Saturday 23 June 2018

Ban on Israeli goods threatens to leave Ireland out of the loop

Analysis

Senator David Norris joins Irish campaigners during a recent protest over Israeli action against the Palestinians. Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire
Senator David Norris joins Irish campaigners during a recent protest over Israeli action against the Palestinians. Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire

Mary Fitzgerald

Relations between Ireland and Israel have long been rather strained with Israeli politicians and media commentators regularly accusing Ireland of being one of the most hostile countries in Europe.

Some of the flare-ups have depended on who happens to be representing Israel at its embassy in Ballsbridge - in 2013, the embassy's Twitter account was the focus of international media attention for a series of distinctly undiplomatic tweets, many of them critical of Irish policy on the Israeli-Palestinian question.

One tweet went as far as claiming Hitler would be happy with criticisms of Israel - albeit not made by Ireland - aired at a UN conference.

As 'Haaretz's' diplomatic correspondent Barak Ravid put it at the time: "Israel's embassy in Dublin has been in the headlines many times over the last few years, not only because of the tense relations between Jerusalem and Dublin, but also because of embarrassing provocations by Israel's envoys at the mission, who try to think creatively when it comes to public relations."

This week, Ireland's ambassador to Israel Alison Kelly was summoned by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in protest over a bill tabled in the Seanad which seeks to ban the import of goods produced in Israeli settlements considered illegal by the Irish Government and the EU.

The episode has made headlines in the Israeli media though the bill - proposed by Independent Senator Frances Black - has been postponed until the summer and Tánaiste and Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney says the Government does not support it. Given Cabinet opposition and the fact such a bill would have to pass through several hoops to become law, it is unlikely Ireland will become the first European country to outlaw Israeli settlement products.

Three years ago the EU approved guidelines for the labelling of settlement products - items like olive oil, fruit, vegetables and honey - so consumers could decide for themselves whether to purchase.

Its argument was that the move differentiates between Israel - a key EU trading partner - and the settlements, which it considers illegal. A recent EU report warned Israeli settlers were seizing Palestinian land at a record pace, "including in areas identified by the EU and its member states as [being] key to the two-state solution".

It added that Israel had planned to build more than 3,000 housing units in East Jerusalem. "Developments in 2016 to 2017 indicate the Israeli authorities are taking active measures to prepare for settlement expansion in [the E1] area," the report said. Compiled by EU diplomats it referred to a zone that would cut off East Jerusalem from the rest of Palestine and sever the West Bank into two.

Speaking in the Seanad this week, the Tanáiste Simon Coveney, - whose first visit outside Europe as foreign minister last year was to the Middle East - did not mince his words when criticising the ongoing expansion of Israeli settlements on Palestinian territory, describing it as "unjust and provocative" and adding that it "undermines the credibility of Israel's commitment to a peaceful solution to a conflict to which we all want an end".

He also said the Irish Government is fully committed to bringing an end to the construction of more settlements on occupied Palestinian land.

But Government opposition to banning the import of settlement produced goods reflects long-standing policy within Foreign Affairs that what is known as the BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) approach to pressuring Israel is not constructive.

When Mr Coveney visited Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and the West Bank city of Ramallah, he told Israel's media he had come to listen carefully to both the Israeli and Palestinian leadership.

However after Netanyahu met Coveney, the Israeli PM posted a Facebook message where he said he had "expressed his dissatisfaction" over what he described as "Ireland's traditional stance" and accused the Irish of sympathising too much with Palestinians - a perennial complaint by Israeli officials.

With so much of the wider Middle East racked by war and political upheaval since 2011, the Israeli-Palestinian issue does not get as much attention as it did, though US President Donald Trump's much-criticised recent decision to move the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem brought it back under the spotlight.

It remains key in Ireland, on an official level and with the public.

According to Israeli media reports, Israel is considering closing its embassy in Ireland as part of cost-cutting measures.

If that happens, it would limit the conversation here with and about Israel, including its illegal settlements.

Irish Independent

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