Australian Outlook

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Australia, Israel and Palestine

14 Mar 2014
By Professor Peter Boyce AO

Australia has had an important role in the establishment of the Israeli state. However, there has been a lack of critical analysis of Israeli policy and actions relating to the occupied Palestinian territories.

The Israel-Palestine dispute is now into its sixty-sixth year, and Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory has lasted nearly forty-seven of those years— punctuated by wars, intifadas and the planting of Jewish settlements across the West Bank.

Australia played an honourable part in helping secure international acceptance of the new state of Israel, with the then Australian External Affairs Minister having chaired the United Nations committee which recommended acceptance of the 1947 partition plan for the British Palestine mandate. Since then successive governments have claimed to be “even-handed” in their responses to the ongoing conflict — though not very convincingly in recent years, especially since the spread of Islamist terrorism. Last November Australian Foreign Minister Bishop announced that the government had reversed course on two major voting issues at the UN: the annual resolution condemning expansion of Jewish settlements on the West Bank, and the resolution demanding that the Geneva Convention apply to the occupied territories. Until a recent switch of Canada’s position, outside of the US Australia stood alone among western governments in its uncritical alignment with Israel.

Parliament versus the people?

Research on Australian public opinion about the dispute should be treated with some caution, given that pollsters are generally unable to measure the intensity of views expressed. Furthermore, print media analysis is often shallow. Rocket attacks and retaliatory bombings or shootings, along with brief up-dates on peace negotiations, are routinely reported, but media discussion seldom canvasses the root sources of conflict or its ongoing social and economic costs.

However, a 2010 study found that 78% of Australians were opposed to Israel’s settlements policy, 80% wanted Canberra to argue for negotiations to be respectful of international law and human rights, and only 22% thought Jerusalem should be recognised as Israel’s capital. More recently at the time of the 2012 General Assembly vote on Palestinian non-member observer State status, 51% of Australians thought their country should vote “Yes” and only 15% “No”.

Despite the evident interest of a large segment of the Australian population in the predicament of Israelis and Palestinians, an interest justified by our cultural and religious heritage, this country’s political leaders have been strangely reluctant to discuss the core issues with their constituents. Moreover, the political executive’s reluctance to engage in critical discussion seems to be shared by Parliament.

Why do government and parliamentarians avoid public discussion of the Palestine question? Ignorance and apathy may be a partial explanation. But could it also be fear of offending the U.S. unnecessarily? Or is it fear of the Jewish lobby and the hurtful charge of being ‘anti-semitic’? We know that a very sophisticated Jewish lobby carries influence with both major political parties and that the powerful Murdoch press has taken a strong editorial stand on the issue. Given the frustrations endured by the Obama administration in dealing with Israel’s prime minister and the growing voices of concern from liberal Jewish Americans, a more neutral stance by Australia could be more of a help than hindrance to Washington.

The two most frequently but glibly cited justifications for Australian unwillingness to criticise Israeli government action are: first, that Israel deserves full support as the only democracy in the region; secondly, that Tel Aviv cannot be expected to negotiate with Hamas, a terrorist organisation calling for Israel’s destruction.

Yes, Israel does satisfy most of the criteria to qualify as a liberal democratic polity, but democracies can behave abominably in their foreign relations. Moreover, somewhat paradoxically, it is precisely Israel’s democratic, multiparty system which has blocked progress towards a peace settlement. The fact that every Israeli coalition government in recent decades has had to rely on ultra-nationalist or ultra-orthodox parties bitterly opposed to a two-state formula is seldom remarked upon in any Australian political statement or media analysis.

As for Hamas: yes, it is a terrorist organisation, and terrorism is abhorrent. Hamas was established in 1987 with the political objective of securing a long-delayed Palestinian homeland. It won the support of a majority of Palestinians in the 2006 national election and was widely acknowledged to be less open to corruption than the incumbent Fatah Party. Israeli nationalists cannot afford to be too self-righteous in their denunciation of Hamas, since the state of Israel was born with the aid of Jewish terrorist organisations and two of its early prime ministers had been terrorist leaders. Of course Hamas will need to relax its refusal to recognize Israel’s right to exist, but at the moment there doesn’t seem much incentive for Hamas to soften its stance.

One of the oddest features of Australia’s hard-line position on Palestine is that although it follows somewhat slavishly the American lead, the Australian domestic constituency is vastly different from the American. The historically powerful Jewish lobby in the US is vigorously supported by a huge electorate of fundamentalist evangelical Christians who believe that the Apocalypse is nigh, and that for the promised “Rapture” to occur, Israel must recover its Biblically-identified territorial boundaries. More than 40 million Americans are estimated to be Christian Zionists.

Hourglass politics

The current round of peace negotiations is unlikely to succeed, and a two-state solution may no longer be possible: in recent months several prominent Israelis, including former directors of Mossad, have warned that time is running out. But with the Palestinian population increasing at a fast rate, any formal incorporation of the occupied territories would spell the end of Israel as a predominantly Jewish state.

Emeritus Professor Peter Boyce AO  is President of the Australia Institute of International Affairs in Tasmania. He was professor of political science at the Universities of Queensland and Western Australia and was vice-chancellor of Murdoch University for eleven years. He is a current Honorary Associate of the School of Social Science at the University of Tasmania.