No peace to keep: Israel, the ICJ and implications for Australian policy

Jan 11, 2024
Palestine and Israel crisis as a geopolitical conflict and war between the Palestinian and Israeli people and Middle East security concept and struggling finding a diplomatic agreement.

For the foreseeable future Israel will not commit itself to allowing Palestinian statehood. It will remain in occupation of Gaza and the West Bank. And so long as the occupation continues, there will be no peace to keep.

The carnage in Gaza and reactions to it have implications and risks for most countries. Australia is affected, whether it be in the form of increased transactional costs for international commerce as a result of the diversion of shipping from the Red Sea; or the global consequences of Trump winning in 2024, made all the more likely by disaffection within the United States among young and Arab voters for Biden’s response to the situation; or the rise of antisemitism and Islamophobia tearing at the fabric of multicultural societies.

These are important concerns, but they are not specific to Australia. Facing the likelihood of a continuing, mutually degrading cycle of violence between Israel and the Palestinians, Australia needs to address its consequences—for our interests, including in the multilateral sphere; and for the values we uphold.

Australia’s foreign policy interests in the present and prospective situation are primarily humanitarian. We should join calls for an immediate ceasefire. The moral and intellectual case for doing so is overwhelming.

In alignment with our values, we should contribute substantially to relief (mainly through UNRWA); and affirm our support for the observation of international law (because that serves our interests in a rules-based international order).

The two state solution is, once again, an idea ahead of its time, but Ministers have no choice but to express support for the concept.

Sometimes referred to, with some truth as well as wry humour, as the zombie solution, it is hopeful but hollow rhetoric. However calling for two states will remain, for all sides, the political language of least resistance.

Rhetoric aside, the key policy concern is to avoid becoming entrapped in the two state paradigm.

In particular, we need to avoid being drawn into commitments to supposedly interim peacekeeping arrangements, purportedly in support of building a two state solution, when no possibility of such a solution exists.

Beyond meeting those concerns, Gaza has consequences for our interests, and poses questions about the values we hold, which we cannot afford to ignore.

Others, especially the Europeans, and the United States, have more substantial direct interests at stake in managing and resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict than we do.

But we need to find a balance between, on one hand, our interests in institutionalizing, preserving and building the long-standing relationship with Washington; and, on the other hand, our less tangible, but also significant, interests in projecting, with confidence and consistency, the values important to a changing, ethnically diverse Australia.

We take pride in our multicultural identity. We promote respect and tolerance for religious, political and ethnic difference. But our interests, including our domestic cohesion, are not immune from the anger across the Arab and Muslim worlds over Gaza, at government and popular levels.

At a time when we would wish the emerging generation of Arab activists, and a younger generation of Australians, to respect the liberal values we believe build security between and within nations, western rhetoric about human rights has never had less resonance.

Defending the values, including international law, upon which the global order was developed in the last century with Australia’s active support, ultimately reflects sound strategic judgment on our part.

But it poses real challenges, political, moral and strategic, for policy makers.

US attempts to protect Israel, and the stance of a possible Trump Administration towards the United Nations and the pillars of the multilateral system in general, risk damage to the credibility and respect accorded to institutions whose role we value, both in principle as international citizens, and in practice.

Our response to the referral to the International Court of Justice of allegations of genocide by Israel—and the obligation of countries including Australia that are signatories to the Genocide Convention to uphold and give effect to the findings of the Court—is only one instance in which our values will be tested as a result of the present conflict.

There will be considerable focus on the views and role of the Australian jurist, Judge Hilary Charlesworth, when it begins consideration of the case this week.
Responses to the outcome in the ICJ, where states often refuse to accept its decisions, are unlikely to affect the reputation of the ICJ itself. But our response at government level will shape perceptions of our credibility as a positive and constructive contributor to multilateral organisations.

If we reject the Court’s findings, then without an even more intensive effort on our part to contribute ideas, coalition-building and wisdom to the work of key institutions, the result may be less focus on agenda items important to Australia.

This may include supporting the role of UN agencies and associated institutions in areas such as human rights, women, the environment, arms control, food security, and others in which Australia has usually played a positive and constructive part while defending its interests and values.

We may despair at its politics and disagree at times with US policies. But the United States will remain important for Australia as a force for good in the multilateral system. It is an indispensable contributor to the funding of UN agencies.

There will be times we will choose to side with Washington on key issues rather than see it walk away from arenas in which our influence is strongest. The multilateral system is sufficiently robust to absorb such occasional pressures. But Gaza makes those choices harder to justify.

Some awkward choices also lie ahead for Canberra in managing regional relationships, especially if Pacific countries continue to give Israel strong support amidst the carnage in Gaza while regional Muslim countries, notably Malaysia and Indonesia, remain critical of Israel’s performance.

Australian candidacies in international bodies will need to take account of reactions to developments and our policy positions concerning Gaza, especially in the African, UN and Commonwealth contexts.

As the conflict continues, therefore, we should endeavour to maintain consistency between the democratic values we uphold at home as intrinsic to our identity; and those we seek to defend abroad.

That may put us at odds, at times, with positions taken by allies, including the United States, as well as Israel. And the resources we apply to our diplomacy will need to be strengthened, especially in the multilateral arena, as we seek to maintain respect for our positions through adhering to our values, and through careful and respectful dialogue with friends as well as with those with whom we may disagree.

Share and Enjoy !

Subscribe to John Menadue's Newsletter
Subscribe to John Menadue's Newsletter


Thank you for subscribing!