Tuesday, 17 September 2019

Questions (40)

Brendan Howlin


40. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade if he has written to or engaged with the Israeli Government to strongly condemn the recent statement by incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that he would permanently annex parts of the West Bank territory of Palestine if he is re-elected as Prime Minister in the Israeli legislative election on 17 September 2019; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [37563/19]

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Oral answers (8 contributions) (Question to Foreign)

My question is to ask the Tánaiste if his Government has contacted the Israeli Government to strongly condemn the recent statement by incumbent Prime Minister, Mr. Benjamin Netanyahu, that he would permanently annex parts of the West Bank territory of Palestine, including much of the Jordan Valley if he is re-elected as Prime Minister of Israel in today's parliamentary election.

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. It is something in which I have big personal interest. Promises made during the election campaign in Israel, including threats to annex lands in the West Bank, are irresponsible and have a damaging impact on the prospects for a peace agreement and an end to the conflict in that region. Unhelpful election rhetoric is not unique to Israel, and Ireland and the EU will ultimately judge the next Israeli Government by its actions. However, such words are not without consequence, since they send dangerous messages and contribute to a climate of fear and insecurity among Palestinians.

Annexation of territory by force is illegal under international law, including the UN Charter. Any unilateral annexation by Israel of occupied territory would have no legitimacy, and would not be recognised or accepted by Ireland or the international community more generally. The position of Ireland and the EU is clear. We will not recognise any changes to the pre-1967 borders, including with regard to Jerusalem, other than those agreed by the parties involved. It has long been proposed that a future peace agreement may involve some agreed mutual border adjustments, but such changes can only be by mutual agreement.

With regard to Prime Minister Netanyahu’s remarks last week about the Jordan Valley, I would not usually comment on what is said in the course of an election campaign. However, due to the gravity of the issue, I felt it was important to make my views known. I also directed my officials to speak to the Israeli ambassador and to request that he convey Ireland’s position directly to his authorities. In fact, we called him into the Department and our Secretary General spoke directly to him. The EU position has also been reaffirmed publicly following Prime Minister Netanyahu's comments. As set out in numerous Foreign Affairs Council conclusions, the EU will not recognise any changes to the pre-1967 borders, including with regard to Jerusalem, other than those agreed by the parties. The settlement policy, including in east Jerusalem, is illegal under international law. Its continuation undermines the viability of the two-state solution and the prospects for a lasting peace.

I thank the Tánaiste for his response. The people of Israel are voting in a general election today following the collapse of the coalition supporting the Prime Minister, Mr. Netanyahu. Recent years have seen a worsening of the situation in Israel and in Palestine.

Arabs make up 20% of Israel's population but, with the support of right-wing and religious parties, Prime Minister Netanyahu passed the nationality Act, which prioritises Jewish citizens over Arabs and others living in Israel. The Arabic language was downgraded from an official language of Israel to one merely having status.

Last week, Prime Minister Netanyahu stated that, if re-elected, Israel would annex the Jordan Valley, which is effectively one third of the West Bank. Just yesterday, he claimed that he could annex more of the West Bank with support from the United States. This is appalling and a dramatic worsening of the situation. We may say that these things happen during a general election but they are appallingly worrying. Prime Minister Netanyahu does not just make idle threats; it is my information that the day after he made the initial statement, teams were sent in to demolish Palestinian olive groves and some people's homes. I am also informed that businesses were demolished.

I welcome the fact that the Tánaiste has acted. Will he set out to the House exactly what message he gave to the Israeli ambassador and what response the ambassador gave in justification for this threat, which the Tánaiste acknowledged is contrary to international law?

I may be wrong but I think I was one of the first foreign Ministers to respond directly, using the most effective medium available, namely, social media, to get the message out quickly. Others have also commented, although not enough people commented directly on the threat. The EU issued an appropriate collective statement of concern. I asked the Secretary General of my Department to invite in the Israeli ambassador, who is someone for whom I have a lot of time as he is a good person, in order to express our concern at the statement. I said we would regard it as an illegal act if the next Israeli Government were to proceed along the lines the Prime Minister has suggested. It is something that Ireland and the vast majority of the international community would condemn outright and would simply not accept. I look forward to being in New York next week to reinforce some of those messages. I will be at the UN General Assembly week where there will be many world leaders and I will meet many counterparts, including a number of EU and Arab counterparts, to discuss the Middle East peace process.

Let us wait and see how the situation unfolds in the aftermath of the elections, but it is regrettable that a Prime Minister has chosen to raise the tension on such a sensitive issue in an effort to get votes. I suspect that the response and reaction among Palestinian communities are of real fear and uncertainty. My position is very clear; Ireland wants to be a friend of the Palestinians and also wants to be a friend of Israel. We want a peace agreement that can work, but we will not support illegal annexation under any circumstances.

The Tánaiste has clearly set out his and the Government's position on this matter, and it is one which would be shared across this House. Has the Tánaiste had discussions with any of his EU colleagues on the matter? In the event of Prime Minister Netanyahu winning the election and carrying out this threat, does he expect a co-ordinated response from the European Union?

I am flying to New York on Sunday. I might be wrong but I think there is a dinner on Sunday evening specifically for EU foreign ministers to discuss the Middle East peace process. That is not unusual, as we had something similar last year during the week of the UN General Assembly. There will be a real opportunity to discuss these issues directly. As Deputy Howlin might know, Ireland has tried to give leadership within the EU to build consensus around supporting new peace initiatives. We want to be able to support a new US peace initiative for the Middle East, but it must be based on a two-state solution that is fair to both sides. I also hope to have meetings with the US side in that regard in New York. What was Deputy Howlin's second question?

I asked if there would be a co-ordinated response from the European Union.

It is too early to say but I think the EU would respond very negatively if there were attempts by Israel to effectively annex up to 30% of the West Bank. I think the EU would respond in an extraordinarily negative way to that development.