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The Middle East - Has Anything Really Changed?

Published 04 Mar 2024

On Tuesday 27 February, the AIIA welcomed the Hon. Bob Carr to speak about past, current and future challenges of the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Hon. Bob Carr is a former NSW premier (1995-2005) and Australian Foreign Minister

Carr began by considering the paramount importance of human life amongst conflict, highlighting the need for dialogue, understanding and commitment towards a sustainable and long-term resolution. He provided a personal account of a recent trip to Poland where, carved into a Holocaust memorial, was the simple commandment “thou shalt not kill”. He spoke of the transcendent applicability of this statement to all atrocities on all sides. It was embodied in the great books of the Jewish religion and incorporated into those of Christianity and Islam. It applied equally to the callous attack by Hamas on 7 October and Israel’s subsequent attacks on Gaza. It was reflected in brave criticisms of Israeli actions by Jewish dissidents in Australia andother countries, including within Israel.

In this same vein, Australia should continue to call for a humanitarian ceasefire. We should have done so faster and been less apologetic about it. Consistent with that, we should be arguing for the reinstatement of humanitarian aid, including through
UNWRA. Israel’s prevention of humanitarian assistance to Gazan civilians and its attacks on civilian populations, destroying infrastructure and forcing civilians to flee from their homes, are in breach of international law. In these actions Israel has created “a plausible risk of genocide”. Carr made the telling point that failing to act to stop the prospect of genocide is as deplorable as the act itself.

In that light, Carr called for a nuanced global response that considers the aspirations and grievances of both Israelis and Palestinians. He endorsed European and British proposals for recognition of a Palestinian state – despite Israel’s stated rejection – through a UN Security Council resolution. Carr contextualised the historical roots of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, drawing on his own experience as Australian Foreign Minister at the UN General Assembly in 2012 where he sought to elevate the status of Palestine. He contrasted Australia’s response to the Russian-Ukrainian and Israeli-Palestinian conflicts, pointing to the fact that Australia upheld the values of the rules-based international order in its support of Ukraine, but failed to do so when it came to Palestine. Such a dichotomy brings to light the double standards of the international community and the fragility of the rules-based system.

On America’s response to the conflict, he said that Australia’s relationship with the US should invoke principles of multilateralism, rather than pure alliance attachment. In “a flicker of independence”, we had not signed up to US and UK statements on the conflict but instead had joined New Zealand and Canada in a statement on the imperative of a ceasefire. Australia should seek to persuade like-minded countries to join the 138 states that already recognise Palestine as a state. It was encouraging that Foreign Minister Penny Wong had not, despite predictable criticism, ruled out a resumption of humanitarian aid through UNWRA.

The continual expansion of Israeli settlements in occupied territories gave the lie to Israeli claims of readiness to negotiate. However, Carr defended Israel’s right to protect itself and described himself as an unabashed critic of Hamas: it had
neglected its administrative obligations, and its 7 October attack had ensured that the losers would be the Palestinians.

Questions from the audience centred on the logistics of a demilitarised Palestine and how the international community should proceed. On US policy, Carr noted the dangers to President Biden’s prospects in the presidential election if Arab voters in
key electorates stayed at home. It would be a big step for the US government to say there are no tools left in the locker except recognition of Palestine. The key was the implementation of a two-state solution that establishes a demilitarised Palestinian
state, while simultaneously meeting Israeli security concerns.

Asked how surrounding states could enforce a demilitarised Palestinian state with continuing Hamas and Hezbollah influence and the potential rise of religious extremism, Carr pointed to the likely role of Western and other powers, including China, in holding the new state to account. Asked if he could identify a current Palestinian leader who would have the capacity to negotiate a settlement, he said he could not.

Underlying Carr’s address was a sustained call for humanitarian consideration. He stressed the human cost of this conflict and the need for human life to be protected in line with international law.

Report by Hattie Shand, AIIA NSW Intern

The Hon. Bob Carr, Hattie Shand and AIIA NSW President, Ian Lincoln