Alan Shatter: How Ireland can help resolve Israeli-Palestinian conflict

State must support and participate in a Middle East fund to restart peace process

In the early 1990s when Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) signed the Oslo Accords and the Provisional IRA went on ceasefire, many believed an enduring peace was more likely to result in the Middle East than Ireland. Today, Northern Ireland is a different place, despite occasional tension and flare-ups but the Israeli-Palestinian conflict continues.

The fragile ceasefire ending the fourth Israel-Hamas war does not signal the conflict will soon be fully resolved. Optimism that the Abraham Accords – and the resulting burgeoning relationships between Israel and various Arab states – provide a new positive paradigm is now seriously dented. A new approach to conflict resolution that replicates what has positively contributed to peace on our island is overdue.

The International Fund for Ireland (IFI) was established as an independent organisation by the Irish and British governments in 1986 with financial contributions from the USA, the EU, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. The fund aims to promote economic and social progress as well as encourage dialogue and reconciliation between nationalists and unionists. Its major focus has been Northern Ireland and the six southern Border counties. By the end of 2020, the fund’s total reported resources amounted to €914 million, supporting over 6,000 projects across Ireland.

For a peace process to succeed, it is essential that people who perceive each other as enemies or as threatening their safety and wellbeing have opportunities to safely engage in open dialogue and build relationships. Cross-community economic engagement by people from disparate backgrounds can make a very real difference. Structures which facilitate continuing dialogue and co-operation in times of tension also play a crucial role in ensuring unexpected events or atrocities committed by those intent on continuing division do not destroy real progress made.


Blame and demonisation

IFI projects have positively contributed to peace in Northern Ireland, the Belfast Agreement bedding down and to containing violence when tensions have arisen. Consistent with the IFI is the Government’s recently announced Shared Island initiative and Shared Island Fund.

Cross-community economic engagement by people from disparate backgrounds can make a very real difference

While politicians and commentators regularly reference the Israeli-Palestinian “peace process”, at government level there has been no constructive direct engagement between Israelis and Palestinians since early 2014. There are many reasons for this and each side has its own narrative of blame and demonisation. Irish governments have, over the years, chosen to ignore some reasons of genuine relevance. There are also the states which meddle and which have a vested interest in enduring conflict, such as Iran, Syria and, more recently, Turkey. Remarkably, last week when Iran’s foreign minister visited Dublin, our Minister for Foreign Affairs, Simon Coveney, had no public words of criticism for Iran’s malign role in providing funds, weapons and technical support to Hamas terrorists and for advocating Israel’s elimination. No such reticence was shown in his trenchant criticism of Israel for defending its citizens against the over 4,300 rockets fired by Hamas from Gaza.

Successive Irish governments have favoured a two-state solution. Both Israeli and Palestinian leaders have expressed support for such a solution but Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas and others on both sides have too frequently behaved in a manner inconsistent with any such support. It is entirely opposed by Hamas who rule Gaza, Islamic Jihad and other militant Palestinian terrorist groups who are committed to destabilising Israel, its total destruction and to slaughtering as many Jews as possible. This is also something the Irish Government has chosen to ignore. While recent public opinion polls show diminishing Israeli and Palestinian support for a two-state solution, in reality there is no viable alternative.

Political paralysis

Every missile fired from Gaza into Israel; resulting death, injury and destruction; each Israeli attacked or killed by a Palestinian terrorist, further diminishes Israeli support for such solution. Every bomb dropped on Gaza; resulting death, injury and destruction; each Palestinian attacked or killed by right-wing Jewish extremists, further diminishes Palestinian support. Support has likely been further eroded by the fracture in Israeli co-existence resulting from the violence of young Jewish extremists and militant young Arabs within mixed Israeli cities and also in Jerusalem. Additional damage may result from competition between Hamas and Abbas’s Fatah to exacerbate tensions in Jerusalem and heavy-handed policing. Should political paralysis end and conflict resolution be agreed, the risk has increased of any agreement being still born due to its rejection by a majority of Israelis and Palestinians.

A new international approach is required that broadens current little-publicised activity on the ground by well-intentioned Israelis and Palestinians who yearn for normalcy, peace and economic security. Instead of engaging in selective condemnatory rhetoric, the Irish Government should practically apply lessons learned on our own island. The US has already done so and further developments can be expected during the Biden presidency.

Instead of selective condemnatory rhetoric, the Government should apply lessons learned on our own island

The US Congress last December enacted, with bipartisan support, the Middle East Partnership for Peace Act. Modelled on the IFI, $250 million is prescribed over a five-year period for projects that support peace-building, reconciliation and greater co-operation between Israelis and Palestinians to create Palestinian jobs and bolster the Palestinian economy. There is also a framework for an international fund for Israeli- Palestinian peace.

Suspicion and hostility

The fund is not designed as a US-dominated or controlled initiative. It’s provisions envisage other states both contributing to and participating in its governance. Its objective is to bring Israelis and Palestinians closer together and build peace from the ground up rather than political elites some time in the future announcing an agreement destined to fail, drowned in a tsunami of suspicion, misunderstanding and hostility. It applies what we have learned as essential for a peace process to succeed on our island.

The Israeli government, the Palestinian Authority or Hamas cannot receive any part of the fund. Money can be allocated to non-governmental and civil society organisations as well as start-ups that contribute to laying foundations for a lasting peace, reconciliation, trust, partnership and economic co-operation between the two peoples. Its focus is to foster small and medium-size businesses to promote sustainable, well-paid, Palestinian jobs and economic growth and also to support non-profit organisations that bring Palestinians and Israelis together to advance reconciliation.

The IFI’s peace-building projects have proved that such initiatives can positively contribute to conflict resolution. Ireland and the EU should both contribute to the fund and participate in its governance. Instead of funding NGOs incapable of understanding the complexity of the conflict and whose activities exacerbate division, is it not time instead to better use Irish and European taxpayers’ money by supporting a practical initiative that can positively help reignite a peace process and genuinely contribute to a permanent end to conflict? Despite all the rhetoric, there is no quick-fix solution. As a state, let’s contribute to laying a new foundation for a future permanent peace which can also bring some immediate benefits.

Alan Shatter was minister for justice between 2011 and 2014