This week, British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson declared at a press conference in Jerusalem that Israel’s “illegal settlements” were “obstacles to peace and progress”. Israel continues to build settlements in the West Bank, contravening international law. While much of the world is outraged, Australia is happy to look away—to its own detriment.
The British foreign secretary’s comments did not come from a leftist or enemy of Israel. They came from supporters of the country who see the damage that Israel’s settlement policy is doing to both its international standing and the prospects of peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians.
When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Australia last month, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull wrote a glowing piece in The Australian about the bond between the two countries. The reaction to the next foreign head of state to visit Australia—Indonesian President Joko Widodo—was low-key in comparison.
There is of course nothing wrong with welcoming a foreign leader with pomp and ceremony. But the Australian welcome mat offered more than just fanfare: Prime Minister Turnbull and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop effectively endorsed Israel’s policy of occupying Palestinian land and populating it with Israeli settlers when they criticised the last United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolution on Israel. Turnbull’s piece in The Australian went so far as to call the US-supported resolution “one-sided”.
UNSC Resolution 2334 was passed in December 2016 by 14 votes to zero, condemning “the construction and expansion of settlements”. The adoption of this resolution signified the frustration of the Obama administration, which had repeatedly advised the Israeli government to cease settlement construction in the West Bank, whilst shielding Israel at the UN Security Council by wielding its veto rights. According to the US Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power, the US allowed the resolution to pass because “the settlement problem has gotten so much worse that it is now putting at risk the very viability of that two-state solution”.
Frustration has been building against Israel’s disregard for international law, which explicitly prohibits the settlement of an occupying population on land captured in war. Advice from Israel’s friends that settlement activity is nullifying the idea of a future Palestinian state has had little impact. Former US Special Envoy for the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations Martin Indyk—noted for his close ties with Israel—categorised Netanyahu’s “rampant settlement activity” as “dramatically damaging”.
Determined and persistent
But Israel remains undeterred. Relieved with the end of Obama’s term in office, and in a defiant snub to the UNSC, in February 2017 Israel announced the expansion of settlements in the West Bank with 5,000 new dwellings. This announcement was followed by the adoption of a controversial bill in the Israeli parliament that retroactively legalised thousands of unsanctioned dwellings across 16 Israeli settlements. This bill was criticised by the Israeli Attorney General as unconstitutional and illegal under international law. It prompted the UN Envoy for the Middle East Peace Process Nickolay Mladenov to warn of far-reaching consequences for the prospects of peace.
Despite the unanimity of the international community on Israeli settlement policy, Australia has been steadfast in its support for the Israeli position. Foreign Minister Bishop refused to criticise the bill, stating that Australia “has consistently supported a two-state solution agreed from direct negotiation between Israel and the Palestinians”. This is consistent with Australia’s position since Israel’s inception. Australia was the first country to vote in favour of the partition of Palestine which led to the birth of Israel and has systematically supported the Israeli-friendly position of the United States in international fora. But Australia has never been so far out of step with the international community.
What motivates the Australian position?
So why is Australia prepared to go out of its way to offer blanket support for Israel when even the United States—at least under former President Obama—acknowledged that Israel’s settlement policy was damaging the peace effort? Israel is not a major trading partner for Australia, ranking as our 50th largest export market. Bilateral cooperation has increased over the past decade, but remains under-developed. Australia is also not a significant trade partner for Israel, ranking as its 23rd export market and making up less than 1 per cent of total exports. In this context, it is not surprising that Netanyahu was the first Israeli prime minister to ever visit Australia. The two countries are just not that close.
The question of Israel and Palestine is also not a major election issue in Australia and does not correspond to public opinion. A 2011 Roy Morgan poll found that 64 per cent of Australians opposed the building of settlements—Australians are prepared to speak up against the settlement policy. On the eve of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s visit, a group of 60 high-profile Australians signed an open letter to the government to declare that “Mr Netanyahu’s policies consistently aim to provoke, intimidate and oppress the Palestinian population which increase that imbalance, thus taking Israel irretrievably further from peace”.
The Liberal party therefore stands to reap few electoral gains from its support of Netanyahu’s policies. Although a handful of electorates—including Prime Minister Turnbull’s seat of Wentworth—have a substantial Jewish voter base, it would be simplistic to assume that Jews vote solely based on the vigour of the candidates’ position in relation to Israel.
Australia’s strong support of Netanyahu, especially on the controversial issue of settlements, has little logical basis. It makes Australia look bad in the international community, it undermines the country’s image as an independent and serious international player and it erodes any claim to be a supporter of peace and a two-state solution. It’s time Australia re-evaluates its position on Netanyahu. The present recall of Australian heads of missions by Foreign Minister Bishop to discuss Australia’s foreign policy priorities offers an excellent opportunity to begin this re-evaluation.
Dr Shahram Akbarzadeh is research professor of Middle East & Central Asian politics at Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation, Deakin University.
Dara Conduit is associate research fellow at the Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation, Deakin University.
This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.