Israel can learn from the Irish peace process

Ambassador Zeev Boker has a tough task appeasing sentiment here about Israeli activity in Gaza, but our countries have much in common, he tells Juno McEnroe

Israel can learn from the Irish peace process

Ill-feeling in Ireland towards Israel perhaps peaked in 2010, when the Israeli secret service, Mossad, used forged Irish passports in the killing of a Palestinian commander.

Who can forget the grainy CCTV images of Mossad members dressed as tennis players leaving an elevator in a Dubai hotel minutes before assassinating Mahmoud Al-Mabhouh, the Hamas commander, in his bed?

In consequence, the Irish Government expelled an official from the Israeli embassy. Ireland opposed extra-judicial killings, ministers said, especially when they involved Irish passports.

Anti-Israeli sentiment here also peaked during Israel’s siege of Gaza in July, 2014. The Seanad held an emergency debate, after 1,000 civilians had been killed during bombings of the Palestinian enclave.

Calls have increased here for businesses to boycott Israeli goods, for Israeli diplomats to be expelled, and for the Irish Government to take a stand for Palestinians. In an interview with the Irish Examiner, the new Israeli ambassador to Ireland, Zeev Boker, has addressed some of these issues.

Boker says being Irish ambassador is one of the most difficult posts for Israeli diplomats. He accepts issues about Israel’s image. Nonetheless, the former army captain and teacher is in tune with cultural, artistic, and political matters that link Ireland and Israel.

Benjamin Netanyahu’s Israeli administration wants to befriend Ireland. Israel is also open to fresh attempts at making peace with Palestinians.

Benjamin Netanyahu
Benjamin Netanyahu

Ambassador Boker spoke plainly about why Tel Aviv is now ready for a two-state solution, about Ireland’s relations with Iran, and about the Middle East peace process.

Based here for nearly a year, Mr Boker said his post is “very interesting”, but “very challenging.” Recent events demonstrate this.

There was criticism of Clare County Council for hosting the ambassador last month. A row also erupted in May, because Listowel Writers’ Week accepted funds from the embassy for an Israeli writer’s expenses. There are regular protests outside Israel’s embassy in Ballsbridge, Dublin. Evidently, the diplomatic post is accustomed to controversy.

Extreme security at the embassy reflect this. I endured two rounds of questions from security guards about whether I was carrying weapons, an electronic scan of my clothes, and an order not to bring my phone inside.

But Ambassador Boker was keen to speak about connecting Israeli and Irish people. “There is a lot for Ireland and Israel to learn from each other, to share with each other,” he said.

Links between the two nations include emigration and strong diasporas. The ambassador points to direct flights between Ireland and Israel that are currently being negotiated. Ireland has also adopted a diaspora scheme, based on Israel’s state-sponsored ‘birthright’ programme.

Ambassador Boker said there is a commonality in how both countries struggled for independence with Britain. He mentioned Yitzhak Shamir, a former Zionist fighter and prime minister of Israel, who used ‘Michael’ as his nom de guerre, after Ireland’s Michael Collins.

There might be links. But many Irish do not look beyond the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Indeed, outgoing US president, Barack Obama, marked his final meeting with Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, by raising concerns about settlement expansion in the occupied West Bank.

Barack Obama
Barack Obama

The US noted “the corrosive effect that that [settlements] is having on the prospect for two states.”

These views have been echoed by our own Foreign Affairs Minister, Charlie Flanagan, who, as recently as July, told the Dáil that “the relentless expansion of illegal Israeli settlements on Palestinian land is now a major driver of the continuing conflict.” Ambassador Boker recognised the incendiary effect of the issue.

“Settlements are, no doubt, a major issue and one of the core topics of the peace process,” he said.

The ambassador said Tel Aviv is ready to relaunch the peace talks with the Palestinians. Mr Netanyahu would even meet Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, in Russia, reports have said.

“I think Netanyahu and Abbas, when they will be sitting together, they will find that they can be in agreement...we are more than ready that Palestinians can have their independent state.”

“Surely, this dismantlement of settlements will be on the table. All the issues will be discussed at the table. We see the Palestinians suffering and also there is criticism of the Israeli security barrier,” said Boker.

Mahmoud Abbas
Mahmoud Abbas

This ‘security barrier’, or wall, is twice the height of the Berlin Wall and 60% of its 790km route is complete. Cutting through the West Bank, it was put up during the second intifada, or Palestinian uprising, in 2002, to stop suicide bombings.

Any conversation about peace or an independent Palestinian state needs to consider security, said Boker. “It has to come with security guarantees for both sides, also for us, so the barrier is one of them.” But there’s a complicating issue. Since 2006, the Palestinian leadership has been split between Hamas, in Gaza, and Fatah, a more moderate group, which rules the West Bank.

Hamas’ charter calls for the destruction of Israel and its replacement with an Islamic state, a declaration, not surprisingly, detested by Israeli citizens. Mr Boker said: “It [the talks] will be a complicated situation. Let’s say we will be able to get a principle agreement with Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, but what will be with Gaza?”

Interestingly, the ambassador agreed that elements of the Irish peace process could work in the Middle East. Does this include talking to Hamas, like when the Irish and British governments held secret talks with the IRA?

“No conflict is fully identifiable with another conflict. But we are not closing our eyes. I believe we can learn from the way the Irish [did] to find or solve [the conflict].”

There are common themes in both conflicts, including disagreement over land and religion. Maybe this is what brought former taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, to meet Israelis and Palestinians in April last year.

“We are ready to listen,” said Boker. “You have to address the other side. You have to think [see] in the other side’s eyes. Secondly, you have to see in what way you can find commonalities. The fact that both sides will sit together.

“To bring Hamas on board, first of all they should not have any military fight, they should recognise the state of Israel. So there are restrictive conditions.

“If Hamas obeyed to them [conditions], we don’t exclude them as a partner [in the talks]. But they first cannot call for the destruction of the state of Israel. There should be very major principles.

“We are not, in principle, against negotiation with Hamas, together with Palestinians. I think they have to first understand to be a reliable partner, they cannot call for the destruction of the state of Israel, continue shelling rockets in Israel, using terrorising against Israel. These are things which are not tolerable.”

Getting Israeli and Hamas officials into the same room would be some achievement.

But unity is needed first amongst the Palestinians themselves.

Certainly, a decision to stall elections in the Palestinian territories suggests there may be a momentum to unite the different factions.

Israel, though, also has another eye on one of its more powerful enemies, Iran.

US secretary of state, Colin Powell, said, in recently leaked emails, that Israel has 200 nuclear warheads pointed at Iran. Equally, a senior Iranian military commander recently boasted that the Islamic Republic could “raze the Zionist regime in less than eight minutes”.

Given recent suggestions from Irish ministers here that the Government may reopen an Irish embassy in Tehran, Boker pulls no punches in voicing his protest against such a move.

“Things have to be looked at in the wider context. We are still deeply concerned with Iranian major military policies, especially in the field of Iran, supporting terrorism.

“I’m not in a position to advise the Irish Government. If I could give my piece of mind, I would ask the Irish counterparts, please be cautious, please be cautious for the reasons that I have mentioned.

“We see the more you’re talking to Iran. Please make clear to the Iranians that you have red lines also, vis-à-vis Iranian policies.

“If you decide for your economic interests to do and go, we cannot tell you no. It is your mandate. Still, be cautious, please be careful.”

Despite bitter public opinion about Israel’s actions and policies, Boker still said that much connects Ireland and his country.

He would welcome the idea of Mr Netanyahu visiting Ireland, and said that trade, diplomatic relations, and artistic links between the two nations could be improved.

“Both countries should be open, and able, to manifesting [sharing] the cultural and literature, without being subjected to any boycotting, to any pressure, to any sanctions.

“Sometimes, we can differ on political issues, but it should not [affect] our developing bilateral relations,” Boker said.

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