By Robert Newton
Resolving tensions in this sensitive corner of the Middle East would make the world safer.
In September this year the Palestinian Authority will probably take its campaign to achieve international recognition of Palestinian statehood to the United Nations. Earlier this month Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas sent a special envoy to Australia, Ghassan Khatib, who urged Australia to support the initiative. After 20 years of negotiating with Israel to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and with it Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestinian land, and decades of human rights abuses suffered by the Palestinian people at the hands of the Israeli authorities, the Palestinians now plan to bring international pressure to bear on Israel by unilaterally seeking recognition of Palestinian statehood by the international community.
How Australia will respond to Abbas’s request for support will be closely watched by a number of constituencies. Some media reports have suggested that a rift already exists over this issue between Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd.
The Prime Minister, it is suggested, wants to oppose the Palestinian move, while the Foreign Minister reportedly wants to take a neutral position and abstain.
If these reports are correct, they show how out of touch the Prime Minister and the Foreign Minister are with public sentiment, not only in Australia but around the world, and how disconnected they are from the moral imperative for world leaders to work for an immediate end to the continuing dangerous and unsustainable impasse that currently exists between Israel and the Palestinians.
The case for Australia to declare its early and unwavering support for the Palestinian campaign is strong. Bilateral negotiations have failed to deliver any of the Palestinians’ objectives.
They have neither statehood, nor freedom from occupation. Israel and Israelis directly influence every facet of life for Palestinians in the West Bank and maintain a choking blockade of the Gaza strip, one of the most densely populated pockets of real estate on the globe.
It is time the injustice of Israel’s oppression of the Palestinian people was brought to an end.
It is time the international community pressed Israel to bring about a rapid conclusion to the conflict by stopping settlements construction in the West Bank, returning to the negotiating table and agreeing to a series of measures leading to the establishment of a viable sovereign Palestinian state.
Australia should no longer be looking to hide behind abstentions when voting at the UN on matters relating to peace in the Middle East. Nor should it be contemplating voting against resolutions designed to promote Palestinian statehood and a just outcome to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – an outcome which is long overdue.
That won’t be a good look for a country keen on staking its claim to a seat on the security council.
The conflict in the Middle East is one of the more intractable to have emerged since World War II. Yet a solution is still within grasp. Australia’s leaders have an opportunity to break from the past failed policies of turning a blind eye to destructive Israeli practices which have led nowhere, other than to compound the misery of successive generations of Palestinians. Within Australian society more and more people, including from Australia’s Jewish community, are coming to understand that continuing Israeli land grabs in the West Bank, and reliance on an ugly concrete security wall, will not bring peace or security for Israel. They will bring only grief. And the demographic numbers, whether a one-state or a two-state solution is envisaged, ultimately will not work in favour of a non-inclusive Jewish state.
One wonders why Israel’s leaders appear to have learned nothing from the collapse of the Berlin Wall and South Africa’s apartheid regime. There are plenty of civil society groups in Israel who understand the need for an agreement with the Palestinians – including on the status of Jerusalem and the right of return of Palestinian refugees displaced when Israel was created in 1948 – is not only possible but desirable and in Israel’s interests.
There is also growing recognition the conflict has served as a catalyst for global instability and terrorism. Bringing it to an end through the establishment of a just and lasting peace is in the interests of the international community.
We can expect no political risk taking from US President Barack Obama who is now gearing up to fight for his political future. But the international community cannot afford to let the conflict drift further. Rudd announced last June that Australia was now among the top 10 contributors to the Palestinian Authority and Australia was helping ”ready its institutions of statehood”. Australian policy for many years has supported the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel. How in these circumstances could Australia contemplate doing anything other than give its full support to the Palestinian initiative for statehood?
It is unfortunate that Gillard was not prepared to meet Khatib when he visited Australia in early August. A meeting between the two might have helped her understand the issues better and balance the one-sided accounts she keeps receiving from the pro-Israel lobby.
Australian Government sources say Australia will not make up its mind on the Palestinian initiative until it sees the text of the relevant resolution. What the Government should be saying is that it emphatically supports the initiative as a new and important factor in the quest for peace in the Middle East, but with that support comes a request that any resolution affirming Palestinian statehood should neither delegitimise Israel nor preclude the possibility of a new round of Palestinian-Israeli negotiations. The Palestinian Authority would be unlikely to do anything that would jeopardise support for the initiative, and would instinctively seek to comply with those two conditions.
By reserving its position the Australian Government gives little cause for optimism that it will do the right thing. The Prime Minister may find she is out of step with the growing mood of dissatisfaction among large sections of the voting public who expect Australia to play its part in urging both parties to end the conflict, and the Foreign Minister may find that the substantial assistance Australia is now giving to the Palestinian Authority will be worth little if Australia is not prepared to show leadership and moral courage.
- Robert Newton is vice-president of the Australia Palestine Advocacy Network.