach). Those few commentators who do take pro-Israel positions are generally noninfluential, viewed almost without exception as controversialists who take the opposing view on every issue commanding a broad national consensus. What is this consensus? That Israel is a neo-colonial power subjugating an entire people in pursuit of its expansionist ends. And that, as the Irish UN ambassador told the Security Council in 2002, the violence directed against it "exists primarily because Palestinian national aspirations - legitimate aspirations - have been frustrated." Until these aspirations are satisfied, Ireland's relationship with Israel will remain strained. The writer is a freelance journalist, writing mainly on Irish and Middle Eastern affairs. He is currently preparing a book on the history of Irish-Israeli relations.