Questioned the impact of peace agreements between Israel and various Middle Eastern states on security and stability in the region.
The question is: what’s the department’s assessment of the impact of these normalisation-of-relations agreements on regional security and stability?
Whole interaction with Dr Angela Macdonald (First Assistant Secretary, Global Counter-Terrorism, Middle East and Africa Division, DFAT) during Senate Estimates (Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Legislation Committee, Foreign Affairs and Trade Portfolio).
Senator KITCHING: Just on Senator Abetz’s questions around the normalisation of relations and agreements, Lebanon has just had a second round of talks with Israel, pertaining particularly to maritime borders. Could I ask the department’s view on that—and I think it’s relevant to a lot of Australians who have Lebanese origins or certainly family in Lebanon?
Dr Macdonald : In relation to those particular talks about the maritime boundaries?
Senator KITCHING: I’m interested in the maritime boundaries but I’m also interested in the department’s view on any stumbling blocks—a peace treaty, or a cessation of hostilities in the first place and then a normalisation of relations?
Dr Macdonald : I think Lebanon is facing so many internal challenges plus its political make-up that the prospect of some broader agreement with Israel is very unlikely, although one can hope and encourage, of course. Those particular talks about the maritime boundaries are on a very specific issue, not broader talks, and are very much brokered by the US. It is welcomed, of course, that those two countries are having those talks and negotiations, but I don’t think that that is a harbinger of a future normalised relationship at this point. But, in terms of Lebanon’s situation itself, did you—
Senator KITCHING: Yes, I note that President Aoun’s daughter came out—I think I read it in L’Orient-Le Jour—to say that she wouldn’t mind some type of peace arrangement with Israel and that Benny Gantz has said that obviously Hezbollah is a problem for Israel but they don’t mind it either. So I was sort of hoping that, between the Maronites and the Israelis, there was maybe a way through. Obviously, as to Iran, just because of Hezbollah and with the other arrangements, normalisation of relationships in the Middle East could lead to more pressure being put on Iran as well. So—
Dr Macdonald : I still stand by my previous view that it’s very unlikely at this point that we could see any pathway to normalisation between Lebanon and Israel. The challenges that Lebanon faces—the COVID-19 challenge, exacerbated by the 4 August explosion, coming on top of very protracted economic and political challenges—mean that they’re very focused internally, and, as you would be aware, don’t have a caretaker government and have already been through a couple of attempts at even putting a Prime Minister in place. So I think addressing those challenges would absolutely have to take priority.
Senator KITCHING: I think there are some benefits for Australians with the UAE-Israel agreement, given that that will open up flight routes into Dubai and then into Ben Gurion Airport. What are the other benefits the department sees to that agreement for Australians?
Dr Macdonald : I think it’s very early days as to what, practically, might come of it—for example, in terms of potential trilateral trade or investment opportunities or chances to leverage the tech and innovation relationships we have with Israel elsewhere in the region, although of course that’s something that our posts and Austrade are already thinking about and looking at. So there are some future opportunities, perhaps. As you say, even in terms of over-flight and travel, that’s very nascent between them, as to how that will actually work, but again, I think really the greatest benefit is the change in the geopolitical circumstances in the Middle East and what it means for that.
Senator KITCHING: Senator Rice has covered quite a lot of this, so I don’t want to traverse ground that you’ve already covered, but, just in relation to the annexation and certainly the suspension of the annexation, if that has happened, because of the UAE deal, primarily, what does that do to the regional security and stability, given both President Abbas and Hamas are not happy about the arrangement, and I think President Abbas called for a meeting of the council—I can’t remember the name of it, but the Arab committees council—
CHAIR: And the question is?
Senator KITCHING: The question is: what’s the department’s assessment of the impact of these normalisation-of-relations agreements on regional security and stability? I’ll start with that.
Dr Macdonald : We’ve welcomed the agreements because of the more normalised relations, obviously—
Senator KITCHING: Yes.
Dr Macdonald : A confident Israel that is secure is to be welcomed.
Senator KITCHING: I agree. Prime Minister Netanyahu did suspend that sanction on the West Bank and the Jordan Valley, let’s say. If President Abbas and Hamas are unhappy with that suspended annexation—one of, really, the planks of that deal—how does that start to play in the Palestinian areas? Does that create any instability?
Dr Macdonald : Create instability?
Senator KITCHING: Create instability, because perhaps the Palestinian Authority and Hamas are not necessarily going to be very happy about this arrangement.
Dr Macdonald : We continue to watch and monitor those developments. COVID is a significant health problem in Israel at the moment and also in the territories, and there is a lot of attention focused on the health outcomes. In terms of the effect of the normalisation arrangements on the Palestinian polity, I would have to go back to the Australian government’s position; that is, we are a supporter of the two-state solution and we’d urge the Palestinians and the Israelis to enter into direct negotiations.
Senator KITCHING: I agree with that.