Tuesday, 16 April 2019

Questions (52, 60, 69, 94, 95)

Maureen O'Sullivan

Question:

52. Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade his views on the plans announced by the Israeli Ministry of Construction and Housing to move settlers into the illegally occupied Golan Heights; his further views on whether continued flouting of international law should be condemned more robustly by the EU; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17593/19]

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Seán Crowe

Question:

60. Deputy Seán Crowe asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade if his attention has been drawn to the comments of the Israeli Prime Minister that if he wins re-election he will annex illegal Israeli colonial settlements in the occupied West Bank; if he will condemn these comments; and the response he will take if Israel moves towards annexing illegal Israeli colonial settlements in Palestine. [17558/19]

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Niall Collins

Question:

69. Deputy Niall Collins asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade the recent developments at EU and or international level to try and halt the expansion of illegal Israeli settlements on Palestinian land; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17586/19]

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Jonathan O'Brien

Question:

94. Deputy Jonathan O'Brien asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade the diplomatic response of Ireland to the policy of Israeli Prime Minister to promise to break international law and annex occupied Palestinian land; the way in which he will respond to a far right Israeli Government; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17598/19]

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Eamon Ryan

Question:

95. Deputy Eamon Ryan asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade the position of Ireland on the recent announcement from the Israeli Prime Minister regarding plans to annex Israeli settlements in the West Bank. [17626/19]

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Oral answers (24 contributions) (Question to Foreign)

Can the EU be more robust in its condemnation of what is flouting of international law?

I propose to take Questions Nos. 52, 60, 69, 94 and 95 together. The relentless process of settlement expansion and related activities in the West Bank, including forced removal of Palestinians from their homes, is critically damaging the viability of a future Palestinian state, and thus the prospects for a peace agreement and an end to the conflict. I have consistently made this view very clear here in the Oireachtas, at EU and international level and directly to the Israeli authorities during my visits to the region.

Settlements are illegal under international law, undermine the very basis of the two-state solution and erode the credibility of Israel’s commitment to a peaceful solution to the conflict. The pursuit of the settlement project also inevitably involves a range of injustices to Palestinians, such as evictions, demolition of homes and seizure of land and a wide range of security and other measures discriminating against Palestinians in their daily lives for the benefit of settlers. For all these reasons Ireland has focussed on settlements as a major driver of the continuing conflict.

These same concerns arise in relation to settlement building on the Golan Heights. I am aware of reports of a new Israeli Government plan to transfer more settlers into the Golan Heights. Should these reports be confirmed, it would be extremely worrying. Such transfer of population into an occupied territory was explicitly outlawed in international law after the events of the Second World War. Annexation of territory by force is also illegal under international law, including the UN Charter. Any attempt to legitimise this illegal annexation ignores the wishes of the inhabitants of the area and would be a flagrant violation of the principles of international law.

In a statement on 8 April I condemned the latest reported decisions by the Israeli authorities to advance plans for further settlement construction and related activities in the West Bank. Also last week, there was a clear and principled EU statement, referring to these decisions on construction in settlements and on the legal status of an illegal outpost.  The statement reiterated that:

The European Union's position on Israeli settlement policy in the occupied Palestinian territory is clear and remains unchanged: all settlement activity is illegal under international law. It erodes the viability of the two-state solution and the prospects for a lasting peace.

The Middle East peace process is at a critical impasse and the actions taken by both sides in the conflict can have serious repercussions. Continued expansion of settlements in these areas is not compatible with a good faith effort to reach a peace agreement and this is undermining many Palestinians' faith in a political path.

Reckless election promises in Israel in recent weeks, including some reportedly threatening to annex lands in the West Bank, can only add to these concerns. Unhelpful election rhetoric is not unique to Israel, and Ireland and the EU will judge the new government, which is still to be formed, on what it actually does rather than on what may have been said in the heat of the campaign. However, that does not mean such words are of no consequence since they send dangerous messages to militant settlers and contribute to a climate of fear and insecurity among many Palestinian communities.

It has long been proposed that a future peace agreement may involve some agreed mutual border adjustments, if the parties so wish it. Such changes can only be by mutual agreement. Any unilateral statement of annexation by Israel of occupied territory would be illegal under international law, would have no legitimacy and would not be recognised or accepted by Ireland or the international community more generally.

The European Union has taken a number of actions relating to settlements. These include the levying of higher tariffs on goods from settlements compared with goods from within Israel's recognised borders, prohibiting the use of EU research funding in institutions located in settlements, and rules to prevent misleading labelling of goods from settlements as being from Israel. Ireland has been to the fore in securing many of these actions.

With the prospects for peace continuing to deteriorate on the ground, EU Foreign Ministers have discussed the peace process on numerous occasions over the last year. Most recently, as Members will be aware, I held a meeting in February on the current state of the Middle East Peace Process with a small group of EU and Arab Foreign Ministers and the Secretary General of the Arab League. At this meeting we considered how the EU, together with the international community, can productively engage and better use all the levers at our disposal to influence the parties to the conflict.

Ireland and the EU stand by the internationally agreed parameters for a negotiated peace agreement and continue to urge the Israeli Government to uphold its international legal obligations, including under the Fourth Geneva Convention, on the treatment of a civilian population.

The EU is saying the right things, however statement after statement goes completely unnoticed by the Israeli authorities. Look at what has happened to date. Already, there are 34 illegal settlements in the Golan Heights and 167 illegal settlement businesses. That has meant the displacement of 340 Syrian villages and over 130,000 Syrian civilians already. That is what has happened to date. If this plan goes through, by 2048, 250,000 people will have been transferred into the Golan Heights, which will also see the construction of two new cities. We know that this violates all international law including the Fourth Geneva Convention, which relates to the protection of civilians in time of war and unambiguously outlaws population transfers into occupied territory.

The altering of the status of occupied Golan Heights has been condemned on numerous occasions, including by the Security Council, yet the situation continues. If this is a ploy by Prime Minister Netanyahu as part of his election campaign, it has brought tremendous stress, tension and uncertainty to residents in the Golan Heights who already face severe challenges.

I have been clear on recent comments by the United States on the Golan Heights. We have been consistent and clear about the corrosive impact of expanding settlements in terms of the expanding size of some existing settlements and new settlement activity, both in the West Bank and on the Golan Heights. It fundamentally undermines the capacity to function in the context of the two-state solution for a future Palestinian state. That is stating the obvious.

In truth, the EU has found it difficult to make decisions on the Middle East peace process in many ways. However, it has been unanimous in its collective criticism of settlement activity, and I believe that will continue. The High Representative, Ms Mogherini, has been very strong on this issue. She has repeatedly issued collective EU statements on the European Union's concerns regarding settlement activity. We have taken action. I outlined three actions we have taken on labelling, tariffs and ensuring that consumers understand what they are buying.

The Tánaiste will have further opportunities to contribute.

We have supported all of those.

My question is on the annexation of illegal Israeli colonial settlements in the West Bank. The comments of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during the recent election were inflammatory but not surprising. They have swept him to power. The balance of power in the Knesset is now held by smaller right-wing parties and religious parties that have previously sat in coalition with Likud. They will potentially allow Netanyahu to form the next government. These extremists want to formalise the illegal occupation of Palestine, harden Israel's apartheid regime and expand its territory. We cannot brush this aside as being purely an election ploy. Netanyahu has repeatedly spoken out against the two-state solution and Palestinian sovereignty. Not only that, he has also facilitated the increase in the number of illegal colonial settlements. People are asking what will Ireland do and what action will we take. We must end Israel's impunity. It is time for Ireland to stand up and recognise the state of Palestine. We cannot wait any longer. Will the Tánaiste reconsider his refusal to abide by the motion unanimously passed by this House calling for such recognition?

Deputy Crowe knows only too well what the Government's position is on the recognition of Palestine. We have a clear programme for Government commitment that we want to recognise the state of Palestine, but in the context of an agreed solution. The Deputy asked what Ireland is doing. The answer is that we are doing a lot at the UN and EU levels. I have been to Israel and Palestine on three occasions in my first 12 months as a foreign Minister and have met all of the key principals in political leadership on both sides. We will continue to do so. I look forward to travelling to Israel and to Palestine again in the coming months, meeting the new government and outlining the Irish perspective on what we regard as the way forward for a peace process. We are expecting a US intervention in terms of a new peace plan in the coming months, if not weeks. I have spoken at length to the key architects of that peace plan on the US side and we have made very clear what the Irish position is. We want this to work and to be successful but it has to be fair to both sides. Ireland will continue to be vocal on the international stage on these issues.

I call Deputy Eugene Murphy on behalf of Deputy Niall Collins.

I will make a few brief comments rather than repeat the points made by Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan, all of which Deputy Niall Collins and I agree with. As Deputy Crowe said, the language of Prime Minister Netanyahu in the recent general election was shocking. One has to ask if he was playing politics or if this is a more serious agenda by his followers. Prime Minister Netanyahu won the election by the skin of his teeth alongside a coalition of right-wing parties which will support his policies. The injustice experienced by the Palestinian people will obviously continue.

I understand and hear what the Tánaiste is saying. He has spoken strongly and I know where his heart is on this issue. Will he give an assurance that he will further progress the European Union's objections to what is being done to the Palestinian people and the settlements being forced on them? The EU will nearly need to redouble its efforts in this matter.

The answer to the Deputy's question is "Yes". I have been consistent on settlements, whether I am speaking to Prime Minister Netanyahu, Dr. Saeb Erekat, a European Commissioner or other Ministers for foreign affairs. It is important that we say the same things in this House as we would say in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem or Ramallah. We challenge people but also try to work with them to find a way forward. Ultimately, we have to be part of an international effort to broker a peace agreement that Israelis and Palestinians can live with. We have to be blunt, honest and consistent in our messaging and critical at times, where that is justified. However, we should not be seen as one-sided. It is not being one-sided to call out inconsistencies with international law when it comes to the illegality of settlements and their expansion. Unfortunately, some people view my comments as being one-sided when they are not. They are consistent with the views of the international community and the European Union as a collective, even on an issue that can be divisive, particularly within the EU.

The Tánaiste will be aware of the grave situation in Tripoli. General Haftar's forces are on the outskirts of the capital and engaged in an assault on the city where the UN-backed-----

Are we still discussing Palestine?

Deputy Ryan tabled Question No. 95, which is part of the group.

My apologies. I thought the Leas-Cheann Comhairle had moved to the next question.

If the Deputy has a supplementary question, he is entitled to ask it.

I will leave it.

The word "corrosive", which the Tánaiste used, was correct because that is the effect of the settlements. The point is that if the settlements continue, there will not be any lands left from which the Palestinians could create a state. The Golan Heights had been untouched by conflict for many years. It had been part of an Israeli peace plan under which Israel was prepared to transfer the area to Syria as part of a comprehensive peace deal. The position is now very different, however. There are 27,000 Syrians, mainly Druze, still living on the Golan Heights and they are under extreme pressure. We met a group of residents from the Golan Heights some time ago and we heard at first hand what life is like for them. The Tánaiste mentioned the US peace plan, on which another question has been tabled. When President Trump states that it is time for the US to fully recognise Israel's sovereignty over the Golan Heights, how could that possibly complement a US peace plan? That is a highly inflammatory statement. Sovereignty is so important to Irish people who know the lengths to which we had to go to assert our sovereignty. The violation of international law is continuing.

While the Tánaiste has worked extremely hard on this issue, with all due respect, I do not believe his approach is working. He asked us to give him time but the problem is that the Palestinians do not have time. The approach of Europe and certainly the United States is not working or helping to build a peace settlement.

Things are becoming measurably worse for Palestinians every day. The Prime Minister of Israel has stated that he will annex swathes of Palestinian sovereign territory. The US has moved its embassy to Jerusalem and declared that city capital of Israel. It has now also declared that Israel has sovereignty over Syria's Golan Heights.

I appeal to the Tánaiste to listen to the democratic voice of this House and the demands of Irish people. We want to see the formal recognition of the state of Palestine and a ban on goods from Israeli settlements entering Ireland.

I agree with the Deputy that the approach has not worked but we have to make a judgment as to what is likely to produce positive results. Trying to introduce a Bill that we know to be illegal and unenforceable might make some-----

That is the Tánaiste's opinion.

It is the opinion of the Attorney General.

There are different legal opinions available.

The day we set aside the Attorney General's opinion in this House will be a sad day for democracy. Any party that has been in government would know that. Having said that, I understand the frustration which gave rise to the Bill. I have said that on many occasions in this House and in the Seanad. We cannot propose to introduce legislation or policies that are unenforceable or illegal in order to make a point. That is not what we should be doing.

We have debated the recognition of Palestine and it remains under consideration but we are trying to ensure that Ireland has an influence over what a new peace plan which is likely to come forward in the coming weeks will look like. We want to ensure that we can continue to talk to, challenge and work with both Governments. Ireland wants to be part of a solution rather than simply taking a position that may sound good but that will not actually result in any change. That is a constant judgment. I share the frustration of many in this House but it is not realistic to suggest that, by recognising Palestine next week, the problem will be solved.