Australia and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – can policy overcome politics?

May 14, 2021

A new public opinion survey finding that Australians hold surprisingly balanced views about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict offers scope for the government to ditch its short-sighted, partisan approach. But will it?

The Crossroads21 survey conducted for Plus61J Media was completed by 3,459 respondents and covered three themes: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; antisemitism; the knowledge base of respondents’ opinions.

With 62% of respondents indicating that their sympathies lie “equally with both” sides, there is opportunity for the Australian government to pursue a more active and even-handed approach to the conflict. This would require thinking in more than short-term fixes.

No better example exists of political expediency trumping serious foreign policy than Scott Morrison’s announcement during the Wentworth by-election in October 2018 that the government would consider recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Clearly aimed at Wentworth’s Jewish voters, it did not work; the Liberal Party lost the seat for the first time ever, when independent Kerryn Phelps beat the Liberal candidate, and former ambassador to Israel, Dave Sharma. While the government regained Wentworth in the 2019 general election, it had by then produced a mishmash “policy” on Jerusalem that has done nothing to promote peace.  

The survey findings should also prompt reflection on Australia’s voting in the UN on resolutions involving Israel.

In 2016, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 2334 by 14 votes to 0, with the US abstaining. The resolution described Israeli settlements as a “flagrant violation of international law”. Speaking at a menorah-lighting ceremony at Sydney’s Central Synagogue, then Prime Minister Turnbull labelled the resolution “deeply unsettling”. Foreign Minister Julie Bishop earlier declared that if Australia had still been on the Security Council it would likely have voted against the resolution. What an empty and futile gesture that would have been. Such posturing would have been primarily aimed at a domestic audience.

Fast forward to December 2020 when the UN General Assembly adopted five resolutions dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Australia voted against all five. One of them, the “Peaceful settlement of the question of Palestine”, passed with 145 in favour, 7 against, and 9 abstentions. The opposers were Australia, Canada, Israel, the Marshall Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, Nauru and the US.

Barrister and former academic, James O’Neill described that curious assortment of countries as the “regular seven” who can be relied upon “to vote for Israel’s interests and against the overwhelming majority of the world’s countries”. O’Neill also commented that Australia’s voting pattern on “nearly all such occasions was unreported in the Australian mainstream media”.

That may help to explain the Crossroads21 finding that 57% of respondents knew “virtually nothing” about Australian policy towards Israel and Palestine.

Australia’s UN voting may not capture the headlines but it does play well with some parts of the Australian Jewish community. After the December 2020 votes, ZFA President Jeremy Leibler commended Prime Minister Morrison and Foreign Marise Payne for making clear that Australia’s votes were not “pro-Israel” or “pro-Palestine” but depended on “whether each resolution promotes or obstructs peace”.

Obstruction, of course, is in the eye of the beholder. One factor that clearly obstructs peace is Israeli settlement activity in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, widely condemned as both illegal and a major barrier to peace. There is clearly room for the government to be more forthright on this issue.

In December 2018, Prime Minister Morrison stated that, if need be, “Australia would openly rebuke a sincere friend”. Such “rebuke” invariably is of the feather-duster variety. In the first half of 2020, Australia was noticeably tardy in publicly criticising Prime Minister Netanyahu’s threatened annexation of slabs the West Bank. Only in July, after the debate had churned for months, did Foreign Minister Payne issue a feeble statement advising, “we are following with concern possible moves towards the unilateral annexation or change in status of territory on the West Bank”.

A small minority of the survey’s respondents (533 out of 3,459; some 15%) said they “knew something” or a “great deal” about Australian foreign policy in the region. Of these, 47% agreed with the proposition that “the Australian government was not critical enough of Israel”; 43% disagreed with a proposition that the “Australian government should do more to support Israel”.

Does that amount to a call for a sharper tongue in dealing with Israel? Quite possibly. But we should put these findings in the larger context of the majority of total respondents whose sympathies lay “equally with both” Palestinians and Israelis. There is no good reason why Australia cannot be a friend and critic of both sides.

One overdue policy outcome would involve combining support for Israel with a less obstructionist approach to Palestinian statehood. Foreign Minister Payne was quick to decry the ruling of the Pre-Trial Chamber of the International Criminal Court in February that it had jurisdiction in relation to the “Situation in Palestine”. Noting that Australia did not recognise a “State of Palestine” Payne expressed “deep concerns” about the ruling.

Yet the ICC stressed it “was not determining whether Palestine fulfilled the requirements of statehood … or prejudging the question of future borders; it was solely determining the scope of the Court’s territorial jurisdiction”. Anyone who believes that Israel has not committed actions in the occupied territories that warrant judicial investigation is blind to reality. Australia’s stance is both confused and hypocritical. 

The government’s criticism of recent ALP moves towards recognising Palestine as a state only reinforces the impression that the government supports the theory but not the practice of Palestinian statehood.

The Minister for Immigration, Alex Hawke, warned that Labor’s action would reduce the incentive for the Palestinian leadership to re-engage in peace talks with Israel – a comment straight from the Israeli government’s playbook. The Liberal member for Wentworth Dave Sharma, argued that Labor’s decision was “at odds with the region and contemporary reality”.

But the “reality” is that the longer Australia’s oft-proclaimed goal of two states is delayed, the greater the prospect of a one-state solution which dilutes either Israel’s Jewish character or its democracy. Is that really what the government wants?

The survey clearly suggests that it possible for the Morrison government, and those who come after it, to pursue policy goals of substance and not be electorally disadvantaged. Sadly, if the past is any guide, that message will likely be ignored.

First published in Plus61J Media

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