The Irish Times view on Micheál Martin’s trip to the Middle East: the limit of the EU’s frozen policy

Ireland remains an outlier in the EU foreign affairs council, which sets the limits for its Israel policy in practice

The visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories this week by Minister for Foreign Affairs Micheál Martin will not be easy. Renewed violence in the occupied territories, specifically Israel’s disproportionate use of force in response to Palestinian attacks, and the determination of the most right-wing government in Israel’s history to forge ahead with illegal settlement-building against the near-unanimous opposition of the international community, are likely to make for sharp exchanges with prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu.

Ahead of his trip Martin warned of “a worrying escalation in violence”, recalling Ireland’s “consistent calls for the protection of civilians and the application of international law.”

Israel has long viewed Ireland as what a source in the Israeli foreign ministry in 2011 claimed was “the most hostile country in Europe”. Not so, the Department of Foreign Affairs responded: “We are not hostile to Israel. We are critical of policies, particularly in the occupied Palestinian territories. These are not the same things.”

Ireland was the first EU state to declare that a solution to the conflict had to be based on a fully sovereign state of Palestine, independent of and co-existing with Israel. And in May 2021, the Dáil declared the building of Israeli settlements on Palestinian land to be de facto annexation.

READ MORE

Ireland, however, remains an outlier in the EU foreign affairs council, which sets the limits for its Israel policy in practice. Its 27 member states have since 2016 found it impossible under unanimity rules to agree new common positions.

Yet, while developments appear to increasingly jeopardise the practicality of the two-state solution supported by the international community, the EU’s position is frozen, incapable of evolving. Foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, understood to be personally closer to the Irish position and much more willing to criticise or even take action against Israel, is confined, in the absence of an agreed EU position, to ritualised platitudes simply reaffirming in some form or other the EU’s frozen 2016 position.

The more pro-Israeli positions of Hungary, the Czech Republic, Poland and Germany have EU policy development by the throat. Increasingly a passive bystander, the EU’s role was epitomised in the December 2022 UN General Assembly vote, with EU states split among approvals, rejections and abstentions on a resolution calling for the International Court of Justice to provide a legal opinion on Israeli occupation policies.

Martin may also have a difficult discussion with Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas over his failure to hold long-overdue elections.

Ireland’s long-standing position is an important assertion of its national commitment to human rights and the rights of oppressed peoples.