Address by the Tánaiste to the Israel Council on Foreign Relations
Speech05 September 2023
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It is a great pleasure to be back in Jerusalem and I would like to particularly acknowledge the efforts of Dr Laurence Weinbaum and Yvette Shumacher in bringing us together this evening.
I also had the honour of visiting the National Library of Israel earlier today and had the opportunity to see some of the archives from the wonderful Genealogical History of the Irish Jewish Communities, which was presented to the Library late last year. Stuart Rosenblatt, head of the Irish Jewish Genealogical Society and president of the Genealogical Society of Ireland, has done wonderful work in compiling this treasure trove, recording the richness of Jewish life in Ireland.
It is a reminder of the many family and personal connections between Ireland and Israel. One such connection that is emblematic of our shared histories is that of the Herzog family; as many of you will know, Isaac Herzog, grandfather of Israel’s current President and father of former President Chaim Herzog, was Ireland’s Chief Rabbi, and subsequently held the same position in Israel. I look forward to seeing President Herzog here in Jerusalem on Thursday morning.
With the recent introduction of a direct flight between Tel Aviv and Dublin, we are seeing the development of people-to-people relations and connections between a new generation of our citizens
Business connections between our vibrant tech sectors were cited as a key driver for this new flight connection but I am glad to see that we are also beginning to reap the cultural and tourism dividends too. To quote last week’s Jerusalem Post – there is no better time for travel to Ireland!
There is much to celebrate in the relationship between Ireland and Israel. I am aware – and indeed I know that you are too! – that Ireland’s longstanding principled position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can be an ongoing source of friction in our political relationship. And I will take the opportunity a little later in my remarks to address this issue.
I do, though, want to emphasise at the outset that the assumption that is sometimes made in the Israeli media and public discourse that our position on the conflict is evidence of hostility on the part of Ireland, or the Irish people, towards Israel is simply incorrect.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
It is a little over fifteen years since my last visit to this region as Minister for Foreign Affairs. The world has evolved - and endured - a lot in this period.
In 2008 we were on the cusp of a global financial crisis, which had such profound social and economic implications for our countries and people in the years that followed.
The decision of the UK to leave the European Union was a shock for Europe, and has had far-reaching impacts on Ireland’s – and the EU’s - relationship with its closest neighbour.
The COVID pandemic inflicted tremendous hardship on people all over the world, most notably on those living in the least developed countries.
More recently, Russia’s brutal and illegal full-scale invasion of Ukraine has recast the geopolitical and security landscape in Europe and has prompted the largest movement of refugees on the European continent since the second world war. The economic impacts of the invasion are being felt globally.
These seismic jolts, in a metaphorical sense, have taken place against the backdrop of a literal changing of the global environment – just three months ago, the UN Secretary General called for immediate global action to avert a climate catastrophe; he spoke of the world ‘hurtling towards a disaster, with eyes wide open’.
None of us would have wished these developments upon ourselves. Nevertheless, the last fifteen years has also seen the reaffirmation of the centrality of diplomacy, partnership, respect for international law and solidarity in our collective response to many of these challenges.
I know that my predecessor, Simon Coveney, met with the Council on Foreign Relations during his most recent visit in November 2021. At that point, Ireland was approaching the mid-way point of its two-year term as an elected member on the UN Security Council.
In his speech at that time, he highlighted Ireland’s role on the Council as facilitator on the Iranian nuclear file, the JCPOA. We worked very hard over two years to bring Iran back into compliance with the JCPOA. Despite intensive efforts by the EU and other partners, we were not able to succeed.
Let me be very clear - I am acutely aware of the deep sense of threat felt in Israel due to Iran’s nuclear proliferation activities, as well as its consistently destabilising behaviour in its neighbourhood and beyond.
We share Israel’s real concern at steps taken by Iran which place it ever further out of compliance with its commitments under the JCPOA. We have no illusions as to the risk this poses to the entire Middle East region and beyond.
But we remain convinced that a diplomatic and political path is the only realistic option to addressing this risk. This may sound naïve to this audience, but dialogue can, and is, continuing, with Ireland continuing to engage in, and support this. I also believe that the restoration of diplomatic relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia has potential to bring greater stability to the region.
Throughout our term on the UN Security Council, we also drew on the experience and expertise of our Defence Forces and their record of service in UN peacekeeping and in EU crisis management.
As a long standing troop-contributor to UNIFIL, Ireland worked hard to ensure its mandate was successfully renewed during our term on Council. We also introduced a new element to it, enabling UNIFIL to provide practical supports – fuel, food rations, medical support – to the Lebanese Armed Forces in the UNIFIL area of operations. This enabled continued joint patrols during a period of financial crisis for the Lebanese Armed Forces. It is crucial that UNIFIL is able to maintain its stabilising role in southern Lebanon, not least for Israel’s own security.
In my capacity as both Minister for Foreign Affairs and Minister for Defence, I am fully committed to Ireland’s continued contribution of troops to UN missions, including UNIFIL. As some of you will know, an Irish peacekeeper, Private Seán Rooney, was tragically killed in Lebanon last December. I visited Lebanon shortly afterwards, and spent time with members of the 121st Irish-Polish Battalion, with which he had served. Their commitment to peacekeeping, like Ireland’s commitment, remains undimmed.
Ladies and Gentlemen
This time two years ago, it seemed unimaginable that Europe would face the largest refugee crisis on the continent since the second world war. Well over six million Ukrainian refugees have fled their country in the wake of Russia’s brutal aggression and eight million are displaced within Ukraine.
During my visit to Kyiv last year, I witnessed first-hand the shocking and indiscriminate destruction that has been wrought upon the Ukrainian people.
It is imperative that Europe, and also its international partners, are resolute in their condemnation of Russia’s aggression and in their support of the Ukrainian people in defending their freedom and independence. We welcome all genuine efforts at brokering peace but it is important to distinguish between the aggressor and the victim. In this context, Ireland fully supports Ukraine’s 10 Point Peace Plan, as a key basis for any future peace. As has been said many times, if Russia withdraws its forces and respects Ukraine’s internationally recognised borders, the war will end immediately. President Putin started this war; and it is within his power to end it at any time.
Ireland also continues to advocate strongly in favour of EU accession for Ukraine. Ukraine has clearly chosen its foreign and security policy path; its European vocation and its desire to integrate into Euro-Atlantic structures. It is paying a heavy price for rejecting the cold war politics of spheres of influence and for making its own democratic and sovereign choices. It is for us, in the EU, to unequivocally support its path to membership.
Against the backdrop of this radically changed European security landscape, Ireland has also been undertaking its own reflection on the shape of its international security policy.
Our longstanding commitment to a values-based foreign policy, to multilateralism and to a policy of military neutrality has long been a source of pride to the Irish people. In practical terms, it has guided our commitment to peacekeeping, to humanitarian action, to supporting sustainable development and climate action globally; to achieving common goals through diplomacy and through the multilateral system. I have said many times that, for Ireland, the multilateral system - with the UN Charter at its heart - remains our strongest protection, and our most important global security asset.
But this commitment to multilateralism and to military neutrality does not inure us from reality.
Our belief in a rules bases international order goes to the core of who we are as a people.
But it is not a magic charm which automatically protects us from malign actors; from those who treat the UN Charter with disdain, who actively try to undermine the existing multilateral system, rather than uphold and improve it.
As part of a reflection on these issues, I convened a Consultative Forum on International Security Policy in June of this year. This was the first time the state has ever embarked on a public national conversation on security and defence issues in this manner.
The Forum produced an enriching and inclusive – and often, very robust! - public debate, bringing together over 80 expert panellists and 1000 participants over the course of four days. Discussions were live streamed and more than 10,000 people engaged with the forum remotely. Over 800 submissions were received through a public consultation process.
The Chair of the Forum will submit her report to me in the next month or so.
One thing that struck me clearly over the four days of discussions was the emphasis in almost every intervention on international law and the primacy of the UN Charter. This issue matters to Irish people - the UN matters, the principle of negotiated and diplomatic solutions to conflict matters, a commitment to the peaceful resolution of disputes matters.
So I think you can be certain that Ireland will continue to press the case for more, not less, investment of time, energy and commitment in multilateralism.
Ladies and Gentlement
This brings me to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I am often asked why Ireland and Irish people care so much about this issue; or, more bluntly, why do we have such strong views on a conflict that does not impact us directly.
I think one answer to this is that for Ireland, as a small and militarily neutral country, our security - indeed, our very existence as a sovereign state - relies on the compliance by all nations, however large or however powerful, with international law and the rules-based order.
It is on the basis of this principle that we speak out when we see States acting contrary to international law. And it is on the basis of this principle that we are so disheartened that there has been no meaningful progress on the realisation of a just and lasting peace between the Israeli and Palestinian people.
Let me also say clearly that I unreservedly condemn terror attacks on Israeli citizens. I do not for a moment discount the fear and tension that the prospect of terrorism causes for ordinary people going about their daily lives. I fully recognise the destabilising role that certain actors in the region are playing, through stoking tensions and supporting extremism.
I understand how these factors can influence Israeli perspectives and reactions and I have listened carefully to my political counterparts – Foreign Minister Cohen, Minister for Strategic Affairs Ron Dermer, and Prime Minister Netanyahu - in our discussions today.
However, there is also a need to recognise that there are five million ordinary Palestinian people, across the West Bank and Gaza, who share the aspiration to live their lives in peace and security, and who have a right to self-determination.
Just this February, the UN Security Council reiterated its strong opposition to Israeli construction and expansion of settlements, the confiscation of Palestinians’ land, the demolition of Palestinians’ homes and displacement of Palestinian civilians.
These policies and actions, in addition to contravening international law, have no clear justification in terms of protecting the security of Israel.
Tomorrow, I will meet with a member of a displaced community to hear about the situation of communities like Ein Samiya in the West Bank – a Palestinian village which has recently been completely emptied of people. This is because the community had no choice but to move on due to unchecked violence and intimidation from Israeli settlers. Their school has been demolished by the Israeli authorities. This is a microcosm of the lived reality for many Palestinian people.
I acknowledge that large sections of Israeli society shared the shock of the international community at the scenes of settler violence we witnessed in Huwara earlier this year. I have also noted with interest that the security community here now refers to such instances of settler violence as “nationalist terrorism”. This is encouraging but it is also important that we see real action in terms of protecting Palestinian citizens on the ground.
However, more fundamentally, I hope that the very profound societal reflection and debate that is ongoing within Israeli society can encompass a longer-term view. I hope it will result in a new vision for rebuilding your relationship with your Palestinian neighbours and, crucially, towards re-establishing a pathway towards meaningful political dialogue.
Ireland remains firmly committed, in line with the position of the international community, to a negotiated two-State solution that ends the occupation that began in 1967; with Jerusalem as the capital of both States, on the basis of international law, including relevant UN Security Council resolutions. We also remain committed to the preservation of the status quo at the Holy Sites in Jerusalem.
I am deeply concerned that the current trajectory moves us further from realising a two-State solution. And I speak out about this: not because of hostility to Israel, not because of indifference to the security of Israeli citizens, not because I am naïve about the difficulties of negotiating a comprehensive solution to the conflict and the compromises that this would require. I do so because it matters; it matters, of course, first and foremost, to everyone in this room and in this country; to the Palestinians on the other side of the Green Line.
But it also matters to the international community as a whole; it matters to everyone who cares about the principles of international law and self-determination; it matters to me personally, as someone who has been involved both in foreign policy and in being part of bringing peace to this island of island for the 40 plus years of my political life.
It is for that reason that I want to continue working, within the EU and more broadly, to promote a renewed effort by the international community to restore a political horizon.
I welcome that Israel has normalised its relations with a number of Arab countries in recent months and years; and I truly hope that these new relationships can also help open new avenues to advance the Israeli-Palestinian issue.
That may seem unimaginable in the current political context.
However, returning to my opening comments – how many of the challenges we have faced since 2008 could we have imagined – and how many of the solutions to some of those challenges could we have foreseen? I sincerely believe that with political will, we can restore a pathway towards a just and lasting peace between the Israeli and Palestinian people.
5 September 2023