DUBLIN, Ireland (Apr. 28)
There’s an old joke in Ireland about the man in Belfast who, when asked his religion, answers simply that he is Jewish. “That’s fine,” his questioner replies. “But are you a Catholic Jew or a Protestant Jew?”
Though the joke appears to be aimed at Belfast tribalism, its real target is Irish parochialism — the tendency to view the outside world primarily in terms of local obsessions. The first appearance, a few years ago, of the Israeli and Palestinian national flags on the troubled streets of Northern Ireland was only the latest manifestation of this phenomenon.
It comes as little surprise, then, that Rory Miller, a Jewish Dubliner who lectures in Mediterranean studies at King’s College, London, has chosen to examine Ireland’s evolving policy toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in his new book, “Ireland and the Palestine Question, 1948-2004.”
But instead of constructing Israel’s wars as Ireland’s “troubles” writ large, Miller’s book specifically seeks to challenge the Irish tendency to see the Middle East through a local prism.
“There’s never been anything on the Middle East and Ireland,” he says. “It’s a hugely discussed issue here, it’s widely debated, yet the discussion is based on a significant amount of ignorance and prejudice. Nobody really knows the facts.”
Miller’s extensive and original treatment goes some way toward correcting that. The book’s thorough chronological approach takes in an enormous amount of archival material from Irish cabinet meetings, Dail — or parliamentary — debates, and European Union, United Nations and Israeli government documents.
It covers the Irish state’s original concerns over the partition of Palestine and access to Christian holy places in Jerusalem, the fate of Palestinian refugees and the status of the current “road map” peace plan.
Most significantly, it addresses why Israel and the “Palestine question” have occupied a place in Irish consciousness that is far greater than their geographic, economic or political relevance to Ireland.
Miller says that the issues of partition, holy places, refugees, and Israeli military action all resonate emotionally with the Irish. The Irish government also sees the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians as an opportunity to increase its influence in international affairs.
“Ireland went from having no involvement initially, because it wasn’t in the U.N. and it was a small power, to being in the U.N. and having some influence, to being in the E.U. and being part of the major trading partner of Israel and the Arab world,” Miller says.
Ireland stepped on the Middle East stage during the 1967 Six Day War, when Foreign Minister Frank Aiken played a significant role in shaping the U.N. response to the crisis.
In his book, Miller shows how many of the clauses Aiken put forward for U.N. resolutions ultimately were adopted. Aiken also marshalled support among the powerful bloc of Catholic Latin American countries — which were very pro-Israel at the time — and advised U.S. Secretary of State Dean Rusk during a meeting at Shannon Airport.
“Here’s a man who came from a marginal country, yet Aiken singlehandedly took Ireland to the top of the international community in terms of influence and moral prestige,” Miller says.
Aiken’s speech to the U.N. General Assembly on June 27, 1967, addressed three key issues: Israeli withdrawal from occupied territories, the plight of Palestinian refugees and the status of the holy places in Jerusalem. The speech garnered praise across the world as “distinctive” and “far-reaching.”
In Ireland, surprisingly, his statement was met with unanimous hostility.
“In 1967 there was consensus among all national and regional newspapers in Ireland that Aiken was supporting the Arabs, even though they were the aggressors,” Miller says. “It was surprising to me, because you live in the present, but 99 percent of the debate then was on how Israel was in the right.”
That world is unrecognizable in today’s Ireland, where Israel is regarded as something of a pariah state. Indeed, as Miller’s epilogue shows, since the collapse of the Camp David talks in 2000 the Irish government has been able to lobby on behalf of the Palestinian Authority with what is essentially the full support of the electorate, while Israel has been increasingly marginalized.
The Palestinian intifada has engendered widespread antagonism toward Israel in Ireland. Miller says there are two main reasons for this: the isolation of Yasser Arafat, enforced by Israel after the collapse of the Oslo accords, and the demonization of Ariel Sharon.
“Ireland was a leading supporter of the legitimization of Arafat, and then they saw him being isolated and they couldn’t tolerate it,” Miller says. “It was a renunciation of 30 years of Irish policy.”
“The Sharon factor is also hugely important,” he continues. “I don’t think Israelis or Americans realize how much he’s the bogeyman of Europe. You say Ariel Sharon to people here — they think he’s the devil.”
As the E.U. takes on new members, though, Ireland’s influence is becoming diluted. Indeed, Miller points out that if Ireland hadn’t waited until after the 1993 Oslo accords to establish full diplomatic relations with Israel, it might have a much more pivotal position today.
Instead, it’s just one voice among many. But Irish policy is representative of European policy as a whole.
“What Ireland has done is highlight a common position within Europe in terms of being so sympathetic to the Palestinians and so anti-Israel, giving Arafat in particular a free pass,” Miller says. “That’s where I blame the Irish government. They were saying to him, ‘Do whatever you like and we’ll be there to back you up.’ This is what Ireland has to admit to, and say, ‘We were wrong.’ “