Leo Varadkar, the Irish prime minister, is regularly seen attending rock concerts or modeling novelty socks as he attempts to cultivate an image of being hip and humorous.
A recent inquiry made by Varadkar via Facebook about whether he resembled the cartoon character on his coffee mug appeared at first glance to be another example of such contrived lightheartedness.
For some reason, though, Varadkar had “tagged” one person in his post. That person, Barry Williams, happens to be Ireland’s most ardent supporter of Israel.
The taoiseach – as Ireland’s prime minister is called – offered no explanation about why the note was addressed to Williams, who runs the group Irish4Israel. And multiple requests for comment to Varadkar and his office went unanswered.
Why the silence? The Irish public is broadly sympathetic to the Palestinians’ plight. Any connections that Varadkar has to Williams and Irish4Israel are, therefore, matters of public interest.
If they are simply friends, that is not problematic as such. But if Williams is using that friendship to lobby on behalf of a foreign government – Israel – then the public has a right to know about it.
Varadkar has previously displayed greater sympathy towards Israel than most other politicians in the south of Ireland.
In 2004 – then a member of a local authority for the Dublin area – Varadkar appeared to defend US policies on the Middle East. Writing to The Irish Times, Varadkar described as “overblown” the criticism heaped on George W. Bush, then the US president, who had told Israel that it may retain some colonies it had built in the occupied West Bank as part of a “final peace settlement.”
Following his election to the Oireachtas – Ireland’s parliament – in 2007, Varadkar signaled that he was in favor of greater trade with Israel. When he later became a transport minister in the Dublin government, Varadkar sought parliamentary approval of an EU-Israel aviation deal during 2013 as a matter of “urgency.”
EU diplomats recently credited this “open skies” agreement with facilitating a surge of visits to Israel by tourists from certain European countries.
Varadkar appeared to distance himself from Ireland’s small pro-Israel lobby while Gaza was under attack the following year. In a tweet, he denied belonging to a “friends of Israel” group within the Oireachtas.
But Varadkar has never formally retracted his earlier declarations of support for Israel. And the need for transparency about where he stands is all the more pressing now that Varadkar is taoiseach.
Israel has made clear that it wishes to change what Benjamin Netanyahu, its prime minister, has called Ireland’s “traditional stance” of supporting Palestinians.
Mystery of the mug
Netanyahu was exaggerating the extent of elite support for the Palestinians. Like all other EU governments, Ireland has been hugely accommodating to Israel for a couple of decades at least.
Netanyahu nonetheless wants Ireland to go further. For example, he wants organizations that campaign against Israel’s human rights abuses to be denied financial assistance.
The agenda pursued by Irish4Israel is strongly in line with Netanyahu’s stance. The group frequently tries to portray Palestine solidarity campaigners as extreme and unreasonable.
When Mike Murphy, a veteran Irish broadcaster, recently participated in a trip to the occupied West Bank and wrote about the oppression he witnessed, the group called his article “vile.”
Aggressive tactics of that nature are unlikely to win Irish4Israel too many friends among the public.
But if the group has the prime minister onside, perhaps it feels emboldened. That’s all the more reason why Varadkar must end the mystery surrounding his mug.
•First published by The Electronic Intifada, 15 November 2017.