The recent news that Israel is considering closing its embassy in Ireland as part of an overall reduction in its diplomatic footprint is disappointing, but understandable.

Should the decision to close the embassy be made, we will be the only country in Western Europe where Israel does not have an embassy.
Irish-Israeli relations have been middling to poor for several decades, and Irish politicians, journalists and intellectuals have regularly excoriated Israel for many years.

Every military action undertaken by Israel has been denounced in the Irish parliament and media echo chamber, regardless of the context or circumstances.
The settlements in the West Bank are routinely spoken of about as if their existence constituted one of the great global injustices.

The parties of the hard Left are particularly outspoken in their criticism, and there are regular demands for boycotts of Israeli goods and the expulsion of their ambassador.

Sinn Féin are especially vocal, and have long had ties with Hamas and other Palestinian militant groups operating in the area, ties which may well have entered the military sphere. Republican areas in the North often contain propaganda murals depicting imagined Israeli brutality.

The increasing prevalence of Palestinian flags on Hill 16 during Dublin GAA matches is yet another sign of the growing dislike of the Jewish state here, particularly among those who gravitate towards Sinn Féin.

But the problem runs far deeper. Neither Fine Gael nor Fianna Fáil ever defends the one pro-Western liberal democracy in the Middle East.

Far from it. In November, our-now Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney slammed Israeli settlements in the West Bank, saying that their expansion was “unjust, provocative and undermines the credibility of Israel’s commitment to a peaceful solution to the conflict.”

Elsewhere, the independent Senator Frances Black has introduced a bill in the Seanad which if passed will make all trade with Israeli settlements illegal.

Do Coveney, Black and others have a point about the settlements? Of course they do, even allowing for the fact that the Jewish presence in what Israelis call Judea and Samaria extends much further back than Israel’s many critics would suggest.

Many Israelis have mixed feelings about the value of maintaining settlements which are financially draining and difficult to secure.

That’s one of the reasons the Israelis offered to withdraw from almost all of the West Bank during the Camp David peace negotiations in 2000, while also giving up Gaza and allowing the proposed Palestinian state to have control over some parts of Jerusalem.

Yasser Arafat declined the offer.

In 2008, the Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert offered Arafat’s successor Mahmoud Abbas a similar deal involving the transfer of almost all of the West Bank and some minor land swaps to take account of large numbers of Jewish settlers in certain areas. It too was turned down.

Since then, Israel has veered to the right politically, and more Israelis are sceptical of there ever being a lasting peace settlement, with good reason.

Following the rejection of the Camp David proposals, a brutal terrorist campaign known as the Second Intifada was launched by Palestinian terrorist groups against against soft targets such as buses, discos, restaurants.

Thousands of Israelis were killed or maimed, and the bloodshed only subsided with the construction of a security wall around the West Bank, a development which was predictably condemned by Irish politicians. (The fact that similar peace-preserving walls have long existed in the north of our country was clearly lost on them).

Israel’s relatively dovish Labor Party has never recovered from the Camp David episode, and more recent right-wing governments have shown less of a willingness to make bold peace offers.

Yet even Netanyahu and others on the Israeli right accept that they cannot hold on to the West Bank forever. There is a consensus in favour of eventual withdrawal, as evidenced by the two aforementioned peace proposals.

But the possibility of this happening soon has been greatly reduced due to what occurred when Israel removed its settlements in the Gaza strip in 2005.

As soon as the Israelis left, Gaza was turned into a giant Hamas base, from which the terrorists launched thousands of rockets into Israel, in the certain knowledge that the inevitable Israeli response would kill or wound thousands of civilians, thus driving more young men and women to support their goals.

So committed were they to this tactic, that Hamas deliberately used locations such as schools, mosques and hospitals as launching areas for their attacks.

The inevitable civilian casualties which Israel’s counter-offensive resulted in brought with it the standard criticisms by Ireland’s politicians. The closure of the Israeli-Gaza border, and the efforts along with the Egyptian government to prevent the militants from being re-supplied by sea or land has since seen Israel continuously being lambasted for the so-called ‘blockade’ of Gaza.

In the court of Irish opinion, Israel cannot win. If they hold Palestinian land, they are occupiers. If they withdraw and seal the border, they are blockaders. When attacked and forced to respond, they are warmongers.

Awful though the ongoing Gaza situation is, Israel can sustain the blows it has suffered on its southern frontier. Gaza is small, and located well away from Israel’s main population centres.

In contrast, the West Bank is a large area of elevated terrain (thus the name) which straddles Israel for hundreds of kilometres and borders some of its most heavily populated cities, including Jerusalem.

Should Hamas gain a free hand on the West Bank, they could use it to rain down fire on Israel’s heartland.

No nation could tolerate such a situation, and yet here and in other areas Ireland’s political elite constantly demand of Israel sacrifices which it cannot make, and which no nation could.

The failure to acknowledge the tremendous challenges – and awful dilemmas – which Israeli leaders and ordinary citizens must deal with on a daily basis is the greatest crime which many of Israel’s critics commit.

Coupled with this is the sheer intensity of the anti-Israel rhetoric, and the laser-like focus on Israel’s alleged crimes.

Those who live lives of comfort in Ireland still feel entitled to pour scorn upon the one nation in the Middle East where democratic elections, free speech, freedom of religion and equal rights for women and gay people prevails.

The greatest pity of all is that Israel and Ireland share many things in common, and there are many areas where we could learn from each other.

In population size, we are similar, and problematic land borders – and difficult neighbours – are a familiar complaint.

In both lands, the native population is dwarfed by that of the many cousins in the diaspora.

Similar experiences of mass emigration and religious persecution created this commonality, which has particular relevance in our countries’ respective relationships with the United States.

Both the Israeli and the Irish economies have liberalised in recent decades with great success, and our small, open economies are particularly strong in the tech and IT sectors.

That said, as outlined by Dan Senor and Saul Singer in their masterful Start-up Nation, Israel has had far more success in fostering innovation and enterprises of its own, rather than relying on an attractive tax structure to draw in long-established multi-nationals a la the Irish approach.

There are some direct familial connections too. One of the giants of Israeli history was their former President Chaim Herzog. Herzog was born in Belfast and raised in Dublin, where his father Yitzhak was Chief Rabbi of Ireland.

Chaim’s son Isaac is now Leader of the Opposition in Israel: where else can we boast of having a second-generation Irishman in such a prestigious position?

Chaim was always proud of his roots, but could Isaac express similar pride, knowing how his country is viewed in the land of his father’s birth?

Hopefully, the Israeli embassy will remain open. If it closes though, let us be honest enough to admit what has happened. They offered us friendship, and we turned them away.

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