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Simon Coveney: ‘Calls to expel Israeli ambassador make no sense - issues get resolved by negotiation’

What did Ireland do with its UN Security Council seat in the 11 days that violence erupted between Israel and Hamas?

Simon Coveney arrives for a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Lisbon.
Simon Coveney arrives for a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Lisbon.
Image: Armando Franca

MINISTER FOR FOREIGN Affairs Simon Coveney has said that calls to expel the Israeli ambassador to Ireland over the bombing of Gaza, in retaliation to a Hamas attack, “make no sense” – and that such issues are resolved by negotiating at a senior level, and maintaining relationships on both sides.

The Minister also said that he is in discussions with other EU foreign ministers about the Dáil vote last week acknowledging the scale and pace of Israeli settlements on Palestinian land as de-facto annexation – making Ireland the first EU country to do so – in order to explain the legal advice and thinking behind it.

In an interview with The Journal this week, Coveney said that the expansion of Israeli settlements was a hindrance to a two-state solution, that Ireland had been “essential” to the international debate during the 11 days of violence, and that he received pushback on social media to his “frustrated” speech on the UN Security Council’s inaction, where some questioned him on whether his stance was one-sided against Israel.

Coveney also said that the answer to stop the cycle of violence between Israel and Hamas is for countries with influence over the two sides to use that influence – adding that there will be no peace process without the central involvement of the US.

Sometimes people talk about this dispute like there’s a sort of a universal view internationally – and then there’s Israel’s view. That is absolutely not the situation.

“But our role in the Security Council means that we have an obligation to call countries out, or to call paramilitary groups out, if they’re breaching international law. And that’s why I have been so vocal on settlements, which are illegal under international law.”

Speaking about what progress has been made to date on the Israel-Palestine conflict, Coveney said: “I don’t believe that the basis of negotiation over the last number of years is going to result in a lasting peace settlement.”

ny-un-sc-debate-in-connection-with-the-situation-in-the-middle-east Israel Permanent Representative to UN Gilad Erdan speaks during the UN SC debate. Source: SIPA USA/PA Images

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one of the most high-profile, longest-standing and most difficult conflicts in the world, stuck in a cycle of violence – with rockets from Hamas and air strikes from Israel erupting regularly since the 2014 war.

Israel has occupied the West Bank – internationally recognised as Palestinian land – since the six-day war in 1967, the same year it annexed east Jerusalem.

Since then, more than half a million Jewish settlers – both ideologically and economically motivated – have moved into or grown up in these areas.

Palestinians in east Jerusalem and across much of the West Bank are regularly denied building permits, while Jewish home construction has steadily grown.

The series of clashes and bombings has entrenched views of not just Jews and Muslims, but countries that have picked a side.

mideast-nablus-clashes Palestinian protesters run from tear gas fired by Israeli soldiers during a protest against Israeli settlements in Beita in the West Bank. 4 June. Source: Xinhua News Agency/PA Images

While the US is a prominent ally of Israel, Iran does not recognise the state of Israel; supporting the Palestinian cause has been a pillar of its foreign policy since the 1979 revolution.

What makes the conflict so complicated is that there are victims on both sides: on one hand, Israel represents a nation of European Jews that fled persecution and antisemitism. On the other, Palestinians live on a shrinking patch of land that is the West Bank; or the crumbling walled city on the edge of the Mediterranean Sea: Gaza.

Pro-Palestine protests in Dublin

The heated conflict is also an issue that’s close to Irish hearts – flags from either side are flown in parts of Northern Ireland, and protests in support of the Palestinian people are common on the streets of Dublin.

Last week, members of the public called on politicians to support the Dáil motion declaring Israeli settlements in Palestinian land de-facto annexation.

The motion passed, making Ireland the first EU country to make a declaration of annexation – and sparked some anger on Twitter at those who didn’t also vote to expel the Israeli ambassador out of Ireland.

After the recent flare up of violence, a trend of young Irish people on Twitter placing the Palestinian flag next to their username began, as well as Irish people sharing posts about the conflict and debates in the Oireachtas. There were also pro-Palestine marches on the streets of Dublin, as well as protests against the terrorist organisation Hamas, that rules the Gaza Strip.

8647 Protests March for Palestine, 22 May. Source: Leah Farrell

Ireland’s director for the Middle East and North Africa unit Cáit Moran told The Journal that the public interest in Israel-Palestine “certainly gives the Department and the Minister a voice” in terms of being able to say “this is something that the Irish public is genuinely interested in”.

“And I think that’s reflected when we speak on something, and is appreciated,” she said.

“The kind of call sometimes that the public thinks may be helpful, or that members of the Oireachtas think may be helpful, maybe that’s not always the most effective – an example of that being the call for the expulsion of the Israeli ambassador.

“I think that can be difficult in terms of the public’s frustration, maybe with wanting to feel they’re doing more. But sometimes in doing more, you actually make it less possible for us to be impactful and effective,” she said, saying it was particularly true of the Israel-Palestine issue.

The painstaking diplomacy of the UN Security Council

So what exactly did the Irish Government do to help bring about peace; how did it use its UN Security Council seat to call for peace, and prevent further violence; and did the Dáil vote to recognise the de facto annexation by Israel do more harm than good?

Ireland tried to put as much pressure as possible on the UN Security Council to agree a unified statement, Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney says.

“People who think that the way to get things done at the Security Council is to try to publicly criticise or embarrass other countries, particularly the P5 countries, don’t understand the politics of the Security Council and how it works.”

The five permanent members of the Security Council, called the ‘P5’, are the US, China, Russia, the UK and France. These nations have a veto over any vote that is put before the Council – but consensus among all 15 members is often needed.

un-security-council-somalia-meeting UN Security Council meeting on 25 May. Source: Xinhua News Agency/PA Images

Coveney said that his speech to the Dáil on the UN Security Council’s inability to agree on a statement made him one of the most outspoken foreign ministers in the world on the conflict. He said that Egypt and the US were crucial in their work behind the scenes that led to an eventual ceasefire – after which the UNSC released its statement.

“We couldn’t get the Security Council to call for a ceasefire publicly together. That was a frustration and disappointment from my perspective.

“But the focus on the Middle East peace process shouldn’t only be about a ceasefire, and getting humanitarian assistance to people who need it unimpeded – all of that is really important.

“But it is also important that what we take from this cycle of violence is a sense of urgency within the international community, that we cannot simply go back to the status quo of expanding settlements; of demolitions of property; of forced evictions, particularly in East Jerusalem of Palestinian families, and expect that we’re going to find a way of securing a lasting peace. It’s just not going to happen,” he said, adding that a platform for negotiation was needed between leaders on both sides.

“This isn’t a question of targeting anybody, this is about insisting on international law being respected and applying that standard to both sides.”

The greatest hope for peace is a two-state solution – where Palestine would be given the promise of a self-ruled democracy in the West Bank and Gaza; and Israel would be a thriving democracy and a sanctuary for Jews.

“The problem is that with each cycle of violence, the time period in between those cycles of violence are seeing a constant and relentless expansion of settlements in Palestinian territory, in the West Bank,” Coveney said. “We’ve seen a change in the nature of East Jerusalem. And we have seen a significant increase in the settler population in expanded settlements in the West Bank.”

israel-palestinians A couple sit on a bench along a marina in Herzliya, Israel. Source: David Goldman

As Palestinian land recedes with each growth of Israeli settlements, the two-state solution becomes less and less likely, and there is just a “one-state reality”:

The more Israelis are living in settlements in the West Bank, the more difficult it is to negotiate a country for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.

An Oireachtas Committee was told that part of the reason why Israeli settlements continue, and the planned, coordinated demolition of Palestinian buildings continues, is because meaningful consequences to breaking international law are “glaringly absent”.

When asked whether the Occupied Territories Bill should be looked at again as a type of repercussion, Coveney repeats a response that has been given before: “No, because it isn’t legally sound.”

What is the point of the UN Security Council in a crisis like this?

The Security Council meets once a month to discuss the latest issues to do with the Middle East, including the Israel-Palestine question. Minister Coveney addressed the first debate of the year on the Middle East – shortly after Ireland took its UN Security Council seat – to say that the Israel-Palestine issue would be a priority for Ireland.

After the violence broke out, a UN Security Council meeting was called for, and held days into the conflict – which drew criticism for how slow the process was. Coveney addressed a public meeting of the Security Council – which was unusual as generally Ireland’s UN public representative Geraldine Byrne Nason would speak on Ireland’s behalf.

But Ireland’s Middle East lead Cáit Moran said that it “signals from our side the degree of priority and emphasis that we place on the issue and how concerned we are”.

When asked what the function of the Security Council is, given its statement calling for a ceasefire was issued after a ceasefire came into effect, and that Egypt, who isn’t a Security Council member, brokered that ceasefire, Moran said:

“Egypt and Jordan, in particular, have played a really important role because they’re immediately affected – they share land borders, and it’s their neighbourhood.”

“Egypt had already been hosting and reconciliation talks among the Palestinian factions – between the different factions at Fatah and between Hamas, so Egypt was already in that room. And that’s really important.”

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Moran said that when the Security Council issues a statement, that’s the “moral authority” on the issue:

“It’s for a reason that the Palestinians, or others in a particular situation like that, will actually call for the Council to meet,” she said.

Gerard Keown, UN Director at the Department of Foreign Affairs, told The Journal that the Council has a “unique legitimacy when it speaks”.

It has that moral force of the UN Charter behind it. It also has a role to shine the light on an issue. And even when it is unable to speak out, it is the highest forum in the UN in which member states can ask tough questions about issues critical to international peace and security.

Keown said that the strength of Ireland’s positions at the Council is as strong as the quality and timeliness of the information and analysis its team gets, through a variety of sources.

Discussions with ambassadors, foreign ministers and officials are sought, as well as the UN’s representative on the ground, to glean an understanding of the state of play.

The central role of the US in Israel-Palestine

protest-in-los-angeles-for-palestine-solidarity A pro-Palestine protest in Los Angeles. Source: Justin L. Stewart

Coveney has also kept in contact with the US administration, which were heavily involved in the ceasefire that was struck – despite not publicly supporting the UN Security Council’s call for a ceasefire until after one was in place.

Sonja Hyland, Political Director at the Department of Foreign Affairs, told The Journal: “If you just go to the Security Council and make a speech, and that’s the end of your engagement on an issue, that’s one thing, but it’s not enough.

“I think the Middle East peace process in particular, without US proactive engagement, it’s difficult to see how it can be sort of substantively taken forward.”

When asked what the relationship between Ireland and Israel is like after the Dáil vote calling Israeli settlements ‘de facto annexation’, Keown says they have an “open” dialogue where Israel is “very clear on our position”.

“But that doesn’t prevent us having open and regular conversations at political level, at senior official level, our embassy in Tel Aviv is in regular contact with the Israeli foreign ministry, we are in regular contact with the Israeli embassy here in Dublin, and with the Israeli mission in New York. And that will continue.”

We were very clear with going into the Council role that we would listen, we will be open, particularly when countries have a particular stake in a Security Council issue – and we recognise clearly the fundamental interest in Israel has its own security – but that we would form our own positions and bring our own independent voice to the council. And those two things, I think, are not in any way contradictory.

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