JOHN TULLOH. What will Malcolm Turnbull and Julie Bishop say to Benjamin Netanyahu?

Feb 21, 2017

     It would be intriguing to know the position Malcolm Turnbull and Julie Bishop intend to adopt in talks when the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, visits Australia this week. It comes a week after Netanyahu had startling discussions with Donald Trump. The neophyte US leader on the Palestinian question did not seem too bothered what happened as long as both sides could reach ‘a deal’. Two-state, one-state, whatever! The two sides should work it out, he said, or perhaps get some of the friendlier Arab states involved, eh?  

Australia has been a staunch supporter of Israel and generally endorsed the US line when it comes to a peace settlement. Ever since the Clinton administration in the 90s, that has been the two-state proposal. Canberra’s line as recently as last week was, as reported by the Jerusalem Post, ‘The most important priority must be a resumption of direct negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians for a two-state solution as soon as possible’.

This is a vacuous statement when for two decades talks have gone nowhere and both sides long ago have made a point of ignoring their respective preconditions. For the Palestinians, the major one is the suspension of new Jewish settlements in the West Bank. But in the month since Trump’s inauguration no less than 6000 new homes have been approved with Netanyahu’s support and just a minor tut-tut from the Oval Office. For the Israelis, the Palestinians refuse even to consider the very idea of recognising their right to exist in order to achieve a solution nearly 50 years on since the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. Instead they prefer to demonise Israel.

Many were astonished at Trump’s crude suggestions. The Guardian’s Jerusalem correspondent observed that ‘Trump’s indifference to a one-state or two-state solution demonstrated a shocking lack of understanding of what a one-state would entail – not least for Israel as a Jewish democratic state’. Given the Palestinian birth rate, the Jews would find themselves outnumbered within a few years.

Daoud Kuttab, a leading Palestinian journalist and former professor of journalism at Princeton University, said that without the commitment of a two-state agreement  it ‘virtually means a permanent presence of Israeli troops within the entire Palestinian territory’. In a column for Al Jazeera, he wrote: ‘Netanyahu and Trump’s approach to the issue is pushing the region towards a more blatant and legalised form of apartheid in which the Palestinian majority in the occupied territories is stripped of their political rights while the Jewish settlers enjoy full political and national rights’.

New Israel Fund Australia, which describes itself as a loyal supporter of Israel and is dedicated to social justice there, has some advice for Netanyahu. It calls for bold leadership to adhere to the principles proclaimed in Israel’s Declaration of Independence in 1948. That is, ‘to be a country “based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel” which ensures “complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex”.’

Israel’s founders may have had second thoughts about that clause if they could have foreseen the expansion of territory and Arab population newly under their control in 1967 when threats from Arab neighbours precipitated the Six-Day War. But the last thing Netanyahu probably will want to discuss is anything to do with the West Bank. Like Turnbull, he is at the mercy of his right-wing government colleagues. His bête noire is Iran and appears to have convinced Washington it is theirs also (once more). But it is not ours. Iran is no threat to Australia. Canberra has strong trade links with Tehran with even better food export prospects following the easing of UN sanctions last year.

Malcolm Turnbull and Julie Bishop would be well advised to stay away from Middle East politics. Unlike playing our part in the Asian neighbourhood, Australia’s security has everything to lose by getting any further involved than we are already. But we have much to gain if we can learn from Israel’s flourishing and creative hi-tech sector and its clever ways of converting arid areas into productive food crops.

Despite Donald Trump’s campaign promise to make ‘the ultimate deal’, the very idea of an Israeli/Palestinian peace settlement is rapidly becoming a mirage and even that will fade altogether before too long.

FOOTNOTE. Netanyahu’s visit is the first-ever by an Israeli leader to Australia. Later this year is the centenary of the liberation of Jerusalem from the Ottomans after nearly 400 years of occupation. The British-led military liberators included Australian light horsemen, some of whom are buried in the Mount of Olives. Paul Daley in his book Beersheba quotes Henry Gullett, the official Australian war historian: ‘The world-wide dream of having a Jewish nation established once more in Palestine, which for nearly 2000 years sustained their scattered race, seemed already a reality; and in their joy they showered hospitality upon the staff officers billeted in their houses and upon the troops encamped on the surrounding hills’.

John Tulloh had a 40-year career in foreign news, including covering the Six-Day War.

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