Rather than just welcoming Trump’s plan and keeping quiet, now is the time for Australia to speak up about the plan’s absurdities and contradictions.
It makes a mockery of key elements of Australian policy.
There is no way President Trump’s “vision” for Israeli-Palestinian peace can possibly resolve the conflict. Especially in a way consistent with long-standing Australian policy, that is, two viable states. Yet Foreign Minister Marise Payne dutifully put out the welcome mat, describing the vision as “a first step towards further discussions on the creation of a two-state solution”. She encouraged Palestinian representatives and Israel “to enter into good faith discussions on a peace process.
What exactly is there left to discuss? The vision might as well have been written in Netanyahu-central. It gives the embattled Israeli PM almost everything he could wish for: annexation of settlement blocs in the West Bank; permanent control of the Jordan Valley; a Palestinian entity so sliced, diced and otherwise enfeebled it makes a mockery of the notion of statehood. Netanyahu’s “compromise” was to have purportedly accepted the idea of Palestinian “state”. But it is a joke, as is the idea that there can possibly be a meaningful process of negotiation based on this proposal. The outcomes on all the critical issues have already been decided in Israel’s favour. Predictable Palestinian rejection of the vision simply provides even greater opportunity for US and Israeli opprobrium.
If Australia is a true friend of Israel and the US and genuinely interested in a viable resolution it should think hard about its policy response on central elements of the plan. It should ask a few pointed questions. How can an entity composed of six separate cantons completely encircled by Israel, linked by a dozen bridges and tunnels, with no control over its skies, borders or seas and subject to Israeli incursions at any time, be realistically called a state?
Why is it that to be granted even that “privilege” the Palestinians are required to meet standards of good governance virtually unknown elsewhere in the Middle East (and other parts of the world)? These include press and religious freedom, free and fair elections, legal processes, financial and investment regulation and meeting the criteria to join the International Monetary Fund. Is it reasonable that the US and Israel will be the sole judges of Palestinian good behaviour?
Then there is the question of settlements. The timing remains uncertain but Israel, inevitably, will annex the West Bank settlement blocs, the 15 “enclave” settlements entirely surrounded by Palestinian territory and the Jordan Valley. This would be done, according to Trump’s proposal, under the fig-leaf of “land swaps”, though the implication that this involves a reasonable two-way exchange is disingenuous. Haaretz recently reported comments by Dr Shaul Arieli, a colonel in the IDF reserve, that Israel was getting 30 per cent of the West Bank and giving up 14 per cent from “Israeli desert areas where almost nobody lives”.
Does Australia have a view of the impending annexation? Settlements have been one of the few issues on which the government has been prepared to express differences with Israel. In his December 2018 speech announcing Australian recognition of West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, Prime Minister Scott Morrison noted the government’s “strong concern over Israel’s land appropriations, demolitions and settlement activity”. Settlements undermined peace and, if need be, “Australia would openly rebuke a sincere friend”.
Will that happen when Israel annexes the settlement blocs? Israel will argue that such unilateral action is the consequence of Palestinian rejection of the Trump vision. But the vision is a set-up. Australia should have the courage to deplore any annexation, anywhere, anytime.
In his December 2018 speech the prime minister also repeated his government’s commitment to a two-state solution, noting that it had “resolved to acknowledge the aspirations of the Palestinian people for a future state with its capital in East Jerusalem”. The Trump vision endorses Israel’s claim to Jerusalem as its undivided capital while offering a farcical nod to Palestinian aspirations. It locates the future Palestinian capital in the Abu Dis area on the eastern outskirts of the city and beyond Jerusalem’s municipal boundaries. Adding insult to injury, it suggests that the Palestinians might rename the area Al Quds (the Holy One), the Arabic description of Jerusalem used to acknowledge its important religious sites.
Not one of these sites is located in Abu Dis. By that grubby standard we might as well rename slum areas around the globe “the Vatican”.
The former US ambassador to Israel, Martin Indyk, has noted that Trump’s vision puts “almost all of East Jerusalem’s Arab suburbs under Israeli sovereignty, leaving to the Palestinians one Arab suburb and a refugee camp on the eastern side of the wall that Israel abandoned during the second intifada. On that sliver of East Jerusalem, the Palestinians are now told they can build their capital, severed by the wall from both the al Aqsa mosque and the 300,000 Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem.”
Is that where Australia should seriously consider opening its embassy to Palestine?
In predictably fulsome praise of his plan, Trump told Netanyahu, “You are going to have tremendous support from your neighbours and beyond your neighbours”. Among those 20-odd countries who welcomed, appreciated or even commended the US effort were half a dozen Arab states, though in the case of the two with peace treaties with Israel, Egypt and Jordan, it was tepidly worded. Will the vision be a game changer?
Perhaps yes, but not in the way that Australia and many other states have long envisaged. It does not involve a peace process. It does not lay out a framework for negotiations because the progenitors of the vision have already decided what the end point will be. Netanyahu will take comfort from the fact that the vision enjoys strong support within Israel and that his main political rivals have little option but back it.
Not every Israeli is a fan, with Hagit Ofran, the head of Peace Now, recently tweeting “if it looks like apartheid, walks like apartheid and quacks like apartheid, you’ve probably seen Trump’s peace plan”. Netanyahu will lose little sleep over that.
Palestinian rejection of the vision is a gift for Netanyahu, giving him the excuse to do as he likes, especially annexation of West Bank territory. The Palestinians can’t wish the vision out of existence. Rather than sitting on their hands and once again playing the victim they might declare a preparedness to negotiate, just not on the basis of this diktat. Martin Indyk has suggested, for example, that the Palestinian leadership should bypass the Trump plan and declare its willingness to enter direct negotiations with a new Israeli government on the basis of previously agreed UN Security Council resolutions which provide for a two-state solution and a trade of territory for peace. Palestinian leaders could also invoke the Arab League Initiative, which would have Arab states normalise relations with Israel once a deal is done.
There are plenty of good reasons why Australia should make clear to Israel, the US and the Palestinians that it has serious reservations about important elements of Trump’s vision. It is not a plan for peace, it is a plan for permanent Israeli control over Palestinian life and livelihood. It is, in fact, a plan for an authoritarian one-state solution, the very antithesis of Australia’s stated policy. Australia claims a close friendship with the US and Israel. Close friends need to tell each other home truths.
Peter Rodgers is a former Australian ambassador to Israel who has written two books on the Middle East, Herzl’s Nightmare – one land two peoples and Arabian Plights – the future Middle East
First published in Plus61J Media