Labor, Palestinian statehood and the UN General Assembly

Sep 16, 2022
View from the Mount of Olives on the dome of the rock and ancient cemetery through the barbed wire, as a symbol of Palestine Israeli conflict
Image: iStock

With the ALP platform now formally supporting Palestinian statehood the Albanese government soon faces a tricky question. When the UN General Assembly convenes in mid-September (UNGA 77) will Australia put its vote(s) on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict where its declared policy is?

The usual raft of resolutions covering Palestinian self-determination, Palestinian refugees, financial assistance, Israeli settlements and Jerusalem will come before the General Assembly before the end of the year. There will be a pro forma flavour to much of the debate and the inevitable passage of the resolutions will make little real difference to anyone or anything. But the level of Australia’s support for Palestinian statehood may well create heartburn within Labor.

Superficially, it is quite straightforward. In 2021 the ALP national conference endorsed a position that the party:

  • Supports the recognition and right of Israel and Palestine to exist as two states within secure and recognised borders
  • Calls on the next Labor Government to recognise Palestine as a state; and
  • Expects that this issue will be an important priority for the next Labor Government.

That exact same wording was first agreed by Labor’s national conference in 2018 but only as a resolution. In 2021 it was incorporated into the policy platform which the ALP took to the May 2022 federal election. Former Labor Foreign Minister, Bob Carr, tweeted at the time, “Same wording as 2018 conference resolution but now enshrined in party platform. A rebuke to Israel’s chauvinist government and the settlers seizing Palestinian land – totally illegal under international law.”

Some ardent Labor supporters of Israel cried foul. Michael Forshaw, a NSW ALP senator for 17 years until 2011, wrote in April 2021: “When it was discovered that it was no longer just a resolution but would be included in the platform many, including Michael Danby, sought to have the status quo restored. This was rejected by the relevant shadow ministers. We were told it was too late.” Forshaw warned that a Labor government would come under “increasing and sustained pressure to immediately recognise a Palestinian state irrespective of the situation on the ground”.

An indication of a possible shift in Australia’s approach followed in June this year. Then, the Albanese Government refused to support a US-initiated statement sharply critical of a UN Human Rights Council inquiry into human rights abuses in the occupied Palestinian territories. Set up in May 2021 following an escalation of Israeli-Palestinian violence, the inquiry had just released an interim report. It stated that the “continued occupation by Israel of Palestinian territory and discrimination against Palestinians are the key root causes of the recurrent tensions, instability and protraction of conflict in the region”.

The US-led statement expressed deep concern about the open-ended nature of the inquiry and the “disproportionate attention given to Israel”. Its signatories included Brazil, Canada, Germany the UK and the US, and a raft of smaller nations such as Eswatini, Marshall Islands, Palau and Togo.

The former foreign minister Gareth Evans applauded Australia’s refusal to sign the statement. It was, he said, “an excellent start for the new government to give a very clear message that it’s going to adopt a decent, principled and balanced approach to Middle East issues, which is long overdue”. The Australian newspaper took a very different view, deriding the Albanese government for “turning its back on three of our Five Eyes partners”.

Yet close examination of the voting records for last year’s UN General Assembly makes clear that differences between the Five Eyes countries (Australia, Canada, New Zealand, UK and the US) and also the AUKUS partners over Israeli-Palestinian resolutions are very much the norm.

In December 2021, a Covid-disrupted General Assembly adopted ten resolutions on Israel and Palestine. One, dealing with assistance to the Palestinian people, was adopted without a vote. Of the remaining nine resolutions Australia, under the Morrison Government, supported one, opposed three and abstained on five. One of the abstentions involved Resolution 76/126, “The right of the Palestinian people to self-determination”. This was supported by New Zealand and the UK but opposed by the US.

The Five Eyes countries did not vote the same way on a single resolution. Even the three AUKUS partners voted the same way only once, opposing a resolution on Israeli practices affecting human rights in the occupied Palestinian territories.

What then can we expect from the Albanese Government during this year’s General Assembly consideration of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? The smart money should be on caution and the abstention button.

Foreign Minister Penny Wong has publicly noted that Israel’s friends can also be principled, with annexation and the expansion of settlements being issues “we consider to be inconsistent with a just peace and a two-state solution”. That’s hardly a rallying cry for Palestinian statehood and other senior Labor figures have talked it down. In April 2021, after support for Palestinian statehood was incorporated into the party platform, then Shadow Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus wrote that “contrary to some of the more alarmist headlines and commentary elsewhere, Labor has not committed to recognising a Palestinian state”.

Shortly after Labor’s electoral victory, the Head of the Palestinian Delegation to Australia, Dr Izzat Abdulhadi, told Plus 61J Media he was a “bit optimistic” there would be a different position towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but not necessarily a different position on recognition of the state. While not sure “they really want to recognise the state of Palestine, I don’t know how they will not implement the national conference resolution”.

But the government’s escape route is the very wording and sequencing of the party platform. Recognition of Palestine follows support for the two-state solution. No such solution is remotely likely. Bluntly put, there is and will be no Palestinian state for Australia to recognise.

Admittedly that has not stopped around 140 members of the United Nations recognising Palestine. That figure includes almost half the G20 and about one third of EU states. That is about symbolism, not reality. It is hard to argue that Palestine fully meets the four criteria which have long been accepted as the basis for international recognition. These are: a permanent population; a defined territory; a government; the capacity to conduct international relations. Critically, a clearly territorially defined and functioning Palestinian state would need Israel’s cooperation and support. There is no prospect of that happening.

Many of the countries that do not recognise Palestine as a state, such as the United StatesGermany, the United KingdomFranceJapan, and Canada, also support a two-state solution. That is virtuous and meaningless. They know as well as anyone that prospects for a two-state solution are nil. The US alone has the capacity to try to shift that but chooses not to. And niggles within the ALP over Palestinian statehood will not make one iota of difference to the reality on the ground.

First published in Plus 61J Media

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