Reflections on the life and legacy of David Trimble will naturally focus on his role in bringing peace to Northern Ireland, a feat for which he received the Nobel Peace Prize, but never the same esteem from the political and intellectual classes as went to the more romantic figure of Martin McGuinness. However, in his passing another worthwhile contribution he made to the world should also be remembered. Trimble was a steadfast friend of Israel, one whose friendship went far beyond mere statements of support.
An officer of Conservative Friends of Israel, Trimble was frequently to be found accompanying new Tory MPs on their first visits to the Jewish state. He would introduce them to political contemporaries and policy experts, ensuring they returned to the Commons thoroughly briefed on the facts about a country often spoken of in UK politics in angry assertions and fitful denunciations.
He once authored an excellent pamphlet for CFI, ‘Misunderstanding Ulster’, which challenged simplistic comparisons of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the Troubles in Northern Ireland and debunked the wishful thinking that the Good Friday Agreement should compel Israel to negotiate with Hamas.
‘If there is one lesson to learn from Northern Ireland’s experience — contrary to what is often recommended in relation to dialogue with Hamas — it is that ‘pre-conditions’ were crucial in ending the violence and producing a settlement,’ he observed.
This underscores the value of Trimble’s advocacy for Israel. He was not the sort of Israel supporter who preferred to address himself exclusively to other Israel supporters. He sought out those who were inveterately hostile and tried, with gentlemanly reason and good humour, to convince them of the justice of Israel’s cause — or, at the very least, the injustice of their disproportionate aversion towards the Jewish state. In 2013, he appeared before the UN Human Rights Council, a notoriously and obsessively anti-Israel outfit, and warned the body its conduct ‘can only undermine and subvert the peace process’. He reminded it of ‘criticism by successive UN secretaries-general of this council’s habit of singling out only one specific country, to the exclusion of virtually everything else’.
Trimble also put his international standing to good use to persuade European governments to proscribe Hezbollah — both its military and political wings — and to urge the international community to hold firm on the principle that Hamas was a terrorist organisation, not a legitimate negotiating partner for Israel. In 2010, he joined with Václav Havel, John Howard, Stephen Harper and José Maria Aznar to found the Friends of Israel Initiative, an organisation dedicated to fighting back against international delegitimisation of the Jewish state.
His most formal service to Israel was as a foreign observer on the Turkel Commission, a public inquiry into the interception of the Mavi Marmara. That incident, in May 2010, involved a pro-Palestinian maritime convoy attempting to reach Gaza. Passengers attacked IDF soldiers who boarded the vessel, who responded by shooting dead nine people. Nine Israeli soldiers were wounded. Although acting as an observer rather than a commissioner, Trimble suspended his connections to pro-Israel groups during the investigation. Once it was complete, he reflected on the rigour of the inquiry and its adherence to process, commenting: ‘When taken as a whole, looking at the Israeli legal system, it will pass muster with the best in the world.’
David Trimble’s legacy in Northern Ireland is substantial but he deserves to be remembered too for his commitment to Israel and conscientious defence of its rights. It did nothing for his reputation among political and intellectual elites but he never seemed to be after their approval. He didn’t forget Jerusalem and that is all that mattered.
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