Ireland would “disempower” itself from having influence on the Israel-Hamas conflict if it expelled the Israeli ambassador in Dublin, the Taoiseach has warned.
Leo Varadkar said calls from opposition politicians, including Sinn Fein, for ambassador Dana Erlich’s diplomatic credentials to be revoked did not represent a “common sense approach”.
Mr Varadkar claimed such a move would hamper efforts to secure the release of Israeli-Irish girl Emily Hand, who is believed to be a hostage of Hamas in Gaza, and would also make it harder for Ireland to secure the safe passage of 35-40 Irish passport holders out of the enclave via the Rafah crossing to Egypt.
On Tuesday, Ms Erlich said she does not believe Ireland is politically neutral in respect of the Israel-Hamas conflict.
Speaking at the Israeli embassy after a screening of footage which showed Hamas’ October 7 attack, she told reporters that the Israeli government has supported her during a “targeted campaign” against her.
She also said she had had no conversations with the Sinn Fein political party.
Speaking about the conflict in the Dail parliament, the Taoiseach said he also has “enormous fears” that the violence in the Middle East could escalate and widen.
Asked about the prospect of EU action against the Israelis, Mr Varadkar made clear the EU is “nowhere near” moving to suspending its trade deal with Israel.
“On the matter of the Israeli ambassador, it’s not the Government’s intention to expel the Israeli ambassador and that is for very good reasons,” he said.
“Even countries at war have ambassadors. We have not expelled the Russian ambassador and I don’t think anyone in the house is as supportive of Ukraine as I’ve been, in meaningful ways, not just in words.
“We have a situation now where we have about 40 Irish citizens in Gaza, and we want them to be able to leave if they want to leave. And we have an Irish citizen (Emily Hand) who may be held hostage in Gaza by Hamas, and we wanted to get her out.
“We also, at some point, want to be able to talk about peace and reconciliation and an end to this conflict. And when you expel an ambassador you disempower yourself. You cut off links. You can’t talk anymore. You have to rebuild those links. I can understand it as an emotional reaction, but it’s not a common sense approach in my view, and it’s not the way things get done in international affairs.”
He added: “I think all of us, all of us watching what we see on our TV news or on social media every day just can’t be struck by the number of children who are being killed, often pretty thin and malnourished children, for other reasons.
“The number of journalists who have been killed, and also the number of UN aid workers who have been killed – and these are real heroes, aid workers who stayed behind in Gaza and not just risked their lives but lost their lives too and they’re real heroes in my view.
“I have enormous fears. How long is this going to go on? How is this going to end? Will there be an escalation involving perhaps Hezbollah, Lebanon, other countries, other groups around the world – I have great fears of that. And also when the war in Gaza is over, who’s going to run Gaza and who’s going to rebuild it? And I’m not sure anyone has answers to these questions, and that really makes me very concerned about the road the world is currently on.
“And I know Prime Minister Netanyahu, the Prime Minister of Israel, promised ‘mighty vengeance’, his words not mine ‘mighty vengeance’. But that is valid I think when it comes to Hamas, the terrorists who killed those 1,400 people in Israel, it’s not when it comes to Palestinian civilians. And far too many have been killed already in this conflict in my view, and certainty Ireland is using our voice.
“I’m working hard on this, the Tanaiste (Micheal Martin) is too, the whole government – at EU level, at UN level. We’ve increased our aid budget for Palestine for Gaza, money given to the UN, and also using our voice at the UN and at EU level and in bilateral engagements to press for what is now needed urgently, which is a humanitarian ceasefire so that we can get aid in, so that hostages can be released and Hamas should release the hostages without any equivocation and so that EU and other citizens are allowed to leave.”
During Leaders’ Questions in the Dail, Social Democrats leader Holly Cairns called for Ireland to use its influence in Brussels to seek a suspension of the EU-Israel trade deal and also suspend Israel from participation in the Horizon Europe research funding initiative.
“The situation in Gaza is now critical,” Mr Varadkar replied.
“It is a deepening humanitarian crisis. And the high number of civilian casualties, particularly children, is deeply shocking.
“The protection of civilians and de-escalation must be the priority, which is why Ireland’s has called for humanitarian ceasefire to allow hostages to be released, to allow foreign passport holders to leave and to allow humanitarian need to enter the Gaza Strip. And we’re engaging with the European Union, the United Nations and our regional partners to try to achieve this. And in all cases, we’re calling for de-escalation.
“In relation to trade deals such as the EU trade agreement with Israel, and also Horizon, these are matters that are European competences on which Ireland can’t and should not act alone. These are issues that we have to discuss at European level and can only possibly be agreed at European level. And the truth is there is a very significant divergence of opinion within the European Union. While we were able to agree a common statement in Brussels last week, and we all stand by that, the truth is there are very different views and very different member states come from very different perspectives on this and that needs to be understood.
“Germany, Austria, Czech Republic come from a particular perspective, other countries that have experienced serious terrorist attacks at the hands of other Islamic resistance movements also have a particular perspective on it. And we have a particular perspective on it. It is a good thing that we’re a member of the European Union for so many different reasons, because we have a seat at the table. And we do have a say when decisions are being made but the position that we’re at at European level now is nowhere near taking actions of that nature against Israel.
“What we’re trying to do is use our seat at the EU table to re-centre and re-balance the EU position, to particularly bring the EU to a position where we’re calling for a humanitarian ceasefire, so the hostages can be released, so that foreign passports holders can get out, so the killing stops and so the humanitarian aid can get in.”