Downer on Palestine: to the Manor Born

Sep 28, 2020

The powerful prey mercilessly on the vulnerable and the mainstream media let them get away with it.

Understanding of foreign policies can be affected by who tells the best stories, hence the US/Israel promotion of narratives that usually dramatise Israel’s virtues and demonise Palestinians.

The most recent controversy affecting a future for Palestinians concerns support for the US-crafted agreement between Israel, the UAE and Bahrain. In reaction to this deal, the former Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer, has chimed in with an opinion (Australian Financial Review of 21/9) in which he congratulates President Trump.

Peppered with false claims, Downer presents his AFR piece as though no one should doubt what he says, hence my perception that the lineage of the former minister is inseparable from what he construes as policy.

In political analysis it is seldom wise to comment on the traits of an individual, but I make an exception in the case of Downer. I do so because he has a habit of allowing style to dominate substance, to develop opinion via an apparent impatience with facts. It is a process that the American sociologist Erving Goffman described as a preoccupation with The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, which he subtitled ‘image management’.

Downer’s judgments emerge from his confidence in sources hidden somewhere in his trove of uncontested assumptions. Concerning the international status of Jerusalem, he ignores UN and diplomatic judgments and confidently declares, ‘Jerusalem is the capital of Israel.’ He bases this claim on President Trump’s May 2018 transfer of the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

Downer’s declaration about Jerusalem is followed by his offer of knowledge as a privileged insider, ‘Even the Australian government boldly considered moving its embassy to Jerusalem.’

With a pause for reflection he might have thought of the macabre events occurring at the time of the US Embassy opening. Against the rules of international law, against opposition from most UN members, a Dallas pastor Robert Jeffers gave the opening prayer, the same man who had once claimed that all religions other than Christianity lead to a separation from God. An American end-of-time preacher, John Hagel, gave the closing benediction, the same man who had once said that ‘Hitler was sent by God to drive the Jews to their ancestral homeland’.

US and Israeli dignitaries’ celebration of an illegality coincided with Israeli snipers being placed at the Gaza border to deter March of Return protesters within Gaza.

Kilometres away from drinks and toasts in Jerusalem, thousands of Gazans were shot, many maimed for life. By March 2019, the UN confirmed that 189 Gazans had been killed, including 35 children, clearly identifiable paramedics and journalists. While praising the Embassy extravaganza, Downer overlooks the grotesque events on the Gaza border.

Siding with bullies and blaming victims may derive from condescension to those considered as lesser mortals, people who should be told what to do, hence Downer’s reference to ‘a Palestinian population not willing to engage constructively in negotiations with Israel’.

To further disparage Palestinians, and to continue his version of reality, Downer perpetuates a myth that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat was to blame for the failure of the July 2000 Camp David peace talks. He announces that the Palestinian leader told President Clinton that he had no proposals. In consequence Downer gives his latest verdict, ‘So the talks collapsed.’

A more nuanced appraisal of events at Camp David comes from Israel’s former acting foreign minister Shlomo Ben-Ami who, unlike Downer, participated in the negotiations. In his 2007 analysis Scars of War, Wounds of Peace, Ben-Ami said, ‘If I were a Palestinian, I would have rejected Camp David as well.’

In his article Subordinating Palestinian rights to Israeli needs, Professor Norman Finkelstein says of the Camp David outcome, ‘All the concessions came from the Palestinian side, none from the Israeli side.’ Even the Israeli Human Rights organisation Gush Shalom concluded that what offers Israel did make were ‘a pretense of generosity for the benefit of the media’.

Nevertheless, and from on high, Downer repeats the lazy line that it was all the Palestinians’ fault.

As if humiliation of Palestinians is insufficient, he endorses the US arms deal with Bahrain. Never far from hyperbole, he describes the Trump bargain with the UAE and Bahrain as ‘an extraordinary feat’.

Unpalatable facts must not hinder his confidence. The alleged peace between Israel, the UAE and Bahrain is a business arrangement to sell arms to two brutal Middle East dictatorships. Together with their Saudi Arabian patron, these human rights abusing states have been partners in a vicious war against Yemenis, albeit as a way to oppose the influence of Iran.

Gaining kudos from being with winners seems to hinder the former foreign minister’s capacity for reflection. Instead, he resorts to a Lord of the Manor role and declares, ‘It is time the Palestinians came up with their own peace plan.’ There’s no reference to refugees, to the 14 years of Gaza siege, let alone to the Israel’s military, economic, diplomatic supremacy, or to its commercial success in selling arms and surveillance equipment to abusive regimes around the globe.

A question also needs to be raised about the responsibility of the Australian Financial Review. Are they bothered by a Downer style divorced from consideration of complexity and tragedy? Why does an article displaying indifference to the cruelties meted out by this Israeli/US/UAE/Bahrain alliance merit publication?

A privileged individual is apparently entitled to push an alternative fact narrative. Such conduct is a reminder of Seymour Hersh’s conclusions in his 2018 Memoir, that the powerful prey mercilessly on the vulnerable and the mainstream media let them get away with it.

Stuart Rees OAM is Professor Emeritus, University of Sydney, and recipient of the Jerusalem (al Quds) Peace Prize

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