Symbolic step of Ireland recognising Palestine would mean so much

It is time for Ireland to stop procrastinating, show some real vision, and summon up the courage to formally recognise the state of Palestine, writes TP O’Mahony.

Jerusalem's Old City is seen through a door with the shape of star of David. Picture: AP

WHEN David Ben-Gurion, the leader of the Jewish community in Palestine, stood up in Museum Hall in Tel Aviv to proclaim the establishment of the state of Israel on 14 May 1948, the Irish government expected that a request for the official recognition of the new state would soon follow.

The government at the time, the first inter-party coalition, was headed by John A Costello, with Sean MacBride as minister for external affairs (the department wasn’t renamed as Foreign Affairs until 1971).

On May 28, 1948, a telegram arrived from Moshe Shertok, the foreign secretary of the provisional government of Israel, requesting “Eire” to grant official recognition to the “State of Israel and its provisional government”.

The United States, immediately after Ben-Gurion’s announcement, had already granted de facto recognition.

David Ben Gurion: The leader of the Jewish community in Palestine proclaimed the establishment of the state of Israel on May 14, 1948.

“In Washington, as the White House prepared its statement recognising the ‘Jewish state’, news was brought in that the name was ‘Israel’.

In the official US statement, Truman himself crossed out the words ‘Jewish state’ and inserted ‘Israel’,” according to Ahron Bregman and Jihan El-Tahri in their book The Fifty Years War.

President Truman had made a promise to the Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann (who would become the first president of Israel) on November 19, 1947, that such recognition would be forthcoming.

But he had to overcome stern resistance from US secretary of state, General George Marshall, who had argued that, from the point of view of US national interests, America should support the Arab camp because it held the key to the most vital natural resource — oil.

The proclamation of the new state took place against a background of armed conflict between Arabs and Jews, and controversies over ethnic cleansing.

“Between 29 November 1947 — the date of the UN partition vote — and 15 May 1948 — the date the ruling British departed from Palestine — Palestine was a disaster waiting to happen,” according to Bregman and El-Tahri.

“British rule dwindled into powerlessness. The tension that had been mounting for years between Arabs and Jews swelled into civil war.”

The Arabs had grown increasingly alarmed at the growth of Zionism and the implications of the Balfour Declaration.

Zionism is a political movement that started in the late 19th century, dedicated to the establishment of a national homeland for Jews in Palestine.

Later it was concerned with the development of the modern state of Israel. The name is derived from Zion, the hill on which the city of Jerusalem stands.

The background to all of this goes back to the San Remo conference of April 1920, a meeting of the four principal post-First World War Allied powers. The conference decided that Britain should be granted the mandate to administer Palestine (this was endorsed in 1922 by the League of Nations).

But in February 1947, Britain declared that, since it didn’t have the power to award the country to either the Arabs or the Jews, it would pass the problem to the judgment of the United Nations. At the same time, Britain announced its forces would be withdrawn from Palestine on May 15, 1948.

The Balfour Declaration of 1917 is regarded by scholars as the seed that led to the founding of the Israeli state. It was in November 1917 that the British foreign secretary Arthur Balfour sent his famous letter to Lord Rothschild, leader of the British Zionists.

The letter contained this paragraph: “Her Majesty’s government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people . ..”

In an article in the Guardian on the 84th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, David Pallister wrote: “In 1922, when the League of Nations agreed that Britain should administer the mandate over Palestine, the declaration was included in the preamble. At the time Arabs constituted 92% of the population and owned 98% of the land. Neither Arab nor Jew was happy, since Britain resisted Arab demands for the prohibition of land sales to Jews and Jewish demands for increased immigration.

“The Nazis changed all that. In 1942 a Zionist conference in New York demanded that ‘the gates of Palestine be opened . . . and that Palestine be established as a Jewish Commonwealth’.

Britain tried to prevent fleeing European Jews entering the territory. It was not successful. By 1946 the Jewish population had increased to about 650,000, two-fifths of the total.

“But force of arms and acts of terror won the day. The mandate became ungovernable and Britain handed the crisis over to the UN. It proposed partitioning Palestine, leaving Jerusalem as a UN-administered zone for the three main faiths. Neither side would agree and the resulting unrest, leaving 1,700 people dead, ended when Israeli forces launched a full-scale offensive, and 400,000 Arabs fled to neighbouring states.”

The “acts of terror” included the bombing on 22 July, 1946 of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, the British administrative HQ, by the Irgun, a militant Zionist underground organisation led by Menachem Begin (a future prime minister). The bombing left 91 dead.

And on September 17, 1948 — four months after Israeli independence — the Stern Gang, another Zionist paramilitary organisation, assassinated Count Folke Bernadotte, a Swedish diplomat who had gone to Palestine as a UN mediator and who had been working on a plan for Jerusalem and the Holy Places, a plan that included a new partitioning of Palestine. His murder provoked considerable outrage within the international community.

“No example of state creation in the 20th century is more emotionally charged than the case of Israel,” says Paula Wylie in her essay on Ireland’s attitude to Israel’s recognition in Irish Foreign Policy 1919-1966.

“Chaim Weizmann’s statement to the Peel Commission in 1936 — ‘Have we the right to live?’ — highlighted the plight of European Jews trying to emigrate to Palestine before World War II. Although Theodor Herzl and others demanded a Jewish state during the first World Zionist Congress in 1897, the imperative gained critical mass only after 1945 as a means of assuaging the collective guilt of Western civilisation for the atrocities of the Holocaust.”

If there were divisions at the highest level in Washington over the recognition of Israel, in Dublin there was hesitation in government circles.

People Before Profit Cllr John Lyons and Fatin al Tamimi, chairperson of Ireland Palestine Solidarity Campaign (IPSC), outside Dublin’s City Hall in May to mark the raising of the Palestinian flag. Picture: RollingnNews.ie

A memorandum from the Department of External Affairs recommended that Ireland grant “the virtual minimum of recognition”. When Shertok’s cable was discussed, the cabinet decided to approve a recommendation from Sean MacBride that “no action be taken on the telegram apart from the appropriate acknowledgement”.

According to Paula Wylie, who lectures in international relations and history at the University of North Carolina (she did a PhD thesis in modern history at UCC), the adoption of an attitude of non-recognition “endured as a policy in deference to the diplomatic wishes of the Holy See”.

The Vatican wanted no recognition of Israel until it guaranteed the internationalisation of Jerusalem and the protection of, and free access to, the Holy Places throughout Palestine.

“Ireland chose the position of the Holy See as a basis for its policy towards Israel,” says Ms Wylie.

“Not only did the Holy Places argument win prestige for Ireland from the Holy See, but placing such a condition on recognition meant that Ireland would not be entering into diplomatic relations with Israel in the immediate future. One may even argue that the unspoken aim of the policy was to prohibit ‘Jewish infiltration’ into Ireland.”

She pointed out that “Ireland’s long-term policy of de facto recognition was, in effect, non-recognition. It persisted until 1963 when, in a streamlined effort to establish a more consistent international position, Ireland recognised Israel de jure”.

According to the Penguin Dictionary of International Relations, de facto normally refers to provisional recognition that a particular government exercises factual sovereignty, whereas de jure implies recognises both factual and legal sovereignty. De jure therefore implies complete diplomatic acceptance of the new state or government.

What remained unstated in Dublin for many years was the key explanation of why de jure recognition was delayed for so long — once granted, a request from Israel for a diplomatic mission in Ireland would follow. Which is, of course, what happened.

“Ireland’s policy of non-recognition towards Israel was sustained by the Department of External Affairs from 1949 to 1963 as a unilateral foreign policy,” writes Ms Wylie. “To date, historians have accepted the thesis that Ireland refused de jure recognition to protest Israel’s lack of regard for the Holy Places in and around Jerusalem. The archival materials from the Department of Foreign Affairs and the Taoiseach’s Department, though, suggest that the policy was also motivated by the desire to delay a request for the establishment of normal diplomatic relations, including the diplomatic presence of Israel in Dublin.”

The departmental files also show that the Vatican was approached and informed the Irish government that there would be no objection to the granting of full recognition to Israel, but “the Holy See would be pleased if due care were taken by the government not to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel”.

Interestingly, Ms Wylie’s research revealed that Israel’s foreign minister, Golda Meir (who would later become prime minister) was “to be informed without publicity” of the government’s decision to grant full recognition. It was left to the New York Times to report Ireland’s de jure recognition of Israel in January 1964 — just after Pope Paul VI’s historic visit to Israel and the Holy Places.

The Holy See formally recognised Israel on December 30, 1993 when diplomatic relations were established. On January 19, 1994, a nunciature was opened in Israel and an embassy in Rome.

The Holy See had accorded de facto recognition of Palestine since 2012. In June 2015, the Holy See recognised a “state of Palestine”, and backed a two-state solution.

At the time, the Palestinian foreign minister Riad Al-Malki said he hoped it would help bring “recognition of the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination, freedom and dignity in an independent state of their own, free from the shackles of occupation”.

In the years since the establishment of Israel, the pivotal event has been the Six Day War in June 1967. That war was a real game-changer. “In May 1967, as Nasser deployed his troops in Sinai, Prime Minister Levi Eshkol initially resisted pressure to go to war.

“But on June 5 Israel launched a pre-emptive strike against the Egyptian Air Force. Once the fighting had begun, Israel also turned its guns on Jordan and Syria. “In six days, Israel won a military victory that changed the face of the Middle East,” explained Bregman and El-Tahri.

“Israel was now in possession of large territories — West Bank, Golan Heights, the Sinai, Gaza and Jerusalem.” All talk of a two-state solution since has been premised on the expectation that that Israel would trade territory for peace. For years the consensus view in the West supported the establishment of a Palestinian state on the pre-1967 lines, with the Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem.

In a recently published book entitled The Only Language They Understand: Forcing Compromise in Israel and Palestine, Nathan Thrall says that the reason the possibility of a lasting peace seems further away than ever is because, for Israel, the cost of making a deal is much higher than the cost of making no deal.

This has to change, says Thrall, who is a Jerusalem-based senior analyst with the International Crisis Group.

He makes the point that while the US and Europe draw a sharp distinction between Israel and the occupied territories — refusing to recognise Israeli sovereignty beyond the pre-1967 lines — this “differentiation” just creates an illusion.

“Israel vehemently protests against this policy of so-called differentiation between Israel and the occupied territories, believing that it delegitimizes the settlements and the state.” But differentiation only creates an illusion of US castigation, because “in reality it insulates Israel from answering for its actions in the occupied territories, by assuring that only settlements and not the government that creates them will suffer consequences for repeated violations of international law”.

It is in this sense, he says, that the “policy of differentiation, of which Europeans and US liberals are quite proud, does not so much constitute pressure on Israel as serve as a substitute for it, thereby helping to prolong an occupation it is ostensibly meant to bring to an end”.

Thrall argues that until “the US and Europe formulate a strategy to make Israel’s circumstances less desirable than the concessions it would make to a peace agreement, they will shoulder responsibility for the oppressive military regime they continue to preserve and fund”.

The reality, he emphasises, is that “the United States has consistently sheltered Israel from accountability for its policies in the West Bank”.

And under President Trump and his administration, this will continue to be the case. He has appointed a man who is pro-settlements as his ambassador in Israel, and said he would move the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. So far, he has held off on this.

As for a two-state agreement, Trump appears indifferent to this. “I’m looking at two states and one state. I can live with either one,” he said recently.

Where is Irish policy on this? Ten or 20 years from now, what will the files from the Department of the Taoiseach and the Department of Foreign Affairs tell us about Ireland’s attitude to recognition of Palestine?

Will they reveal procrastination, uncertainty, or a fear of “annoying” Israel? Or will they reveal that the Irish government, drawing on our own painful history of occupation and dispossession, felt a moral imperative to act on behalf of the beleaguered Palestinian people? It is time for the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Simon Coveney, to act.

In April a group of 89 leading artists, academics, writers, trade unionists and former ambassadors signed a letter to the then taoiseach, Enda Kenny, urging the Government to formally recognise the state of Palestine.

The letter, whose signatories included former US ambassador to Ireland Jean Kennedy Smith, former SDLP leader John Hume, actor Stephen Rea and musician Christy Moore, said the Government should move towards recognition “without delay”.

Acting now would strengthen the case for a two-state solution and help to provide parity of esteem between Palestine and Israel, “which is essential for any lasting peace settlement,” the letter stated.

The signatories included three retired diplomats who served as Ireland’s representative to the Palestinian Authority — Niall Holohan, Isolde Moylan and James Carroll.

The letter pointed to the political and financial support which successive Irish governments have given the Palestinian people, and noted “with pride” that Ireland was the first EU state to call for the creation of a Palestinian state.

“It is our belief that the principal international legal criteria for the recognition of a Palestinian state have already been met. We hold that further official recognition of Palestine by EU member states will strengthen the case for acceptance of the two-state solution . . .”

How much longer will Ireland postpone this formal recognition of the State of Palestine? With the two-state solution imperilled — not least because of the attitude of President Trump, and with the right-wing regime of Benjamin Netanyahu determined to press ahead with further settlements — it is time now for the Irish Government to act.

Recognition at this stage may only be symbolic, but there are times when symbolism is very important.

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