Monday 10 December 2018

Tánaiste must tread tightrope if we're to help promote peace in Middle East

Obstacles: A wounded Palestinian is evacuated during a protest in the northern Gaza Strip calling for lifting the Israeli blockade on Gaza. Photo: REUTERS/Mohammed Salem
Obstacles: A wounded Palestinian is evacuated during a protest in the northern Gaza Strip calling for lifting the Israeli blockade on Gaza. Photo: REUTERS/Mohammed Salem

Alan Shatter

Palestinian President Abu Mazen, better known in the West as Mahmoud Abbas, is visiting Ireland and is meeting, amongst others, President Michael D Higgins and, my former colleague, Foreign Minister and Tánaiste Simon Coveney.

The central focus of discussions will be the continuing Israeli/Palestinian conflict, the currently moribund peace process, and Ireland/Palestinian relations.

Various foreign ministers across the globe unrealistically believe that they are uniquely placed to facilitate a peaceful resolution of this tragically long enduring conflict.

Too frequently over past years a number have blundered in, achieved five seconds of fame or partisan acclaim, and caused more harm than good. It is my hope that this is not about to be replicated.

As a former government minister who has visited the region many times and met most of the main political actors, including Abbas, I regard the current political landscape as profoundly depressing.

The extent of the division, both within Israel and between warring Palestinian factions, gives little cause for optimism that positive progress will be made anytime soon.

In the background, there is an American-proposed peace plan of uncertain content, a willingness on the part of the Israelis to engage, and the continuing refusal of Abbas to talk to the Americans while demanding that the United States continues to contribute hundreds of millions of dollars to UNRWA and other Palestinian support organisations.

There is also the rift between Fatah (which governs the West Bank) and Hamas (which governs Gaza), and the accusation that Abbas has thwarted international efforts led by Egypt to resolve conflict between Gaza-based Palestinian groups and Israel to effect a truce of long duration, provide economic assistance to Gaza and end the blockade by both Israel and Egypt.

I start with an assumption that the only practicable ultimate resolution should result in two states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace and security with each benefiting from constructive economic co-operation and political engagement.

The two-state solution has been supported by Irish governments for many years. It is not something an Irish foreign minister can bring about but one can positively contribute to its achievement. What are the prerequisites to doing so?

A comprehensive knowledge of history is required. It is also essential to not ignore inconvenient facts that do not easily fit into a simplistic political narrative with which you are intuitively comfortable or which is advocated by one or other side. There is a need to understand the psychology of both sides, the extent to which their perceptions and actions are affected by the enormity of past and recent events, and an understanding of their real fears, the levels of distrust and the causes of such distrust.

Personal resolution to challenge the myths perpetuated which prolong conflict and erect barriers to conflict resolution and the obtaining by each side of essential public support for such resolution is crucial.

So also is an understanding of the political possibilities in the short, intermediate and long term and the political divisions within Israeli and Palestinian society. It is important that it be understood that after years of conflict and mis-steps there is no big bang solution. Positive progress can result from moving forward in incremental steps.

Coveney should encourage each side to constructively engage with each other and neither to arbitrarily reject any proposal to resolve the conflict sight unseen.

To play any meaningful role, he must ensure his approach is based on a factual understanding of complex events and not derived from selective briefings. Comprehensive knowledge of the faults and mistakes of each side and their impact over time on political leaders, their supporters and the perception of those they represent for any settlement to succeed is also necessary. There is little to be achieved by ignoring the practical need to ensure significant public support to implement any possible political settlement of complex issues.

I cannot exaggerate the importance of an awareness of words and phrases used which are open to misunderstanding and how Ireland is perceived because of its history, conduct and past pronouncements.

Ireland's neutrality during World War II, it's refusal to admit Jews into the State fleeing pre-war Germany or as Holocaust survivors, and de Valera's expression of sympathy on Hitler's death are all events which colour some Israelis' perception of today's Ireland.

So does the perception that Ireland is excessively critical of Israel whilst withholding criticism of the Palestinian Authorities' financial support for those who carry out barbaric acts of terrorism, and wilfully ignoring the difficulties derived from internal Palestinian division.

Coveney should not fall into the trap of propagating the propaganda or false narrative of either side.

When engaging with Abbas, he should constructively look forward to constructing a better future and not simply adopt a partisan and simplistic narrative favoured by Abbas or designed to generate applause from online warriors and partisan activists.

Taking the latter course would simply ensure there is no meaningful role Ireland can play as an honest broker.

Whilst understanding the complexities of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict are entirely different to those of the Northern Ireland conflict, it should not be forgotten that the building of trust between political leaders and actors representing the different communities and addressing political realities were key components to achieving progress.

Nothing of value can be achieved by ignoring the current conflict between Fatah and Hamas, the fact that the West Bank and Gaza have for the past 10 years been ruled as two separate political entities, that Abbas has been unable to visit Gaza during that time due to a legitimate fear of being murdered, and there have been no Palestinian elections since 2006. The lack of a recently democratically elected and united Palestinian leadership is a major obstacle.

The malign role of regional actors and their vested interest in perpetuating conflict should also not be ignored. Hezbollah, which controls Lebanon, has spread its tentacles into Syria and is an ally of Hamas.

Hezbollah and Hamas are committed to the destruction of the Israeli state and act as proxies of the most malign and dangerous actor in the region, Iran. Hezbollah, with Iran's blessing, could at any time initiate a devastating war resulting in the death of tens of thousands and Hamas has the capacity to sabotage any settlement that may be concluded between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

Having contributed to the deaths of more than half a million people in Syria in the most vicious civil war of the 21st century, to talk about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict and ignore Iran - ruled by a genocidal regime intent on another Holocaust - is to ignore the monster in the room.

To be of any relevance, the scheduled talks should focus on bridge-building, not boycotts; confidence-building measures to create trust; promoting co-existence and engagement and encouraging the activities of organisations that bring Israelis and Palestinians together.

To facilitate positive progress, the Government should ensure it and the EU ends financial support for organisations which feed the conflict.

Alan Shatter is a former minister for justice and defence.

Irish Independent

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