By Robert Newton
The Foreign Minister can work towards a new beginning in the troubled Middle East, ROBERT NEWTON writes
Australia’s new Foreign Minister, Bob Carr, has an opportunity to do something both creative and principled in the Middle East, taking further his predecessor’s evident wish to advance the cause of peace in that troubled region.
As Premier of NSW, Carr was courageous enough to stand up to the bullying tactics of the Israel lobby in Australia when he awarded Palestinian academic and politician, Hanan Ashrawi, the Sydney Peace Prize in 2003. Some community and political leaders at the time, including the then Lord Mayor of Sydney, Lucy Turnbull, participated in a shameful smear campaign against Ashrawi. But to his credit Carr stood his ground.
Carr recently described Israeli settlements construction as ”unhelpful” and ”counter-productive”. He should have gone further to describe it for what it is – illegal and a clear obstacle to any resumption of negotiations for a just and lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Some straight talking about this issue might just make the Israeli leadership come to its senses over Palestine.
It won’t be news to Carr that today marks the third anniversary of US President Barack Obama’s speech in Cairo in which he sought to forge a ”new beginning” in his country’s relations with the Islamic world.
Obama referred to violent extremism, the Israel-Palestinian conflict, and the rights and responsibilities of nations on nuclear weapons as ”sources of tension” which, he argued, the United States and the Islamic world needed to ”confront together”. What he failed to do was to acknowledge that all three issues are profoundly interlinked.
Obama’s speech gave hope to many that relations between the West and Islam – particularly the Arab world – were about to undergo major change. Others remained sceptical that Obama’s ”new beginning” would ever see daylight.
In June 2009 memories of his predecessor George W. Bush’s damaging ideologically driven efforts to bring democracy to the Middle East, principally through his Iraq misadventure, remained strong. Obama’s speech was designed in part to dismantle Bush’s discredited legacy in the region.
The seeds of scepticism regarding a new beginning were actually sown by Obama as he spoke. He said he wanted to ”speak as clearly and as plainly” as he could. But that is just what he didn’t do.
On the Israel-Palestinian conflict Obama said that the US ”does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements”. Was he saying that Israeli settlements are illegal? It would seem so, although the reader is left wondering if Obama deliberately sought to avoid such clarity. And Carr is evidently not convinced he should be using that sort of language even today.
But having taken his audience so far, Obama then asserted that the US ”cannot impose peace”. This may be clear enough, but it’s not good enough from the leader of a country which provides annually a $3 billion subvention to Israel, most of which is devoted to financing its defence capability, which in turn supports Israel’s illegal occupation of the West Bank and blockade of Gaza.
Nor was Obama clear or plain on the matter of nuclear weapons. He said he understood ”those who protest that some countries have (nuclear) weapons and others do not”. That is as close as he got to conceding that Israel has a nuclear weapons arsenal of at least 200 warheads.
Israel sees strategic value in neither confirming nor denying the existence of a nuclear weapon capacity. But does Obama understand the moral and practical handicap he has in trying to deal with Iran’s apparent nuclear weapons ambition while refraining from acknowledging Israel’s nuclear weapons status?
Some observers continue to hope that, should he win re-election on November 6 this year for a second and final term as president, Obama will renew his efforts for peace in the Middle East. This will mean standing up to the usual threats and demands of the Israel lobby and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who is no dove when it comes to peace talks with the Palestinians. But Netanyahu’s recent midnight deal with Kadima means that he is no longer as dependent as he was on the extreme right fringes of Israeli politics. That may help Obama.
The environment in which the US seeks to prosecute its interests in West Asia – from Israel through to Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan – has changed significantly since 2009.
Osama bin Laden is dead and al-Qaeda’s potency degraded. The US is disengaging from Afghanistan. And popular uprisings throughout the Arab world have changed the political landscape in the region, although it is too early to discern whether this will be a plus for democracy or not.
As a result of the Arab Spring, Israel now finds itself in a less certain geo-political environment. This may induce its leaders to argue that now is not the time to make peace with the Palestinians. But it is now evident that, since the beginning of the Madrid peace process in 1991, Israel’s leaders have never seriously wanted negotiations to lead to an agreement.
Those countries which claim to have a special friendship with Israel, including the US and Australia, know that a peace agreement is well overdue.
They should make clear to Israel that the current impasse is unacceptable.
Australia should be pushing the Obama administration to take some muscular action, post-November 6, to bring about a resumption of negotiations leading rapidly to a just and lasting settlement. By pressing the United States on these issues, Carr can build a legacy as an Australian Foreign Minister who was prepared to work towards a genuine new beginning for the Middle East.
Robert Newton is vice- president of the Australia Palestine Advocacy Network.