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‘This is not how we wanted to recognise Palestine’: how Irish back-channel diplomacy built to a symbolic moment

Months of co-ordination led to what is seen by participants as an imperfect attempt to revive moribund Middle Eastern peace hopes

Almost exactly a month before the October 7th attacks, Micheál Martin met Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas at the Mukataa presidential compound in Ramallah. The Tánaiste was on a tour of Middle Eastern capitals, and Abbas and the Palestinian Authority were clearly under pressure.

Earlier in the year, Palestinian and Israeli officials had met for the first time in years, but progress towards a Middle East peace deal seemed as remote as ever. On the same trip, the Irish delegation had met the Israeli government and formed the impression that the current Israeli government had no genuine interest in the long-mooted two-state solution that has anchored the diminishing hopes for a lasting peace in the region since the Oslo Accords of 1993. In Ramallah, one source recalls, there was a “lot of despair and disillusionment”.

Abbas was said to be “complimentary” of Ireland’s position on Palestine, including its support for a two-state solution – but afterwards, the Tánaiste spoke about the need to develop a “critical mass” of EU countries that would take the action together.

What Martin was outlining was long-standing Irish policy: the aim, as articulated in successive programmes for government, was to recognise Palestine.


In truth, it was a stance, rather than a policy going anywhere fast. At different times over the years, momentum towards recognition had ebbed and flowed. However, there was always a reason not to act. Different peace plans in the region, the desire to maintain access and relations with Israel, the all-consuming focus on Ukraine.

There were two pillars that determined how fast Ireland would go: officials were adamant Ireland would not move alone, and it was always tricky to align with other countries – fusing the domestic politics of different states, balancing bilateral relations and diverging foreign policy goals. Secondly, the Oslo peace accords always envisioned recognition of Palestine as coming late in a process leading towards a two-state solution, thereby validating a process approaching its climax. With progress towards that goal effectively moribund, recognition of Palestine was some way off. In his briefing to the press afterwards, Martin was typically moderate and incrementalist – urging people not to describe Israel as apartheid, talking up a structured dialogue process between the Palestinian Authority and the EU.

But a month after Martin’s meeting with Abbas, the world changed. It also set in train a series of events that culminated on the steps of Government Buildings on Wednesday morning with Taoiseach Simon Harris announcing – in a meticulously co-ordinated move with Norway and Spain – that Ireland would now recognise Palestine.

‘It wasn’t a conscionable position to take that we should do nothing’

It was only days into the war in Gaza, but the conflict had already plainly exposed clear division in the European Union. “It wasn’t possible for months and months to agree a statement,” recalls one senior Irish source involved in talks. The then taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, and his advisers were attending October’s Irish quarter-final of the Rugby World Cup, a pulsating match against the All Blacks culminating in another early exit from the competition for Ireland. Simultaneously, they were reviewing drafts of an EU statement to go out the following day. As the clash unfolded on the pitch, the taoiseach’s team were agog at what they believed to be a totally unbalanced statement. It was clear, in the view of one person familiar with discussions at the time, that “waiting for the entire bloc, we would be waiting for a very long time and it wasn’t a conscionable position to take that we should do nothing.”

The following month, Varadkar attended a summit convened by French president Emmanuel Macron in the Élysée Palace on the humanitarian situation in Gaza. Macron greeted the arriving dignitaries, and they were guided into a gilded room to be seated at a table, surrounded by an outer ring of aid organisations and officials. The summary from people such as Mike Ryan of the WHO and UNRWA’s Philippe Lazzarini was deeply sobering, and contributed to a growing view on the Irish side that Gaza was in effect being “wiped out”, in the words of one senior official – as well as concern that the situation could spread into the West Bank and south Lebanon, where Irish peacekeepers were stationed.

Against this backdrop, the idea of recognition began to gain more currency. “What it says,” recalls the same source, “is a number of countries are committed to recognising the state of Palestine, so it can’t be wiped out”. On the fringes, Varadkar met Palestinian prime minister Mohammad Shtayyeh, who specifically mentioned recognition. Two senior sources last week pinpointed this as a moment when the Irish side began to think about moving more quickly.

The American dimension: Ireland comes to believe the US can live with it

Martin, for his part, worked the room at the Foreign Affairs Council – the meetings of EU foreign ministers – speaking to counterparts on the edge of proceedings, probing their willingness. The shortlist included Spain, Slovenia, Belgium, Luxembourg and Malta. The hope was that synchronised recognition could shield countries from the backlash that Sweden suffered in 2014 from Israel when it acted alone. While the step would be in a way purely symbolic, the Irish view was increasingly that a comprehensive peace process was as far away as it had been for 20 years, and so the original plan had to be revised. Instead it could become a way to put pressure on Israel, and to begin building towards a critical mass that might culminate in about half of EU member states having recognised Palestine. Martin was engaged in bouts of shuttle diplomacy, returning to the Middle East in November.

A big concern in the Government was also how the United States, Israel’s strongest supporter, would react. The Biden administration’s frustration with Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu was periodically clear, but Ireland nonetheless proceeded carefully through the embassy in Washington. The IDA, briefed by the Department of Foreign Affairs, sounded out the multinationals. No strong signal of dissatisfaction came back to Dublin from the political or business elites in America. Ireland believed the US could live with it.

It becomes clear that ‘honest broker’ Norway is game

On January 21st, Martin hosted a dinner in Brussels of like-minded countries. By this point, a person familiar with events said it was possible to have a “real hard discussion about what you are prepared to do and when are you prepared to do it”. The dinner was an important moment, but events afterwards also showed how enthusiasm could wane in some capitals, and how difficult it was going to be to choreograph simultaneous recognition. Belgium faded away, feeling that holding the EU presidency precluded them from acting. Luxembourg’s foreign minister, Jean Asselborn, was replaced by the country’s former prime minister Xavier Bettel, thought by the Irish side to be less gung ho.

At the Munich Security Conference in February, Martin held a key meeting with Norway where it was suddenly clear the Nordic country was game. Its cachet as an honest broker was clear. But even at that, the Irish side detected a moment of uncertainty from Oslo before the government headed by Jonas Store firmed up again. Another key factor was the emergence of an Arab Peace Initiative, which put an emphasis on recognition by European countries – seen by officials in Dublin as the only game in town. Martin continued working back channels in February, March and April. In February, Ireland and Spain wrote to European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen seeking an urgent review of whether Israel was complying with human rights obligations under its EU trade agreement. The request ultimately dissipated – not a direct contributory factor towards the recognition move, but it emphasised for some on the Irish side that moves through the EU institutions could underwhelm.

Harris and Sanchez meet three times in 72 hours

Two days after Varadkar announced he was stepping down as taoiseach, he signed a joint statement with Malta, Slovenia and Spain after talks on the margins of the European Council, stating they had “discussed together our readiness to recognise Palestine”. There was no timeline, but the gear shift was now publicly visible. In Dublin it was clear that Harris would succeed Varadkar. The Spanish side reached out to the presumptive taoiseach’s team, emphasising they wanted the first bilateral meeting to be with their prime minister, Pedro Sánchez. The pair met three times in 72 hours – in Brussels, and again in Warsaw at a mini-summit hosted by Donald Tusk, from which Harris returned to Dublin and Sanchez flew to Oslo, where he spoke with Norwegian premier Store, before coming to Dublin. By this stage Martin had told the Dáil – on the day of Harris’s election, with more than one observer noting the belief the Fianna Fáil leader was planting a flag in the process – that Ireland would recognise Palestine.

The meeting between Harris and Sánchez was, in the words of a source present, a “one-issue” affair – entirely focused on recognition. Initially Ireland had been looking at late April to recognise, but the increasing likelihood of Norway coming on board slowed the process. On May 9th a leak to the Slovenian press caused consternation in Dublin as it identified May 21st as the likely date. It was true it was being examined, along with the 28th, but the choreography was getting ever tighter, with Spain and Norway, as well as Slovenia, having their own parliamentary and governmental hoops to jump through to secure recognition.

The language began to narrow, with Harris by now promising recognition would come in May. Last weekend he had a long conversation with Store over the phone and on Saturday there was what one senior source described as a “moment of realisation” that it would be possible this week. Cabinet was briefed on Tuesday, before the three prime ministers exchanged a volley of “green light” texts that night.

The Israeli reaction was swift and very public – the ambassador being temporarily recalled from each capital, seen as the minimum punishment. In Dublin, they are watching and waiting to see what comes next, with a severing of relations seen as an unlikely worst case. On Thursday the Israeli foreign ministry released a cutting video pointing out Hamas had thanked Ireland – seen as an unfortunate but inevitable development by Dublin. The démarche of the three ambassadors in Israel, where they were shown footage of October 7th and filmed themselves during the process, caused offence in Dublin, where Martin called it “wrong” and “inappropriate”.

Within Government, nobody is so naive as to think this will change things overnight, but the hope is it may be a beginning of a lifeline thrown to a political process.

“This is not how we wanted to recognise Palestine,” said one Coalition figure on Thursday. “We wanted to do it as a two-state solution. It’s done now for fear that a two-state solution may not be possible – in order to keep the hope alive.”

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