Israeli boycotts ‘won’t create conditions for change’, says Coveney

Tánaiste holds discussions with Israeli and Palestinian officials on trip to Middle East

 Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney   with Cypriot foreign minister Nikos Christodoulides at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Nicosia, Cyprus, on Friday. Photograph: Katia Christodoulou/EPA

Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney with Cypriot foreign minister Nikos Christodoulides at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Nicosia, Cyprus, on Friday. Photograph: Katia Christodoulou/EPA

 

Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney says he is determined Ireland should play a positive role in Middle East peacemaking by building relationships with chief actors and speaking frankly to them while providing practical aid.

He began his third visit to the region in 11 months in Jordan on June 5th, the 51st anniversary of Israel’s occupation of East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza.

In Amman, his discussions with acting foreign minister Ayman Safadi coincided with protests over rising taxes that brought down the government, creating concern that Jordan, a source of stability, could face unrest in this deeply troubled region.

“There is hope and expectation that a new government will be formed by Sunday” and approved by parliament “within a month”, Mr Coveney noted.

He visited the Zaatari refugee camp which hosts 80,000 Syrians, a fraction of the 1.3 million who have settled in the kingdom since conflict erupted in Syria in 2011. He said there are 47 international organisations, most of them UN based, operating there.

Pressure

These agencies have seen their funding reduced at a time they are under enormous pressure. US cuts from the agency which looks after Palestinian refugees (UNRWA) impacts Jordan, the West Bank, Gaza and Lebanon.

“There are a lot of issues that need political intervention and resources. He said Ireland along with Cyprus is calling for funding to be put on the agenda of the next EU foreign ministers’ meeting.

During meetings in Ramallah, Palestinian foreign minister Riyad Maliki and senior officials Saeb Erekat and Mohamed Shtayyeh told Mr Coveney they felt “very betrayed by the US [which] they no longer see as an impartial facilitator of negotiations” due to the Trump administration’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and the shift of the US embassy to Jerusalem.

Nevertheless, the Palestinian Authority was seeking a “way forward to negotiate a viable peace plan. We spoke a great deal about how we could create conditions for a negotiated solution,” said Mr Coveney. He said, significantly, “there is recognition, of course, that the US would have to be involved but it would not have to be solely a US initiative”.

Discussions

The Minister added: “There were very good and substantive discussions about what they would like to see Ireland do.”

He was seeking to expand the number of young Palestinians attending Irish universities on scholarships. Ireland is set to build a large solar panel farm in Gaza to provide power to a French-funded sewage and water purification plant.

He said the Israelis “have encouraged us to move ahead” with the 10 mega- watt project which will cost about €10 million.

Ireland has a €12 million-€15 million programme for refugees and will provide UNRWA with just under €6 million this year.

Mr Coveney’s meeting with US ambassador David Friedman was his most challenging task as he is deeply devoted to Israel’s West Bank settlement enterprise. “I expected... I would have quite a difficult conversation with him.”

During an hour-long meeting, Mr Coveney made his views on Israeli settlements and settlement expansion very clear. While he recognised Israel’s need for security, he also acknowledged the Palestinians’ need for a state. “It was a much better meeting actually than I expected... We agreed to disagree on certain things. I think there was shared concerned in relation to Gaza.”

‘Big mistake’

He told Mr Friedman and other US officials that the administration’s decision to cut funding to UNRWA and others was a “big mistake. There are enough pressures on Palestinians right now without undermining their health system and education system.”

Mr Coveney said it was not the right time to implement the US demand for reform and change in the agency. “I don’t believe we should be directly impacting children at schools and health centres. This is fundamentally the wrong approach. I called on the US to change [its] policy on UN human rights and aid organisations that are supporting the most vulnerable people in the Middle East.”

After dining with former Labor Party leader Yitzak Herzog, son of Israel’s sixth president and grandson of Ireland’s first chief rabbi, Mr Coveney met Israeli prime minister and foreign minister Binyamin Netanyahu.

There were “no huge surprises” but we focused on what could be done now, Mr Coveney said. The Minister argued there had to be a “political response” rather than the ongoing “security response” to change things in Gaza.

Influence

He made the point that Palestine was a “very emotive issue in Ireland”, adding: “I want to place Ireland in a position of some influence but I am realistic about our size and scale in comparison to some of the other players. I think the Irish people care about the Middle East peace process.

“Many people have a deep sense of injustice [over] the predicament the Palestinians find themselves in. I think we all have an obligation to try and change that...

“Many people want me to take a different approach of outright criticism [of Israel], cutting off diplomatic relations, boycotts. I don’t think that will create conditions for change in the short term. I believe in intense, blunt and honest engagement with people is the way to try to make progress here. I will continue to adopt that strategy and to convince Palestinians they are not alone and we are a strong voice for their [achieving] their dreams and aspirations.”