How the Israeli Press Reported The Good Friday Agreement

– This is an edited version of a paper I recently published in Israel Studies.

The Good Friday Agreement, which brought to a close a thirty-year conflict whose roots in fraught Anglo-Irish relations went back much earlier, was one of the major global news stories of 1998. Israeli newspapers, no less than in many other parts of the world, devoted considerable attention to the successes of the peace negotiations. All the major Israeli newspapers – Ha-aretz, Maariv, Yedioth Ahronoth and the Anglophone Jerusalem Post – published lengthy articles, opinion-pieces, and multi-page spreads on Northern Ireland in April and May 1998. The front-pages of these four papers, usually devoted to Israeli and Middle Eastern affairs, all featured lead articles on Northern Ireland. That there were seeming parallels between Northern Ireland and Israel-Palestine was an additional factor in this press coverage. Indeed, much of the Israeli press coverage of the Good Friday Agreement drew on shared vocabularies of religiously-inspired nationalist violence, supposedly ancient tribal hatreds, and terrorist militias.

After the successful referendum in May, Sharon Sadeh, the Ha-aretz correspondent for Britain, quoted one theologically-minded Protestant opponent of the agreement: “zu mazima noalet le-chibosh et machuz ha-notzriut ha-achron hamaamin be-tanach” [this is a foolish plot to conquer the last Christian region that believes in the Tanach (Bible)]. And a counterpart on the other side of the communal divide was described as a “katoli adok”, an observant Catholic, using a word more ordinarily used to describe Orthodox Jews than devout Catholics.[1] In their two-page spread explaining the background to the conflict in Northern Ireland, Maariv summed it up as “Hundreds of Years of Hatred and Blood” which could be traced back to the actions of Protestant mitnachlim [settlers] in the seventeenth century, using a term with specific resonances for an Israeli audience.[2]

There was a basic linguistic problem that Israeli journalists faced in their coverage of Northern Ireland; namely, how to translate English- and Irish-language terms into Hebrew. And as with many acts of translation, the words chosen echoed the political realities of the target language rather than those of the original Irish or English. The Ulster Defence Association thus became Agudat HaHagana shel Ulstr[3] and the Alliance Party became Ha-Mifleget Ha-Brit [lit. the Party of the Covenant][4]. The seeming exoticism of Northern Ireland could thus become more recognisable to Israelis, as Irish idioms were recast in Hebrew. Those responsible for the negotiations were labelled the “givrei ha-secem ha-shalom” [the heroic men of the peace agreement], again using a word, givrei, with specifically Israeli and Jewish connotations. The Irish Republican Army was generally translated as ha-machteret ha-erit [the Irish Underground][5] or the Irish Catholic Underground[6], rather than the more literal ha-tzva ha-erit ha-republikanit. Thus, the IRA’s claim to be a legitimate army was avoided, with a name instead calling to mind the actions of the Jewish Underground [ha-machteret ha-yehudit], an Israeli extremist group that grew out of the settler movement in the early 1980s, perhaps suggesting that theirs also was the illegitimate form of an otherwise legitimate form of nationalism. Nonetheless, the IRA were also discussed in terms usually used for Palestinian militias. Their actions were just “poa’lot ha-teror” [acts of terrorism].[7] While in other cases, there was a curious lack of translation suggesting a lack of a desire to fully understand the intricacies of Northern Ireland. Sinn Féin, whose Irish-language name means ‘We Ourselves’, remained simply ha-shin fain and no effort was made to explain the nationalist meaning of this name.[8] Bloody Sunday, the shooting of thirteen civil rights protestors in Derry in 1972 usually remained blady sandai, transliterated directly into Hebrew.[9]

In the one of the most evocative pieces from this wave of Israeli reporting on Northern Ireland, the peace activist and journalist Igal Sarna recounted his meetings with Catholics in Belfast. Joining a Catholic parade, “I walked with the marchers to the graves of the IRA dead”. Sarna reported a far more subdued, even solemn atmosphere than the elation found in newspaper headlines: ‘“we departed on a new road from a history of death”, said the politicians, but the Catholics of Belfast with whom I marched, used lower and more quotidian words [hishtemesho be-milim yotar namochim ve-yom-yomiot].’ The sombre mood evoked some interesting memories for Sarna:

“As a fairly lonely Israeli in the parade that passed beneath light snow in poor and sad neighbourhoods, I thought about the hope of Belfast but also about the danger that was within it. I carried with me a memory of another winter, the Israeli winter of 1995, and the possibilities of a small group or of one man to put an end to the painstaking work of 100 wise diplomats.”

The pitfalls of failed peace agreements were, for Sarna, a poignant reminder of the murder of Yitzhak Rabin. Israel may have once shared similarities with Northern Ireland but “From this week, it seemed that from now on the roads depart: Belfast says bye-bye to Tel-Aviv”. And with the ending of both of the Northern Irish “Troubles” and South African Apartheid, Sarna started to see that Israel “remains as a kind of archival relic of a conflict”. What Sarna presents as the tragedy of post-Oslo Israel stands in contrast to politicians’ expectations for Northern Ireland, and Sarna quotes one local political commentator, who, with a with a suspiciously Hannukah-inflected flourish, felt that “A great miracle happened here” [nas gadol kerah po][10]. Sarna was clearly investing the events in Northern Ireland with meanings drawn from Jewish and Israeli political discourse. More specifically, he was using “Ireland” as a set of ideas to talk about Israeli politics, a common discursive move in much of the Israeli reporting on Northern Ireland; the “Ireland” that appears in the Israeli press is one that would not always be immediately recognizable to Irish people, rather it is an “Ireland” reconstructed for Israelis. And as Israelis talk about (and with) this “Ireland” they are actually talking about their own domestic political concerns

A number of Israeli journalists and political commentators ploughed a similar comparative furrow. David Newman, a British-born Israeli academic, used his column in the Jerusalem Post to sketch out a number of ways in which Northern Ireland and Israel could be understood together. Newman compared the first public meeting between Tony Blair and Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams to the 1993 meeting between Rabin and Arafat and spoke of how a need for reconciliation and education about each other was at work in both contexts. On a deeper level, Newman also suggested that a new comparison was emerging. He spoke of Catholics and Protestants successfully building “long-term stability and an end to violence, where Israel and the Palestinians have failed to live up to the euphoria and the expectations which were present in the heady days following the two Oslo agreements”. Northern Ireland provided a way for Newman to highlight the shortcomings of the Oslo Accords. While alive to the possibility that opponents to the Irish peace agreement could still wreck its chances, he argued that the use of island-wide referenda imbued the agreement with popular support and rued that this option had not been pursued by the Rabin government after the signing of the Oslo Accords:

“Had there been a referendum shortly after the signing of the Oslo Agreement, the chances of a large majority in favor would have provided the Rabin government with the necessary mandate for its implementation. This would also have taken the wind out of the right-wing opposition in their attempts to delegitimize the government by arguing that it lacked the necessary popular mandate for making such far-reaching concessions.”[11]

As Newman gazed longingly at Northern Ireland, he saw a polity where right-wing extremists had been circumvented by a democratic process that taps the essentially dovish sensibilities of the general population. His wish was clearly that Israel could be like Northern Ireland and his closing words for his readers were “We should wish them [peaceful Catholics and Protestants] the very best of Irish luck.”

13 April 1998 - Cartoon

“Four Sons Discuss Torah”, Ha-aretz, 13 May 1998

In two striking cartoons, Ha-aretz pursued the comparison of Northern Ireland and Israel-Palestine further and drew on some surprisingly deep veins of Jewish religious thought in the process. In a caricature entitled ce-nigad arba’a benim dibrah torah [four sons discuss Torah differently], two men representing the divided Catholic and Protestant communities in Northern Ireland embrace, having placed their weapons in the dustbin of history. In stark contrast, two other figures representing Yasser Arafat and the State of Israel (or perhaps just Benjamin Netanyahu) stubbornly refuse to even face other, much less embrace. Although their glancing eye-lines suggest a continued interest in each other. The title of the cartoon references the standard Passover Haggadah and the story of the four sons who all relate to their Jewish heritage in abruptly different ways: the wise son, the simple son, the wicked son, and the son who does not know how to ask. Not only is there the inference that Netanyahu and Arafat embody the wicked son and the son who does not know how to ask for peace, but there is also the sarcastic allegation that Northern Irish Catholics and Protestants are better, more peace-seeking Jews than one can find in the State of Israel. In other words, there is again the familiar refrain: why can Israelis not be more like Northern Irish Catholics and Protestants?

12 April 1998 - Cartoon

“Next Year in Jerusalem”, Ha-aretz, 12 May 1998

A second Paschal-themed cartoon depicted Netanayahu with his family. Though participating in a traditional Passover seder, this modern-style family continue to watch TV through dinner. On the TV, tuned to CNN, Bill Clinton stands by a bank of microphones against the backdrop of British and Irish flags. To what appears to be Netanyahu’s embarrassment, the American president is announcing Le-sha-na ha-ba-a be-ye-ru-sha-la-im [Next Year in Jerusalem], a central part of the Passover liturgy. The obvious message is that within a year Clinton will bring Northern Irish-style peace to Israel-Palestine, which is presumably the reason for Bibi’s awkward facial grimace. Clinton’s words, however, are not written in Hebrew but instead are transliterated into Latin script, suggesting that this future peace mission is something foreign to Israeli concerns.

In contrast to the claim that Israel should emulate the Good Friday Agreement, though, a significant section of the commentariat engaged in a wilful refusal to make this comparison. Nonetheless, how these pundits discussed Ireland (or rather, refused to discuss Ireland) revealed much about their views of Israeli realities. Zalman Shoval, a former Knesset member for Likud, produced an opinion piece for Yedioth Ahronoth with the decidedly blunt title of “Belfast Zeh Lo Ca’an” [Belfast Is Not Here]. Shoval began by taking aim at Bill Clinton’s assertions that US-mediated peace agreements in Northern Ireland, Bosnia, and Haiti could now be followed with an American arbitration in Israel-Palestine. Not only did he dismiss the depth of the peace agreements in Haiti and the former Yugoslavia, he expressed serious pessimism about the future successes of George Mitchell’s work in Northern Ireland. He followed this up by zeroing in on a major difference between the Oslo Accords and the Good Friday Agreement: “while the Irish agreement is said to be a final peace agreement – “the permanent deal” in the language of the Middle East – Oslo represents a sequence of interim deals, without a peace agreement” Shoval then proceeded to identify what he felt was the ‘essential difference’ between Northern Ireland and Israel-Palestine, that of the ‘basic fundamental [political] assumptions’ that animate the opposing sides in both conflicts.   Northern Irish Catholics, he pointed out, had been willing to forego any separate sovereignty, something that Palestinians would not do. Moreover, he argued that Northern Irish Protestants did not face the existential problems that Israelis did: “Northern Ireland is Protestant, but with a large Catholic minority – it is not surrounded, like Israel, by a hostile and powerful world with eighty-five times more of a population than the number of its inhabitants, with substantial parts of it on the inside since before it came into existence.” And pushing his point further, Shoval ended by arguing that the government of the Republic of Ireland, in their willingness to revoke a constitutional claim of sovereignty over the North, treated peace with far greater seriousness than the Palestinians, “who notwithstanding all their promises have not yet cancelled their covenant calling for the destruction of Israel.”[12]

Moshe Zak, the former editor of Maariv, used his English-language column in the Jerusalem Post to make a very similar set of claims in an article entitled “Belfast is Certainly No Oslo”. His bold opening salvo was that “There is no similarity between the Oslo Agreement, signed in 1993 between Israel and the Palestinians, and the Belfast Agreement reached in 1998 between the Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland.” And he was clear in his view that the Good Friday Agreement could never serve as a model for Israeli-Palestinian peace. For Zak, the positive role of the European Union in Northern Ireland, versus what he say as negative European interference in Israel, as well as the absence of similarly negative UN resolutions, deepened the breach between the two contexts.[13]


“Ireland’s Aneshei Ha-Ruach Relate To The National Struggle”, Maariv, 12 April 1998

Other articles moved the focus away from political negotiations or religiously-inspired violence, instead placing the emphasis on the uniquely cultural and creative nature of the Irish people. A piece in Maariv traced the effect of the national struggle on the works of Ireland’s aneshei ha-ruach. Literally meaning “people of the spirit”, Maariv provided an eclectic photo collage to help define this otherwise hard-to-translate term: the pop-musicians Sinead O’Connor and U2, the writers James Joyce, Samuel Beckett and Oscar Wilde, and the actors Liam Neeson and Daniel Day-Lewis – the latter of whom is a naturalized Irish citizen of English-birth – as well as, bizarrely, George Best. The article talked of Ireland as being “ever and always” a land of “cultural creativity” and explained this as the direct result of the ongoing clash with Britain. And while the Maariv piece identified this conflict-borne aestheticism in film and literature, it placed a particular emphasis on music:

“The national songs of the Irish – from Danny Boy [Dani Boi] to The Rising of the Moon [zarichat ha-yerach] – deal with combat, death and bereavement. In recent decades a variety of rock stars [cochavei ha-zmar] have come out of Ireland, many of whom continue to deal with these themes. U2 [yu-2] became the most important band in the world with the song Bloody Sunday [blady sundai], commemorating a massacre of civilians in Northern Ireland at the hands of the British in 1972. Clannad work in the ancient Gaelic language; Sinead O’Connor denounced the British brutality that led to the Great Famine in the 19th century; The Cranberries [ha-kranberis] sang about the “zombies” [zombiim], the living dead, on the streets of Belfast.”[14]

Much of this can be explained, of course, as a function of print-capitalism and the presumed need to provide celebrity-content to tabloid newspaper-readers. But there also seems to be a deeper imperative at work here. By constructing them as a uniquely creative, even spiritual people, journalism such as this served to exoticize the Irish, and thus to reinforce perceptions that the actions of the Irish bear no comparison to the supposedly harsher realities of the Middle East. Indeed, this Israeli focus on Irish music and Irish culture can be placed in a longer history of perceptions about Irish people’s inherently artistic or poetic sensibilities. Consciously or not, news coverage such as this echoed the famous views of Ernest Renan and Matthew Arnold in the nineteenth century, that Celts are a wonderfully poetic if politically naïve people.[15] And it is a small leap from seeing the Irish as a uniquely artistic people to seeing their peace process as the product of a gentler (more artistic?) conflict. Again, the precise ways in which Israeli media covered events in Northern Ireland in the spring of 1998 did important work for Israeli popular political discourse.

Another function of print-capitalism and the general workings of the media industry is how quickly Northern Ireland disappeared as a major story from the pages of Israeli newspapers. After the referendum of May 1998, attentions were turned elsewhere. Israel’s brief Northern Ireland moment had ended. Nonetheless, the sporadic mentions of Irish themes in Israeli newspapers continues to reflect Israeli political concerns. Fifteen years after the Good Friday Agreement, Ha-aretz returned to Northern Ireland to report on the “historic reconciliation” that had allowed the “small territory” “to outgrow deep religious hatred and learn to live together”. Ha-aretz’s Haggai Mattar claimed that “There is a reason for optimism.”[16] Two years later, though, Ha-aretz spoke more grimly about the ‘The Lesson of Northern Ireland’ in terms of a rhetorical question: “Can there be peace without justice?”[17] Whatever hopes had once surrounded the Oslo Accords had dissipated into a bleak pragmatism. Writing in Yedioth Ahronoth, Yitzhak Benhorin, the paper’s Washington correspondent, reported with an air of satisfaction that even George Mitchell had admitted “The reality in the Middle East is much more complex” and peace would be much harder to achieve in Israel-Palestine than in Northern Ireland.[18]

When “Ireland” does feature as a newspaper topic in Israel today, it is less in terms of shared hopes for peace and more in terms of widespread support for Palestinians. Reflecting major shifts in post-Oslo, post-Second Intifada, post-Arab Spring Israel, the focus is on European apathy in the face of Islamist terror, international hostility to Israel, and the looming threat of Boycotts, Divestments, and Sanctions. An article in Maariv in 2012 talked of how Ireland was now “One of the Most Hostile States Towards Israel” and, with an almost pathetically resigned air asked “what happened to the pastoral friend of Israel” [ma koreh la-yedidah ha-pastoralit shel yisrael].[19]

[1] ‘“It can’t get any worse” say voters in support of the agreement’, Ha-aretz, 24 May 1998.

[2] ‘Historic Peace in Northern Ireland: Hundreds of Years of Hatred and Blood’, Maariv, 12 April 1998.

[3] ‘People Shaping Northern Ireland’, Ha-aretz, 12 April 1998.

[4] ‘Adams: The Struggle for Unity with Ireland Will Continue’, Ha-aretz, 12 April 1998.

[5] Background: 30 Years of Conflict, Yedioth Ahronoth, 9 April 1998. See also: Geulah Cohen, ‘For us, there are no possibilities for compromise’, Yedioth Ahronoth, 12 April 1998, where she talks of her admiration for lochemei ha-mecheret ha-erit [the fighters of the Irish underground].

[6] ‘After 30 years of Terrorism and Violence – A Peace Agreement is Signed in Northern Ireland’, Yedioth Ahronoth, 12 April 1998; ‘The Peace Agreement in Ireland’, Yedioth Ahronoth 13 April 1998.

[7] Background: 30 Years of Conflict, Yedioth Ahronoth, 9 April 1998.

[8] ‘Tony Blair is going to Belfast urgently with the intention of saving the peace talks with Northern Ireland,’ Maariv, 8 April 1998.

[9] ‘Historic Peace in Northern Ireland: Hundreds of Years of Hatred and Blood’, Maariv, 12 April 1998.

[10] ‘It is difficult to set out the levels of death’, Yedioth Ahronoth, 13 April 1998.

[11] David Newman, ‘Bravo, Ireland’, Jerusalem Post, 15 April

[12] Zalman Shoval, ‘Belfast Is Not Here’, Maariv, 13 April 1998

[13] Moshe Zak, ‘Belfast is Certainly No Oslo’, Jerusalem Post, 16 April 1998.

[14] ‘Ireland’s intellectuals and artists [aneshei ha-ruach] relate to the national struggle’, Maariv, 12 April 1998.

[15] Matthew Arnold. Irish Essays and Others (London: Smith, Elder, & Co., 1891); Ernest Renan. Poetry of the Celtic Races and Other Essays (London: Walter Scott, 1896). See also, Sinead Garrigan Mattar. Primitivism, Science, and the Irish Revival (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004) Chapter 1; Declan Kiberd. Inventing Ireland: The Literature of the Modern Nation (New York: Vintage Books, 1996) 29-32.

[16] ‘Good Friday’, Ha-aretz, 10 April 2013.

[17] ‘The Lesson of Northern Ireland: Can There Be Peace Without Justice’, Ha-aretz, 24 April 2015

[18] ‘Mitchell Admits: Peace in the M.E. more difficult than in Northern Ireland’, Yedioth Ahronoth, 2 October 2011.

[19] ‘How Ireland Turned Into One of the Most Hostile States Towards Israel’, Maariv, 20 November 2012.