RICHARD BUTLER. United States and Israel: Known By the Company We Keep.

May 23, 2018

In our voting with the US against a resolution of the UN Human Rights Commission to establish an independent enquiry into recent Israeli use of lethal force against Palestinian demonstrators, we have shown far and wide, our subservience to the US and, by extension, to the policies of Benyamin Netanyahu.

During the past twenty days, four related events occurred, sequentially: 

Benyamin Netanyahu staged a television show in which he claimed to have new information on an Iranian programme to build nuclear weapons. His claims were rejected by experts, but accepted, publicly, by Donald Trump. 

Trump announced US withdrawal from the Iran nuclear agreement, making a series of false claims about it, to justify his decision. Simultaneously, his national security advisor, John Bolton, made clear that Trump’s decision was related to US’ relationship with Israel (see Pearls and Irritations, “True Lies”, 14th May 2018) 

The US Embassy in Jerusalem was opened, by Ivanka Trump: in Trump-speak it could have been called a “fake opening”, as what occurred was a re-badging of the US Consulate in Jerusalem. The whole Embassy won’t move from Tel Aviv for a considerable time. But, the US recognized Jerusalem as the Capital of Israel and its Embassy was, in formal terms, established there. 

35,000 Palestinian citizens of Gaza protested at the fence between Gaza and Israel, about the opening of the Embassy and the unilateral declaration that Jerusalem is solely the Capital of Israel. They were resisted by Israeli troops on the Israel side of the barrier, including by the use of live ammunition. The Israeli newspaper, Haaretz, reported that 58 Palestinians were killed and some 2,400 injured, some seriously. 

All of these events were, virtually universally: declared to have contravened international law; held the prospect of deepening animosity and conflict in the Middle East, including through the proliferation of nuclear weapons; would destroy what might have been left of the Middle East peace process; to mention only the main international consequences, let alone the dreadful, almost terminal conditions, now suffered by the people of Gaza. These conditions are maintained by Israel, which has blockaded Gaza for the past 11 years. 

At the Security Council, US Ambassador Nikki Haley splendidly deployed the hallowed methodology I came to think of, at UN Headquarters, as reverse hyperbole. 

She claimed that the events at the Israel/Gaza border were: entirely the fault of the Palestinians and Hamas; had nothing to do with the establishment of the Embassy in Jerusalem; any other State would do at least what the Israelis did in response to such an attack, indeed, she said, the Israelis had shown restraint. 

She then walked out of the meeting when the representative of Palestine was about to speak and blocked any statement by the Council on the events. 

UN action then moved to Geneva, to an emergency session of the Human Rights Council to which Australia had been elected, late last year following a vigorous electoral campaign; an outcome, which Julie Bishop stuck as a feather into her cap. In our campaign for election, we had posed as a valiant defender of human rights. 

In opening the session, UN Human Rights Commissioner, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, described the 1.9 million people of Gaza as: being “penned behind fences”; facing significant deterioration of essential living conditions, including sewerage services and, water supply These circumstances demanded urgent attention. 

On what had just occurred at the border a draft resolution of the Council had been circulated by Pakistan, on behalf of the Islamic Conference. It called for the immediate establishment of an independent Commission of Enquiry into events beginning March 30th involving conflict between Israel and Palestinians in both Gaza and the illegal Israeli settlements on Palestinian land. 

The resolution was voted upon with the result: 29 in favour; 2 against;14 abstentions. The 2 negative votes were the US and Australia. The enquiry, including into the possible commission of war crimes, will proceed. 

An analysis of the vote shows that all of the countries with which we might be reasonably compared either voted in favour or abstained, the latter being particularly relevant; Germany, Japan, UK. Clearly, the stand-outs were the 2 negative votes. 

The resolution is typical of such UN documents: maybe a bit long, laborious, contains too many words and that in a situation where each word can invite dispute. But, it does deal, elementally with facts; facts which demand conscientious attention, if the UN is to do its unique job. 

There’s the rub. The Trump and Netanyahu Administrations do not want that job to be done. Trump has zero intrinsic interest in the UN and both he and Netanyahu have criticized it as dangerous and useless.

Trump sees his relations with Netanyahu and Israel exclusively through the lens of his “base” within the US; in this case Evangelicals and Jewish supporters of Israel. 

The former have made clear that from their reading of the Bible they have derived a whole history of time; including of the “end days” of which Jerusalem is at the centre. Their attachment to Jerusalem and to the very notion of Israel as the Holy Land, is no less fervent than that of the most religious Jews. These Evangelicals were strongly represented at the opening of the new Embassy. 

In referring, above, to “Jewish supporters of Israel”, I was making the point that there is not a perfect identity in the US between being Jewish and supporting the policies of the government of Israel. Indeed, there is evidence that the number of Jews who feel discomfort with those policies is growing. 

Trump and Netanyahu pursue deeply divisive policies, many of which contravene international law and standards. They do this for reasons of their own domestic politics. The question of why we have so closely aligned ourselves with them, and how it serves Australia’s interests and values needs to be answered. 

On why we do this, the answer is clear. Both sides of our politics have reckoned that our alliance with the US, in political terms, is unipolar. That is, it must be supported, without qualification, as the bedrock of our national security. Accordingly, should your political opponents be able to land the punch claiming that your election will fracture that bedrock, then you can be sure that you will lose the election? 

Two things are truly interesting about this: is it true, do public opinion surveys bear this out, qualitatively; and, does the fact that the US now has an unfit leader and dysfunctional Administration make no difference? 

On Israel, both sides of our politics have also reckoned for some time, that while relatively small, the Jewish vote in Australia can determine the electoral outcome in a handful of seats and that, unlike the situation in the US with its vastly larger Jewish population, there is a fairly complete identity between being Jewish in Australia and supporting Israel in all things. 

By our vote on 18th May in the UN Human Rights Commission we signalled to the whole international community, yet again, but with new clarity, our subservience to the US wishes. This latest vote has been a particularly disturbing decision because of the egregious nature of the human rights violations that are being committed and increasingly so, against the Palestinian people. 

To state, as our government has, that it took its decision on the vote because the resolution had faults, was to dismiss its central purpose of determining the extent of human rights violations that have taken place and continue to occur. Our stance was at best monstrously cynical, and more likely a plain lie. 

It would hardly have been brave, but there would have been a tad more integrity in abstaining, with an explanation of vote supporting the underlying intent of the resolution. 

But surely that’s it. The Turnbull/Bishop Government does not support action by the UN, no matter what crimes it addresses, if the US and now Israel is opposed to it. And, we have done this irrespective of the demonstrably corrupt nature of both Administrations. 

It is true in good measure that each of us is known by the company we keep. We should not keep such close company with leaders who are capable of trashing the principles on which their own countries were founded.  

Richard Butler AC former Ambassador to the United Nations, New York.

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