Staring into a void — of neither two states nor one

Apr 11, 2024
Relationship between Israel and Palestine. Media 3D illustration

I support recognition of a Palestinian state, in the UN context, as an affirmation that our values apply in our approach to dealings between states as well as within states.

It should be a lower order of priority for Australia than seeking an immediate and durable end to the conflict in Gaza, and the return of hostages, and the defence of UNRWA and the role of the UN more generally in providing humanitarian relief to people who are literally starving as we debate the merits of various strategies. But it has its own merit in principle.

It also assists in the promotion of tangible Australian interests as we campaign for candidacies and influence in the wider multilateral context, including for the Security Council.

On the more general question of Australia’s approach, it is fair to say that for over a century Palestinians have been regarded by Israelis and far too many westerners as an inconvenience to be ignored, dismissed or intimidated.

The Palestinian leadership, all too often inept in its reading of its strategic position, its resort to violence and inability to combat the power of the mythologies surrounding Israel, also missed opportunities to secure peace on terms that might have satisfied at least some of their aspirations.

It also failed to insist upon terms—such as a US-enforced prohibition on settlement expansion—that might have protected its own credibility among its Palestinian audience.

But the approach upon which Israel has been able to rely for decades is now demonstrably unworkable. The key actors, and the parameters of the conflict, have changed, forever.

We probably remain generations away from achieving willingness, among fearful Israelis and radicalised Palestinians, to think about consequences of their existing trajectories. But their future depends upon finding, within their respective societies, the determination to move beyond hatred, apathy and righteous victimhood, and to bring about the political will, and discipline, to achieve durable change.

Unfortunately, such an accommodation doesn’t descend from the clouds. It requires advanced leadership, discipline and political organisation. Until that happens, there will be no peace to keep, because change cannot be achieved in a political vacuum, no matter how much outsiders may urge and wish for it to happen.

In the meantime, we need to focus on protecting our interests and values in the void —of neither two states nor one state—into which Israelis and Palestinians are staring, now and probably for decades and generations to come.

At our best, Australia takes 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 world over Gaza. At government and popular levels, the strength of our commitment to those values is rightly being questioned.

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.

We have been willing to sacrifice our significant interests in projecting, with confidence and consistency, the values important to a changing, ethnically diverse Australia.

Where Israel is concerned, our willingness to act to defend the vulnerable is overshadowed by our flexible, and, at the political level, craven, interpretation of a right to self-defence.

Whatever the future holds for Israel and the Palestinians, Australia 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.

In the 21st century, we have struggled to empower, equally, all elements of Australian society. We should not privilege the rights of one ethno-religious group over another, in Israel or anywhere else. 

The Two State Solution will remain the political language of least resistance in most quarters. It is logical. It offers a sense of hope. Arab governments will continue to promote it. As Penny Wong did last night, Ministers will continue to use it, preaching platitudes to the choir. No-one likes to hear from pessimists.

But it is the zombie solution, rising from the grave. It staggers around creating fear and excitement for a while, and then, exhausted by negativity, loses its momentum.

The challenge for policy advisers is to avoid thinking that is constrained by a paradigm that is without any prospect of success. As David Shipler wrote four decades ago, peace will not be found between Arabs and Jews, in victories or treaties. If it can be found at all, it will be found when Palestinians and Israelis can look into each other’s eyes.

The critical factor for such a re-humanisation of the contest is the creation of sufficient domestic will, on both sides, to persevere and accommodate interests, fears and aspirations for the sake of a future generation.

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