Following Saturday’s release of the nine-year-old Irish hostage held by Hamas, Emily Hand, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar tweeted that it was a day of enormous joy, adding that “an innocent child who was lost has now been found”. This clearly well-intentioned tweet has been seized on and misrepresented, notably by the Israeli Foreign Minister, Eli Cohen, who summoned the Irish Ambassador in Tel Aviv for a “reprimand”, a not unusual experience for our ambassadors there.
Varadkar has a tendency, on occasion, to use words that could benefit from marginally less spontaneity and a shade more reflection. A few weeks ago, while strongly supporting Israel’s right to defend itself, he described some of Israel’s actions as “more approaching revenge”. While many observers watching the disproportionate destruction in Gaza might not disagree with that assessment, Varadkar did not strengthen his argument by using a word that provoked unnecessary controversy. “Anger” might have been a better word.
The Taoiseach’s social media posts have a personal feel to them. They convey a degree of authenticity. However, one has to wonder, including in the light of this latest controversy, whether what seems to be Micheál Martin’s more careful and curated approach to his social media comments might not be preferable.
There was nothing inherently wrong about the Taoiseach celebrating that a precious child who was “lost” had been “found”. To anyone approaching his statement honestly, this was a gentle biblical reference. The Government, including the Taoiseach, have repeatedly emphasised publicly, including in other statements following Emily Hand’s release, that they unequivocally condemn Hamas as a terrorist organisation. Nobody in their right mind can truly believe that Varadkar, who had been deeply involved in the efforts to free Emily, meant the words “lost” and “found” to be understood literally. However, in retrospect, it would have been better to have avoided the phrase - not because the words were improper; nor because they were open to any legitimate misunderstanding. Rather, the words should have been avoided because they could so easily be deliberately misrepresented, as they predictably have been, by the Israeli government.
The only inadmissible statement in this affair, a deeply improper one, has come from the Israeli Foreign Minister, Eli Cohen, who tweeted that “you, @LeoVaradkar, are trying to legitimise and normalize terror”. Cohen knows this statement to be false. It is aggressive and insulting.
If any ambassador should be reprimanded for comments by her government, it is the Israeli ambassador in Dublin, over the allegation by her Foreign Minister that our Taoiseach is trying to legitimise terror. Fortunately, the Irish Government seeks to behave rationally and will not be diverted by such provocation from working, despite the challenges, to develop constructive relations with Israel.
The Israeli ambassador issued a more moderate statement in which she said, rightly, that “words matter”. Precisely because words do matter, they should not only be chosen carefully but should also not be misrepresented. Sadly, on Sunday night Israel’s president, Isaac Herzog, also chose to misrepresent Varadkar’s statement. He said “the statement by the Prime Minister of Ireland regarding the release of Emily Hand was unacceptable. Emily was not lost. Emily was not out for a walk and lost her way. Emily was kidnapped at gunpoint by monstrous and vile murderers.”
The Israeli authorities may have two main reasons for misconstruing the Taoiseach’s comments.
The most obvious explanation must surely be that Israel, at the moment, sometimes seems to be more driven by emotion than by reason. After the grotesque Hamas attack on October 7th and the shocking plight of the remaining hostages, it is easy to understand why anger in Israel is running high. If the Israeli government finds it cathartic to take random swipes at Ireland, we may just have to grin and bear it. It’s unfortunate, but not a major piece of the international jigsaw.
What would be far more worrying would be if the recent intemperate comments from Israel confirm an overall approach to the Gaza crisis that is unduly shaped by emotions, however understandable those emotions may be. What is desperately needed is an approach that factors in a rational assessment of how realistic progress can be made, how vital humanitarian issues can be factored in and how ultimately a just peace between Israelis and Palestinians can be achieved. An additional problem with emotions is that they can blind you to the fact that others have emotions too.
A second reason why the Israeli government and its social media supporters, may single out Ireland, along with Spain and Belgium, for criticism is because some European countries strive to take a balanced approach to the conflict. That seems to rankle. Countries that are dismissive of Palestinian rights, or who pay lip-service to them, are understandably popular in Tel Aviv. On the other hand, those who support Hamas or refuse to condemn their brutality can easily be dismissed. A country that broadly aims to be even-handed is an awkward fly in the ointment.
The Ireland-Israel friendship is perhaps a little “lost” at the moment. Hopefully, if we try to understand each other honestly, it can be “found” again before too long.