Donnacha Ó Beacháin Israel's diplomatic mission to Ireland has had a rocky few years

The DCU Professor of Politics looks at testy and tense relations between Ireland and Israel in recent years.

LAST UPDATE | Oct 26th 2023, 11:58 PM

THIS WEEK, THE Israeli ambassador to Ireland accused President Michael D. Higgins of spreading misinformation about Israel when he said the country was committing war crimes in Palestine. Her remarks attracted substantial criticism from across the political spectrum in Ireland. 

This was followed by a tweet posted by the deputy ambassador in Dublin, which claimed Ireland was responsible for funding Hamas’s ‘tunnels of terror’. Following a backlash, the post was quickly deleted with the explanation that the ‘text and wording were wrong’.

In fairness to Ambassador Dana Erlich, she has only been in the job since August, and like all parties, she is navigating one of the most heated diplomatic crises in years. Israel is understandably hurting since the horrific attack by Hamas on 7 October.

A history of controversial social media engagement

Given some of the coverage, one could have been forgiven for thinking that this was a novel or unprecedented faux pas. However, Israel’s diplomatic mission in Ireland has a track record of posting provocative assertions on its social media and robust responses to criticism.

As the December holiday season in 2012 approached, the Israeli embassy in Ireland posted on its official Facebook page an image of Jesus and Mary, accompanied by the text: ‘A thought for Christmas… If Jesus and mother Mary were alive today, they would, as Jews without security, probably end up being lynched in Bethlehem by hostile Palestinians. Just a thought…’

After the post went viral and attracted international media attention it was quickly removed. Moreover, the Facebook page was taken offline later that day, ostensibly for maintenance and returned with several potentially objectionable posts deleted.

One announcement posted by the embassy that remained on Facebook, complained of the ‘Irish biased one-sided media in favour of the Palestinian Industry of Lies and against Israel’. The post contained a link to a clip from an Israeli satirical TV programme, which presented a man described as an ‘Irish news director’, sporting fake red hair and alternately referred to as ‘Drek O’Hara’ and ‘Turd O’Shitter’, confessing to manufacturing negative stories to discredit Israel.

F5P2pHPWYAEmBXd One post linked to a clip from an Israeli satirical channel. Latma TV Latma TV

In August 2013, Israel’s embassy in Ireland retweeted statements that the UN had ‘become a tool against Israel’ and that ‘Hitler couldn’t have been made happier’ with its performance, which were also quickly removed after protests.

Commenting on the embassy’s controversial social-media postings, the Washington Post claimed that ‘international diplomacy requires restraint and calculation’ and that ‘neither is particularly well served by incendiary, racially tinged messages like those on Israel-in-Ireland Facebook page’.

A Dublin-based diplomat was quoted in the Irish Times as describing the Israeli embassy’s social media campaign as ‘hardly the way to win friends and influence people, particularly in a country where you know you already have an image problem’.

Israel now, Dublin next

The controversial social media campaign only accelerated because of ‘Operation Protective Edge’ in 2014. During the offensive against Gaza, in which Israel killed 2,251 Palestinians, according to the UN, the Israeli embassy in Dublin tweeted an image of Adolf Hitler superimposed on a Palestinian flag with the words ‘Free Palestine now!’.

In another image also distributed via the embassy’s Twitter account Dublin’s famous Molly Malone statue was covered in a traditional Muslim long black headscarf with the caption ‘Israel now Dublin next’.

Screenshot 2023-10-25 at 11.50.12

Similar images depicted the Mona Lisa in Paris, Michelangelo’s David in Italy, and Copenhagen’s Little Mermaid in Muslim attire and heavily armed. All four photos contained the caption ‘Israel is the last frontier of the free world’. Following numerous complaints, the embassy removed the controversial images from its official Twitter feed.

When asked to explain the photos by the British Daily Telegraph newspaper, Israeli ambassador Boaz Modai said he could not comment because ‘we are now in the middle of a war and I have other things to deal with’. The response to a similar query from the Irish Times was even more dismissive: ‘In view of the Irish Times’ extremely biased, partisan coverage of the current conflict between Israel and Hamas, inciting hatred of the Jewish State, the embassy will not comment.’

Delegitimising pro-Palestinian activism

Asked in 2012 by Israeli military radio to describe Irish public opinion, the deputy ambassador at the Israeli embassy in Dublin, Nurit Tinari-Modai referred to ‘the mob’ which campaigned against Israel in Ireland. They were described as ‘ignorant, anti-Semitic, with an intensely rooted hatred of Jews’; she also argued that ‘under the disguise of caring for Palestinians they accuse Israel of crimes against humanity’.

Two years later, while still deputy ambassador to Ireland, Nurit Tinari-Modai was involved in a scandal regarding proposals she had sent in a diplomatic communiqué to Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. As with the Irish ‘mob’, she again offered a blanket profile of Israeli human-rights activists who campaigned for Palestinian rights:

The acts of these activists are, I think, not ideologically motivated, but rather have to do with psychological reasons (disappointment with their parents or problems with their sexual identity) or due to their need to receive a residence permit (refugee visa) in one of the European countries…

In her communiqué, Tinari-Modai advocated intimidating and smearing these activists by disseminating their names and photos amongst their Israeli friends and family and by suggesting to Palestinians that they work for Mossad. Although the issue of this diplomatic cable was twice raised in the Oireachtas, the Irish government declined to comment on the revelations.

Ireland in the Israeli media

Because of its record of promoting Palestinian rights, Ireland is frequently portrayed in a negative light in the Israeli media. A former Israeli Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesperson, Mark Regev, wrote a piece for the Jerusalem Post last year entitled ‘Why does Ireland hate Israel?’.

A decade earlier, the same paper penned an editorial entitled ‘Irish Ire’, which concluded that Irish criticism of Israeli policy towards the Palestinians was simply thinly disguised anti-Semitism. Deriding ‘Irish officialdom’s pugnacious antipathy’, the paper said sarcastically that it could ‘only envy’ Ireland, which although geographically distant, ‘it appears to have no greater worry than the Israeli bogeyman’.

An adversarial relationship

In 2010, Ireland expelled a Dublin-based Israeli diplomat in protest against the use by the Mossad intelligence agency of several counterfeit Irish passports in the assassination of a senior Hamas figure in Dubai. Micheál Martin who, then as now, was Minister for Foreign Affairs, said that the investigation into the assassination had reached ‘the inescapable conclusion that an Israeli government agency was responsible’ and ‘the misuse of Irish passports by a state with which Ireland enjoys friendly, if sometimes frank, bilateral relations is clearly unacceptable and requires a firm response’.

Although Israel didn’t deny the charge, its foreign ministry said it regretted the Irish government’s decision, which was “not in line with the importance of our relationship”.

The following year, sources within the Israeli Foreign Ministry claimed that Ireland was ‘pushing all of Europe’s countries to a radical and uncompromising approach… filling people with anti-Israel hatred…what we are seeing is clear anti-Semitism’. The Department of Foreign Affairs responded that Ireland was not hostile to Israel but rather critical of its policies in the occupied Palestinian territories and ‘these are not the same things’.

Citing official diplomatic assessments, the Jerusalem Post said that with the election of the new Fine Gael–Labour government in 2011, which included Alan Shatter as Minister for Justice and Defence, Ireland’s warmth towards Israel, on a scale of one-to-ten, had gone from zero to 1.5. One suspects that this rating of the Irish position has not progressed much since then, if at all.

Both houses of the Oireachtas passed motions in 2014 calling on the government to recognise a Palestinian state and following a parliamentary vote in 2021, Ireland became the first EU country to declare that Israel is involved in the ‘de facto annexation’ of Palestine, a move rejected by the Israeli MFA as ‘outrageous and baseless’.

Official relations between Ireland and Israel have frequently been characterised as adversarial. Recent events suggest this is unlikely to change in the near future.

Donnacha Ó Beacháin is Professor of Politics at Dublin City University. For more than two decades he has worked and researched in the post-Soviet region and has been published widely on the subject. 

Donnacha Ó Beacháin