We need your help now

Support from readers like you keeps The Journal open.

You are visiting us because we have something you value. Independent, unbiased news that tells the truth. Advertising revenue goes some way to support our mission, but this year it has not been enough.

If you've seen value in our reporting, please contribute what you can, so we can continue to produce accurate and meaningful journalism. For everyone who needs it.

Joe Biden, Benjamin Netanyahu and Ursula von der Leyen Alamy

Bobby McDonagh In seeking full truth, we must avoid picking sides between the two narratives

The former Irish Ambassador says many expect Ireland to align itself exclusively with one side or another, but we must instead grapple with the full, complex truth.

LAST UPDATE | 20 Oct 2023

IN IRELAND, AS elsewhere, witnesses swear an oath in court to tell “the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth”.

The ferociously competing narratives about the ongoing tragic conflict in Israel and Gaza are a reminder that understanding the “whole truth” is of fundamental importance. In politics, as in the courts, the “truth” and, even, “nothing but the truth” can be rendered dangerously meaningless if the “whole truth” is disregarded.

Partial views of the past and present are a large part of the Middle East problem. When those who speak on behalf of Israel or the Palestinians make their respective cases, often persuasively, much of what they say is, taken at face value, true. However, more often than not, the alternative narratives fail to acknowledge, or even to understand, that the “whole truth” necessarily involves, for each side, uncomfortable realities that they either cannot see or choose to ignore. It is not just truth, in its full sense, that is lost in the context of such myopia. It can also be balance, mutual respect, the prospects for longer-term peace, and even sometimes an appreciation of each other’s humanity.

Partial truths

The Israeli truths include their legitimate pride in the democratic state they have created, their very real need for security in a threatening environment, their long experience of terrorism, the dark spectre of antisemitism and, above all perhaps, their responsibility to the memory of the holocaust out of which the Israeli state was born. Most recently, the event that is naturally at the forefront of righteous anger in Israel has been the grotesque Hamas invasion of Israel, involving the wicked murder, maiming and kidnapping of innocent civilians, men women and children. When I say these are Israeli truths, they should, of course, also be our own truths and those of all decent people around the world.

The Palestinian truths, which also should be our own truths, are quite different. They include the fact that, as a people, they have, over many decades, been dispossessed, humiliated, and mistreated, often subject to violence or imprisonment. The world, including many Arab regimes, has largely disregarded them.

They are often treated as second-class human beings. In more recent days, the lived reality of innocent Palestinian civilians – again men, women and children – has been widespread bombing, death, destruction and gross deprivation. At the heart of the righteous anger of Palestinians are the huge, entirely illegal, settlements on their own land, the Occupied Territories. Sioux Chief Red Cloud’s words would no doubt resonate with Palestinians, in relation not just to Israeli policy but to the apathy of the international community: “they made us many promises, more than I can remember, but they never kept but one; they promised to take our land and they took it.”

What now?

The profound and extraordinarily difficult challenge for Ireland, as for others around the world, is to try to understand and empathise with both of the conflicting truths in all their complexity. If we seek the full truth, we must avoid picking sides between the two narratives. Each version of reality can be said, from its particular perspective, to be “true”. The “whole truth”, however, is a different story.

The Irish Government comes under strong pressure from the proponents of both versions of the truth who, from their different perspectives, see the conflict as the “good guys” against the “bad guys”. They want us to nail our colours to their particular mast.

They expect Ireland to align itself exclusively with one truth or the other. Many supporters of Israel wrongly accuse Ireland of being anti-Israeli. Some Palestinian sympathisers condemn the Government for being soft on Israel.

In fact, what our Government is trying to do is to grapple with the full, complex and sometimes contradictory truth. In his speech to the Dáil on Wednesday, Micheál Martin set out clearly the Government’s approach. He unequivocally and strongly condemned the Hamas attack. He underlined Israel’s right to defend itself within the parameters of international humanitarian law, which applies in all conflicts and in all circumstances.

He called for an immediate humanitarian pause or ceasefire. He promised significant further Irish funding for humanitarian relief in Gaza. He placed particular emphasis on support for a two-state solution, which remains the only conceivable solution. Importantly, he stressed that, if ever there was a time to reinvigorate the Middle East Peace Process, it is now. While this balanced approach is inevitably criticised by both sides, it is a sensible and moral contribution to the international debate, including within the European Union.

Europe’s role

The overall EU response to the recent events was initially shaky. A maverick European Commissioner, Oliver Varhelyi, without either authority or moral compass, announced that all humanitarian aid to Palestinians would be cut off. He was immediately put back in his box by the EU’s decision to triple its aid to Gaza. It will remain the largest donor.

Also, the initial messaging of the President of the Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, who has generally been an impressive President, including in providing leadership on Europe’s response to Putin’s brutal assault on Ukraine, was ill-judged.

Her early comments were open to the interpretation that she saw the truth about Israel’s legitimate anger but not the other side of the humanitarian equation.

In his Dáil speech, Micheál Martin also spoke of some of the remarkable people, Israeli and Palestinian, whom he had met during his recent visit to the region. One group he met was the Parents Circle, a group which brings together Israeli and Palestinian families who have suffered bereavements due to the conflict. He sat over a meal with the parents of a thirteen-year-old Israeli girl killed in a Palestinian suicide bombing and a ten-year-old Palestinian girl killed by an Israeli sniper. The two fathers are central to Colum McCann’s novel Apeirogon. The courage of such parents, who dare to recognise the whole truth, offers some hope in these dark times.

Bobby McDonagh is a former Irish Ambassador to the EU, UK and Italy. He is an executive coach and commentator on subjects around EU and Brexit.