Tag Archives: Israel

Visit of Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade Charlie Flanagan to Israel and OPT

Ambassador’s Message, 24 February 2015

In the life of an Embassy a visit by a member of the Government is an important event, second only to a state visit by the President.  Visits by members of the Government are critical to maintaining bilateral relations.  They signal that the relationship matters and they provide direction and energy into the portfolio for which the Minister is responsible.  There is an added significance when it comes to visits of the Minister for Foreign Affairs given his or her preeminent role in diplomatic relations.

We at the Embassy were delighted then to host the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Charlie Flanagan T.D., on his first official visit to Israel last week.  He and his delegation of officials from Headquarters had just come from Lebanon where the Minister had visited our troops serving with UNIFIL in south Lebanon.  In Israel, he had a substantive exchange of views with Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman, toured Yad Vashem and laid a wreath in the Memorial Hall there, visited Israeli pharmaceutical giant Teva (employing over 400 in Ireland), discussed current issues with Opposition Leader Isaac Herzog and met with key contacts of the Embassy at a reception at the Residence.

The Minister’s programme also included a visit to the OPT organized by our colleagues in the Representative Office Ramallah.  The Minister met with President Abbas and Prime Minister Hamdallah, laid a wreath at the tomb of Yasser Arafat, and toured Bethlehem and other sites in the West Bank.

The Minister and party visited Gaza to see conditions there and meet with officials of UNRWA and UN OCHA who are providing vital services and humanitarian relief.  It was certainly sobering for the delegation to see how little progress had been made in reconstruction.  The Minister’s main impression was the hopelessness of the people, something that needs to be addressed he felt by political dialogue within Gaza and by unblocking the flow of goods into and out of Gaza so the economy can start to grow.  The party also visited a Moshav outside Gaza to hear views and stories from its perspective of life lived with the threat of rockets and tunnels.

The Jordanian part of the visit regrettably had to be cancelled because of the snowstorm and related travel difficulties so the Minister did not have the chance to meet contacts there and visit Syrian refugee camps.  Departing instead from Ben Gurion we ran into Quartet Representative Tony Blair which allowed for the Minister and Mr. Blair to exchange notes on the crisis in Gaza and on the prospects for the MEPP.

These were the highlights of a visit that was workman-like, balanced and focused on key issues.  Along the way were a range of meetings and encounters with officials and others who gave insights and analyses into the situation here that are critical to fully understanding the complex dynamics and powerful forces at work.  As the programme rolled along, it was also really productive to spend time with the new Secretary General at the head of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Niall Burgess, and colleagues from Headquarters working on the Middle East, examining ways in which we can best use our resources in this area.

A personal highlight for Mary and me was the reception for the Minister at the Residence in Tel Aviv where he had the chance to meet our contacts from business, culture, peace building and from the Irish community.  A special thanks to Mary and David Lee from the Embassy for all their hard work on the visit: I would also like to pay tribute to the officials from the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs whose professionalism and courtesy made everything run smoothly, especially when dealing with the usual feature of every visit – the unexpected!

The Minister’s interview with the Irish Times on his visit is here http://t.co/7AHil1CcSm

You can find some photos and links from the Minister’s visit on the Embassy’s website at www.embassyofireland.co.il

Best wishes,


Eamonn McKee


Tel Aviv

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Welcome to my blog

As Ambassador of Ireland to Israel, an important part of my job is to enhance the bilateral relationship between our two countries.  One way to do that is to explore the history of that relationship and to make it available to the general public.  Another way is to record some of the activities that come my way that offer insights into aspects of the life of both countries, sometimes related and sometimes not.  This is what you will find on my blog.  The blog about the history of the Litvak community in Ireland, my tour of Yad Vashem and my visit to UNTSO are the first examples of this from my new home here in Israel.

Prior to Israel, I served as Ambassador to the Republic of Korea and to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, both complex societies with deep historical roots.  The exploration of the history of relations between Korea and Ireland turned out to be quite compelling: themes of empire, war and faith (both spiritual and secular) over-lapped and intersected.  As the accredited Ambassador, I had the opportunity of visiting Pyongyang and taking field trips to see the work of Irish NGO Concern and UN agencies, particularly the WFP.

Over the years of my posting (2009-13) I issued a series of Ambassador’s Messages via email to the Irish community in Korea and friends and contacts, including Koreans interested in the Irish relationship with Korea.  Many of these messages were of only contemporary interest such as assessments of the Irish economy or contingency planning during an emergency.  Some others though may have more enduring interest, such as information on the first Irishmen in Korea, the Irish Columban mission to Korea and Irish involvement in the Korean War.  They are now available on this blog.

The content of this blog is then offered by a serving Ambassador but the views expressed are my own.  You will notice themes that personally interest me; Ireland naturally and the stories of the Irish abroad, history and how its shapes us, culture and how it informs us, and the serendipitous connections that not only surprise us but in themselves create new narratives or recover lost ones.

As I found with the Ambassador’s Messages, the internet is a fertile new dimension enriching relations between people, connecting their current interests and activities, recovering their lost or forgotten stories.  I hope that this blog, from my privileged position between Ireland and Israel, helps to do just that.


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A Briefing at UNTSO Headquarters, Jerusalem

18 September 2013

Deputy Head of Mission Julian Clare and I travelled to Jerusalem on 16th September at the invitation of Major General Michael Finn, the new Head of Mission and Chief of staff of the United Nations Treaty Supervision Organization.  Michael hails from Mayo and, aside from his extensive command and staff experience back home, has a lot of overseas experience under his belt: completed three tours in Lebanon with UNIFIL, including a stint as Staff Officer at UNIFIL HQ; commanded the Irish contingent with Kosovo Force, Ireland’s first service with a NATO-led mission; served as Director in the EU Military Staff, Brussels where he headed up the planning and supervision of EU forces to Chad and the Central African Republic.  We met also with Captain Pat O’Connor, Personal Staff Officer for the Chief of Staff.  He has served a year with UNTSO and will likely complete a second (and a bit of a whizz on the internet having won awards for the best Irish Government website!)

Under Major General Finn’s command are UNTSO’s 153 Military Observers plus almost 100 international and over 160 local support staff, drawn from some twenty-five countries.  UNTSO Observers are attached to the UN Disengagement Observer Force on the Golan Heights and to UNIFIL, as well as maintaining a presence in Sinai.  No UNTSO Observers carry weapons of any kind.  They are generally senior officers who can handle tense situations as well as the more quotidian though ever-complex diplomacy required of their liaison roles with the military services of Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Israel.

Commander Erik Romby from the Netherlands gave an in-depth briefing on the mandate and regular operations of UNTSO.  It was his last day of duty with UNTSO so we are very grateful for him taking the time to do this.  Like all professional soldiers fully in control of their brief, Erik dissected the task, resources and operation of UNTSO with precision and clarity.  He, Major General Finn and Captain O’Connor fleshed this out with insights and impressions from the varied locations in which UNTSO serves throughout the region.  We were particularly interested in the current situation on the Golan Heights and the immediate vicinity in which Irish troops will deploy with UNDOF at the end of September.

UNTSO is the original UN peacekeeping entity, formed in 1948 to supervise the various armistices that brought an end to the Arab-Israeli War of that year.  It is funded directly by the General Assembly in a biannual vote, reflecting the fact that it was established a mere three years after the UN’s inaugural meeting in San Francisco and one year after the historic General Assembly vote on the partition of Palestine which preceded the Arab-Israeli war.

Given its original mandate and its evolution since then, UNTSO has Liaison Offices in Jerusalem (its HQ), Damascus, Beirut and Ismailia, Egypt.  It has a unique regional role, experience and perspective.  UNTSO’s core task has remained essentially the same since its foundation though how and where it does it has changed in response to the wars and turmoil in the region over the decades.  This has given a tremendous depth of experience to UNTSO as an organization and informed its strong esprit de corps.  That they carry no weapons in this most volatile and armed areas is remarkable.  But combined with their experience it has also helped ensure safe passage through difficult situations including when taken captive on occasion.  Its longevity of service in the region means that it is a known and respected entity by locals and military alike.  The turmoil in so many areas of UNTSO’s operations in recent years has seen again an evolution in UNTSO’s thinking and approach, though its core function remains unchanged.

UNTSO headquarters is the former Government House from British Mandate times.  Built of Jerusalem limestone, its oaty hues turn pale gold in the evening sun.  It has an elegant solidity, its barrack-like construction softened by the arched gateway, sunken gardens and tower which combined with its elevated location gives a 360 degree view of Jerusalem and environs. The function hall has a tall and gorgeously designed Armenian fireplace, a thing of real beauty and a product of the long association between Jerusalem and Armenia: indeed the family of its artisans still lives in the Old City.  Photo portraits of former UNTSO Chiefs of Staff grace one wall of the hall, with two of Lieutenant General William Callaghan, one of our great Irish soldiers and peacekeepers, awarded the Legion d’Honour for his leadership of UNIFIL in the 1980s.

Julian and I were escorted to the top of the building, above the water tank and upwards to the roof of the tower for what is recognized as the best view of Jerusalem.  Major Mark Weiner (USAF), clearly an aficionado of the area and its history, pointed out highlights in a guided finger pointing arc – the King David Hotel, the Dome of the Rock, Gethsemane, Mount Scopus, the Mount of Olives, the clustered housing of East Jerusalem, the grey concrete Lego of the Barrier and behind it the West Bank, beyond a thin glimpse of the Dead Sea and beyond again that of the craggy dusty orange shores of Jordan, then the impressive man-made stump of the Herodion (ruined palace of Herod the Great) and finally toward the noticeably more modern West Jerusalem.

From our vantage point, it was easy to marvel that before us lay the intersection of the world’s three great monotheistic religions, that on this ground walked, talked, thought and socialized the Patriarchs, prophets and holy men that shaped the religious beliefs and imaginations of the Judean, Christian and Islamic worlds.  For believers, depending on their faith, this is the hallowed ground of God’s prophets, his son and minions.  We gazed at the slopes, crowded by history and now by habitation, guided by a company of men trained and uniformed as soldiers yet who are disarmed and tasked with the delicate diplomacy of peace keeping along the fault lines of regional conflict.  In this paradox lies the very heart and ethic of the United Nations and its peacekeeping duties.

We concluded in Major General Finn’s office, sunny in the late afternoon but cooled by the thick limestone walls of the Government Mansion.  General Finn gave a final overview of the strategic landscape in which UNTSO operates and the role of UNDOF on the Golan Heights where Irish soldiers would soon deploy.  We discussed the longevity and range of peacekeeping tasks carried out by the Irish Defence Forces in the region, notably with UNIFIL but also in many other UN operations such as UNTSO and UNDOF.

Irish success in peacekeeping roles is a product of the quality and ethos of our officers and enlisted men.  Without the backup of heavy air or naval support, our troops are conditioned to operate lightly but with state of the art personal equipment, to improvise, to get to know the landscape, people and local culture intimately, to use emotional intelligence and avoid if at all possible recourse to or escalation in the use of force.  There is in our Irish military DNA something of the guerrilla force that fought for Ireland’s independence and then formed the core of the new State’s Defence Forces.  Nor can one discount our colonial heritage and the empathy that engenders in understanding conflict and its wellsprings. (For more information on the Irish Defence Forces overseas missions please see their website http://www.military.ie/overseas/)

Reflecting on UNTSO, Major General Finn wondered rhetorically; how to measure the cost of conflict avoided? Impossible of course but it is certain that UNTSO has played a key role in keeping the peace and easing tensions through liaison and observation.  Particularly in these tense times UNTSO brings an assurance to all the militaries of the region that armistices and treaties are faithfully honoured.

Certainly there is a price to be paid with some 33 fatalities among serving UNTSO members, amongst them two Irish officers, including fatalities in combat, accident and natural causes.  As we left the Government Mansion, we paused at the Memorial where General Finn spoke about some of the stories behind the names inscribed there, such as the four UNTSO members killed by an Israeli airstrike in the 2006 Lebanon War.  He recalled too the dreadful murder of Commandant Tommy Wickham by a Syrian soldier in Golan in 1967 (see related tweet).  There too is inscribed the name of Count Bernadotte of Sweden, the UN Mediator in the Arab-Israeli War who brokered an early truce and thereby helped create the conditions leading to the establishment of UNTSO.  Coincidentally, Major General Finn was due to speak the following evening (17th September) at a Swedish Commemoration of the 65th anniversary of the Count’s assassination in 1948.

On behalf of Julian and myself, I would like to warmly thank Major General Finn and his team for such a valuable and fascinating visit and to wish them every success in their tours of duty.

UNDOF are hosting Ambassadors to a briefing and site visit shortly which will be a very useful occasion bearing in the mind the upcoming deployment of our Irish contingent.  I’ll let you know how that goes.


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