RICHARD BUTLER. Julie and Julia in the Promised Land

Jan 3, 2017

Australia’s position on Israel’s policy of building settlements in occupied Palestinian land is contrary to that of a clear majority of countries. It is driven by domestic political calculations, by both sides of Australian politics. Foreign Minister Bishop’s unnecessary public reiteration of this position not only addresses a favoured domestic constituency, but seeks to reassure the Trump camp of our fealty.  

Foreign Minister Bishop has announced that, had Australia been a member of the UN Security Council last week, she would have voted against the resolution demanding that Israel terminate and reverse its policy of building settlements on land which belongs to Palestine.

Had this fantasy been realized and Australia was in the Council seat currently held by New Zealand, the vote in the 15 seat Council, whose decisions are binding on all UN Member States, would have been: 13 yes, 1 no (Australia) and, 1 abstain, (US). The real vote was: 14-0-1(US)


Bishop has explained that this would have been her position, in spite of the fact that the US, our ally and the great protector of Israel, decided to abstain, withhold its veto, and thus allow the passage of the resolution. All members of the Council voted in favour of the resolution, including the other four Permanent members, who hold the power of veto. (SC/Res/2334).

The reasons for Bishop deciding to set out a voting position at the UN on a matter on which Australia does not in fact have a vote, are more interesting than her expressed position on the matter of substance.

On the latter, she stated that the draft resolution before the Council had not been “balanced” and would not assist in efforts to negotiate a solution to the Israel/Palestine problem. This is the diplomatic language typically deployed when opacity and masking of motivation is the goal.

Julie Bishop’s core concern with the Israel/Palestine issue, is identical to that of former PM Julia Gillard: to win the few seats in the Federal House of Representatives which they and their parties believe can be determined by a pro-Israel vote.

Bishop’s claimed attachment to the notion of “balance” on this issue borders on the insulting. There is total absence of balance in the increasing rejection and violation of Palestinian rights by Israel. Israel’s actions are designed to settle the issue of Palestinian rights by force, by the elimination of Palestinian land, and the creation of a Greater Israel. Bishop and Gillard’s position has been to support Israel, apparently no matter what actions it takes, in pursuit of its Greater Israel policy. Bishop could have also been speaking for Labor when, in her statement last week about the need for “balance” she claimed that the Coalition had “consistently not supported one-sided resolutions targeting Israel”.

The US decision to allow the Security Council to adopt Res. 2334, has had a number of important consequences.

First, Israeli PM Benyamin Netanyahu had political apoplexy; railing against Obama and Kerry, and telling the Security Council that he would ignore it and, indeed, authorize an increase in the building of settlements.

Secondly, Donald Trump tweeted to Netanyahu that help was on the way, beginning after his inauguration. His transition team then told the media that, as a consequence, President Trump would be ordering a root and branch negative review of the US’ overall relationship with the UN.

There is a serious need of perspective here, in addition to the excellent analysis given by Ramesh Thakur, December 30th, Pearls and Irritations).

Israel’s seizure of Palestinian land following the war in 1967 and its continual expansion into Palestinian land, through settlement building, is illegal. This fact is universally recognized, including by Australia. It is also widely recognized that restitution of Palestinian rights is basic to any peace settlement.

The US holds this position, but in the period since it began to exercise its veto power in the Security Council (March 1970), it has cast its veto 78 times, of which 41 times were votes on Middle East issues, mainly in defence of Israel.

Last week, the Israelis expected the US to protect it, once again. For reasons to do with Obama and Netanyahu’s relationship, inter alia Netanyahu’s interventions in the US domestic politics, the US stood aside.

Netanyahu’s claim that the US had thrown Israel under a bus was as hyperbolic as it was empty. For once, the US did not block the universal expression of condemnation of Israel’s settlement policies. Contrary to Israeli claims, this did nothing even remotely damaging to Israel’s right to exist.

In the present case, the withdrawal of an elementally illegitimate source of political immunity, the veto, is insignificant in comparison with the crime at issue: the occupation of Palestinian land.

In explaining the US vote, and its policy position, Secretary of State, John Kerry, pointed out, compellingly, that Israel’s polity is now in extreme right wing hands and that they must understand that they cannot pretend to be a democracy if they continue to build an apartheid style state with two classes of citizens: “separate but unequal”. He said that the US took this action in the belief that it might help keep alive the negotiation of a two state solution.

Resolution 2334 has been widely applauded, but where it will lead is not clear, perhaps especially given the multiple uncertainties that exist about the incoming US Administration.

There is no comparable lack of clarity, however, about where Australian policy has been and its reasons, as already touched upon.

In 2011, PM Gillard instructed Australia to vote against the admission of Palestine to UNESCO. The vote was 107-14 (Australia, US). IN 2012, She also instructed Australia to abstain on the vote in the UN General Assembly on the resolution to admit Palestine as a “non-member observer state”. It was admitted in a vote of: 107-14-52(Australia).

Julie and Julia, and many in their parties, believe they have seen the promised land, electorally, in their stance on the Israel/Palestine issue. That vision does not include justice for Palestine.

In announcing her putative vote in the Security Council, Foreign Minister Bishop has achieved two things: She’s sent the now customary signal to concerned groups in the electorate that they should not be alarmed by the words she uses about the need for a balanced approach to a solution to the Israel/Palestine issue. Australia will not depart from its de facto preference for and support of Israel.

And, she has indicated that her inclination towards the incoming Trump Administration is to accompany it in whatever choices it makes. Astonishingly, to signal this attitude, she seems to have chosen an issue on which the US’ policy of rigid support for Israel, no matter what, has been a source of abiding global concern.

As he departs, Obama has sought to address that concern and put some pressure on Trump and our Julie has pledged advance allegiance to Trump, whose main impulse will be simply to differentiate himself from Obama.

Those working on her review of Australian foreign policy, perhaps hoping it may become more independent, especially with respect to manifestly American obsessions, might wish to think about this.

They might also try to discover what has happened to Australian decency, principle, ethics; whatever might the opposite of narrowly defined self interest might be called; on for example, refugees, asylum seekers, nuclear arms control, the legality of our intervening militarily in other states, such as Iraq and Syria.

That’s a promised land worth searching for: An independent and principled Australian Foreign Policy.

Richard Butler AC was Australian Ambassador to the United Nations  

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