Bruce Arnold

Critic of Public Affairs, writing about art, theatre, music and politics

Ireland remains one of the two least stable European countries in its relations with Israel

There has been no consistent condemnation, of Hamas, no condemnation at all.
Given recent events in Gaza, the most pertinent part of Barack Obama's inaugural speech in Washington was his focus on the Muslim world, calling for a new way based on mutual interest and respect.

I listened intently to his expression of a new path to the Middle East, since only a few hours earlier I had breakfasted with the Israeli Education Minister, Yuli Tamir, on a mission to Europe with Dublin her first port of call. Given the day, I asked her about Obama, what expectations she had and where they would lead.

She predicted what he, in fact, said and saw it as a better approach to foreign policy than the 'axis of evil' interpretation of his predecessor, which had heightened conflict and increased war. Diplomacy was better. She said Israel expected a new language of diplomacy from Obama and this would be both appropriate and desirable. He would, she felt, seek to find a negotiator on the Palestinian side, most likely Mubarak.

She had no anticipation of the swift and decisive actions within the next 48 hours.

A direct series of appointments followed that can do nothing but strengthen hers and her Government's faith in American words leading to American deeds. We shall see, of course, but we have reason to trust in the role that George Mitchell will occupy, since we have good reason to trust and like him and have seen his particular form of diplomacy work.

There was a strong dynamic to Obama's visit to the State Department. The body language was firm and impressive and, in terms of sheer immediacy, based on actions and appointments as much as words, it was an extraordinary piece of timing, setting in train processes that he can believe in -- since he is clearly their architect -- and trust, because he trusts the appointees.

No amount of breakfast speculation could possibly have foreseen the breadth and determination to change American foreign policy in fundamental respects that came with the executive orders on the punitive and unworkable blights of Guantanamo, the CIA's network of prisons, the use of extraordinary rendition and of cruel and oppressive interrogation techniques.

As far as the Middle East was concerned, Obama was outspoken in condemning Hamas -- a lesson one hopes will not be lost on our own Department of Foreign Affairs. The vigour with which Micheal Martin has sustained what I would regard as a wooden and unsubtle reliance on emotional outrage about the loss of life in Gaza, without looking more at the causes, was evident immediately after his meeting last Tuesday with Ms Tamir, when he went on to speak to the Dail Joint Committee on European Affairs.

Mr Martin reiterated his condemnation of Israel for initiating such a large-scale military operation in Gaza, one of the most densely populated enclaves on the planet, describing it as "a disproportionate response to the undoubted provocation presented by the firing of rockets from Gaza into southern Israel by Hamas".

This was Mr Martin's first raising, in a year, of the terrorist rocket attacks that are behind Israel's righteous indignation. It was accompanied by what may be seen as a faintly limp olive branch in the words following the Hamas reference.

"I spelled this out clearly to the Israeli ambassador when we met on January 6 and the Israeli Education Minister, whom I met this morning. The frank exchange of views through such contacts is the essence of diplomatic activity. The Israeli ambassador has thoroughly and professionally carried out his duties, just as our ambassador in Tel Aviv has reported thoroughly on Israeli thinking and actively carried out his consular functions. I regard calls for the withdrawal or expulsion of ambassadors as misguided and counterproductive."

The minister in fact made a foolish and misleading mistake before the Dail committee, telling the members: "Prior to any conflict, the Government and I have consistently condemned the Hamas rocket attacks in southern Israel and we believe Hamas must recognise the state of Israel before it can become an actor in the peace process."

I have been through all the ministerial press releases of 2008, when rocket attacks on Israel were taking place. It is an astonishing fact that, in all our Middle East press statements, covering the first half of 2008, under Mr Ahern, and the second half of that year, under Mr Martin, Hamas was never mentioned, still less condemned. Not once.

There has been no "consistent condemnation", indeed no condemnation at all. The minister also invented a parallel with the peace process in Ireland. "I do not say Ireland is directly comparable to the Middle East but lessons have been learned from the Irish conflict."

Clearly those lessons are more invention than reality.

Ireland has pulled back from withdrawing diplomatic relations -- the only positive act by the minister -- though this country remains, along with Cyprus, one of the two least stable European countries in relations with Israel. Cyprus, historically, has always had close relations with the Palestinians.

The majority of those wanting a 'war crimes' approach to Israel, in the recent RTE poll, hardly know where the country is or who its neighbours are.

This muddle needs adjusting to Barack Obama's new foreign policy framework. We need better leadership and both Mr Martin and his department need to reconsider their grasp of international affairs.

There is a sub-culture here, difficult to analyse, in which virulence against Israel is disproportionate. Those politicians who sit on the joint Committee on European Affairs must amend their slavish, ill-informed and obsequious attitudes to the minister. They should read again the passage in Obama's speech on confrontation, then read the State Department speeches, particularly George Mitchell's, and then give thought to the true aims of diplomacy and how they are achieved.