The current slogan in diplomacy is “we have to learn to understand each other.” The wording may change slightly depending on where and when the expression is used, and by whom, and of course allowances must be made for subtle changes in meaning when used in different languages. But the underlying message is that unless we learn to think like the person with whom we are dialoguing, there will be no progress. It does not mean capitulating or change of views or policy. What it means is knowing where the other person is coming from, what his or her values are – and how they differ from yours. If your interlocutor does the same, you have adequately prepared the ground for debate.
This message was loud and clear in meetings held this week by Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney in Q&A sessions with Hebrew University of Jerusalem students and with EU ambassadors, NGO representatives and journalists invited to a luncheon at Jerusalem’s Vert Hotel by the Israel Council on Foreign Relations. In both cases, Coveney had to defend his country and to counter Israeli perceptions of Ireland as being antisemitic and anti-Israel. While Israel pays lip service to the legitimacy of criticism, when criticism actually occurs, Israel and many sectors of diaspora Jewry immediately take the view that the critic is an antisemite and an anti-Zionist. Coveney, without dodging any questions, and with the eloquence for which the Irish are renowned, succeeded in surprising former Mossad chief, veteran diplomat and ICFR board member Efraim Halevy, who chaired the event, with his courage and his candor. While admitting that some of his fellow countrymen might not be well disposed toward Israel or to Jews, this is not the policy of the government, the parliament or of Coveney himself. There are differences of opinion between Ireland and Israel on matters such as settlements, Gaza conflicts and accountability, which are all highly emotive issues, he conceded, “but we have to be allowed to have a debate without being accused of antisemitism or of being anti-Israel.” A thorny point of disagreement is that Ireland regards what it considers Israel’s occupation of the disputed territories as illegal. But this should not be interpreted, he insisted, as criticism of the country or the people of Israel. “It is criticism of government policy. It is not criticism of the Jewish people and Israel’s interests.”
On the subject of occupation, someone at the ICFR event wanted to know why Israel is singled out by the UN, the EU and their member states when there are other countries being occupied. Coveney denied that Israel is the sole target of criticism on this score, and cited the Russian annexation of Crimea and the section of Cyprus occupied by Turkey as breaches of international law.
On the issue of antisemitism, Coveney said that Ireland is pursuing legislation against hate speech and Holocaust denial. He also noted that Irish Prime Minister Michael Martin has spoken out in clear statements against antisemitism.
As he has done on previous visits, Coveney reiterated Ireland’s belief in a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and was cognizant that some members of Israel’s coalition government do not agree. “Issues need to be expressed in bilateral relations,” he declared, emphasizing “We can disagree, but we support Israel’s right to exist. We believe in engagement, not boycott.”
Looking to the future, Coveney stated that Ireland and Israel will need each other more in an interconnected world. Ireland currently sits on the UN Security Council, an honor that comes its way once in 20 years. In the UN General Assembly, the seating arrangements are such that Ireland, Israel and Iran sit very close to each other, and Ireland sometimes has to act as a bridge between its UN neighbors.
Despite all the obstacles and based on his own country’s experience Coveney believes that peace in the Middle East is possible, but cautioned “there is no solution without security for all countries.”
Later in the day Coveney met with President Isaac Herzog, with whom he discussed many issues including Herzog’s family connections to Ireland. His father was born there, and his grandfather served as chief rabbi.
In the evening, Herzog and Coveney engaged in a Twitter exchange with each directing complimentary comments at the other.
■ NEXT WEEK Herzog will welcome Colombian President Ivan Duque, who will pay a state visit. In an election campaign speech in May 2018, Duque did not rule out the possibility of moving his country’s embassy to Jerusalem, saying that he wanted to have the best possible relations with Israel, but in September he said that he would not reverse the decision by his predecessor to officially recognize Palestine as a state. Most Latin American countries have given recognition to Palestine.
Colombia recognized Israel in 1949 and diplomatic relations were established in 1953.
In official statements Colombia has declared its support for the establishment of an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel within mutually agreed-upon borders. Colombia considers Israeli settlements in the West Bank illegal but strongly condemns Palestinian terrorism, and advocates for a lasting peace based on the two-state solution.
■ THE OPENING this past Wednesday night of the 50th anniversary celebrations of the Jerusalem Theater was also a tribute to popular singer and a native son of the city, the late Benny Amdursky on what was touted as his 90th birthday. Amdursky’s partner from 1957 to 1994, (the year of Amdursky’s death) in a duo known as the Dudayim, was Israel Gurion, who in 2009, began singing with Amdursky’s son Assaf and continues to do so until this day. The irony is that although November 2 is implanted in the Jewish psyche as the date of the Balfour Declaration, it also happened to be the date of Gurion’s 86th birthday, and not the 90th anniversary of Amdursky’s birth. Amdursky was born on August 12, 1931. Although both came from secular left-wing families, they were students at the Tachkemoni religious Zionist school, a transplant from Warsaw, Poland, which opened its doors in Tel Aviv in 1905 and in Jerusalem in 1909.
■ NOVEMBER 2 was also the date on which past and present Labor Party ministers and MKs, along with hundreds of other members of the Labor Party, came together in Tel Aviv to mark the 26th anniversary of the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Among them were current Labor leader and Transportation Minister Merav Michaeli, Dalia Rabin, Diaspora Affairs Minister Nachman Shai and former finance minister Avraham Baiga Shochat. Michaeli spoke of Rabin’s commitment to Israel’s security with the understanding that ensuring security requires diplomatic agreements. Shochat, who served in Rabin’s government, warned that society has not learned the lesson of Rabin’s assassination, and there is still a danger in Israel today that a public servant could be killed for doing his or her job.
■ AFTER STEPPING down in May of this year after 10 years as executive director of the Institute for National Security Studies, Maj. Gen. (ret.) Amos Yadlin will fill the void left by recently appointed Ambassador to the US Brig.-Gen. (ret.) Michael Herzog as chair of the ELNET Forum for Strategic Dialogue. ELNET, the European Leadership Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to strengthening relations between Israel and Europe, this week hosted an 11-member delegation of the European Parliament, representing four political groups and eight countries. The delegation was led by Spain’s Antonio Lopez-Isturiz White, who chairs the European Parliament Delegation for Relations with Israel.
Yadlin – who is internationally recognized as an expert in defense, security, intelligence and foreign policy – is involved with several other organizations and institutions dealing with national security and related issues.
Prior to his new role, Yadlin was a senior adviser to ELNET.
“Europe is an important player in international affairs and a key partner of the United States in leading the free world,” said Yadlin, adding: “Europe can play a significant role in addressing critical challenges facing Israel, such as Iran’s nuclear program, the global wave of antisemitism, and promoting normalization between Israel and Arab countries. After the US’ withdrawal from Afghanistan, strengthening alliances with key European countries is of increasing strategic significance to Israel’s national security.”
■ ELNET-Israel CEO Shai Bazak said he was very happy to welcome Yadlin on board, something that he regards as a significant step for ELNET in its efforts to engage in high-level strategic discussions between Europe and Israel, beyond the constraints of formal intergovernmental relations.
■ JIMENA, the California-based Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa organization that preserves and disseminates the history and traditions of Jewish communities of the Middle East and North Africa, is working in conjunction with the Foreign Ministry, Hillel International, CAMERA on campus, Moishe House, OneTable, JewishLearningWorks and StandWithUs to organize Mizrahi Heritage Month, honoring the forgotten refugees of the region with stories, traditions and history of Mizrahi and Sephardi Jews. On June 23, 2014, the Government of Israel adopted a law designating November 30 as the annual national day for the commemoration of the approximately one million Jewish refugees who were displaced from Arab countries and Iran during the 20th century. In 2015, JIMENA took a much broader step by launching Mizrahi Remembrance Month in America throughout the month of November.