Home News As Irish Leader Visits U.S., Shamrock Camaraderie Is Strained by Gaza War

As Irish Leader Visits U.S., Shamrock Camaraderie Is Strained by Gaza War

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As Irish Leader Visits U.S., Shamrock Camaraderie Is Strained by Gaza War

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The Irish prime minister’s annual St. Patrick’s Day visit to the White House is typically a cheerful break in any American president’s schedule of stressful meetings and trips, especially for President Biden, who never misses a chance to celebrate his Irish heritage.

But the traditional shamrock camaraderie of this year’s get-together will be tempered by an undercurrent of tension stemming from the war in the Middle East. Prime Minister Leo Varadkar of Ireland has been an outspoken critic of Israel’s military assault on Hamas in response to the Oct. 7 terrorist attack and has promised to raise the issue with Mr. Biden.

“I will ask America to get involved once again in the drive for peace,” Mr. Varadkar told reporters in Boston earlier this week. In Washington on Thursday, he said he anticipated that there would be a difference of opinion over the war when he reaches the Oval Office on Friday. “There’s very strong historic support for Israel in the U.S., for lots of different reasons, but that’s not going to deflect me from saying what I feel needs to be said.”

He did not sound particularly confrontational, however. “I have to say, I believe President Biden’s heart is in the right place there,” he said. “I know he’s working with Egypt, with Qatar, with Saudi Arabia and other countries in the region, the Jordanians, to try and get Israel and Hamas to agree to a cease-fire.”

The issue has particular resonance for many in Ireland given its history of resistance to British rule, making the country one of the most supportive of the Palestinian cause in Europe. Ireland was the first European Union nation to call for a Palestinian state and the last to permit the opening of a residential Israeli embassy.

“There can be a tendency — and we see this, for example, in the street murals in Belfast — to see the conflict through the prism of Northern Ireland, where republican nationalists sympathize with Palestine and loyalists, unionists with Israel,” said Jane Ohlmeyer, a history professor at Trinity College Dublin.

She cautioned that “this does not mean that Catholics are anti-Zionists and Protestants anti-Palestinian.” But she said she wondered whether the Good Friday Agreement, the 1998 accord brokered with American help that ended three decades of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland, could be “a ray of hope at an incredibly dark moment and, in time, provide a template for securing peace in the Middle East.”

Richard Haass, the president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, said the decline of violence in Northern Ireland has allowed the Irish to focus on other conflicts and sympathize with those involved, including Palestinians in Gaza.

“The Middle East is a topic that galvanizes many of them. There’s a long history of sympathy,” Mr. Haass said. “But it’s also ironic because my guess is Joe Biden probably shares many of their concerns and what he’s trying to do is thread a needle between support of Israel’s right to respond and criticism of how it’s gone about it. And unlike Ireland, he has to maintain a relationship with Bibi Netanyahu of Israel.”

Mr. Varadkar, the prime minister, or taoiseach, has been among those in Dublin leading a chorus of criticism of Israel for the way it has conducted its war against Hamas that has led to the deaths of more than 30,000 people in Gaza, including civilians and combatants. He told Parliament last month that Israel had been “blinded by rage” since Hamas killed 1,200 people and seized more than 200 more on Oct. 7. He said that an assault on the southern city of Rafah, where most of Gaza’s population has fled, would be a “gross violation of international law on top of all the other violations of international law which Israel is responsible for.”

Mr. Biden has strongly supported Israel’s right to defend itself and respond to the deadly terrorist attack. But he has called on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu not to attack Rafah without a credible plan to protect civilians and to do more to facilitate the provision of humanitarian aid to Gaza, which according to the United Nations is at “imminent” risk of famine.

American officials, working with counterparts in Qatar and Egypt, have been trying to broker a deal between Israel and Hamas that would halt the fighting for at least six weeks in exchange for the release of some of the more than 100 remaining hostages as well as some Palestinians held in Israeli prisons.

But Hamas has backed away from the proposed agreement and made demands that Israel refuses to meet, insisting on a permanent end to the war and Israeli withdrawal from Gaza rather than just a pause in military operations.

“We’re still focused, laser focused, on trying to get a temporary cease-fire in place so that we can get the hostages out and get more aid in,” John F. Kirby, a White House spokesman, said on Thursday. “That’s where our head is right now.”

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