By Ross Burns
Any party that endorses a two-state solution as the way out of the Israel-Palestine conflict would need to accept that settlements gobble up much of the outcome before the negotiations begin.
Moreover, resettling one population group at the expense of another is clearly not only not right, it’s not legal. Rubenstein claims two notable juridical figures have advanced the case that settlements are legal – US and Australian jurists (Schweble and Stone) – and argues that the Australian government is ignoring such weighty opinions.
If only it were so simple. Both jurists were referring to the situation some decades ago, long before Israel moved 400,000 settlers on to the West Bank and East Jerusalem and well before it signed the 1993 Oslo accords that began the process of seeking a way back to the pre-1967 division of territory. Both were offering personal views, not opinions weighed through a judicial process.
No other credible juridical body outside Israel has echoed such views and the illegality of settlements under international law is stated policy of numerous governments that share Australia’s attachment to the rule of law. The position was restated by Foreign Minister Bob Carr on December 1 and is also regularly made clear by US and EU (including British) representatives. It is also the basis of the International Court of Justice’s ruling in 2004 declaring illegal the erection of Israel’s wall physically annexing large parts of occupied Palestine.
In my time in Israel, the embassy was scrupulous in observing Australian policy on this question by avoiding any steps that could be taken as recognition of Israeli sovereignty in occupied territory.
In his interview with Kelly, Abbott tried to draw a distinction between Coalition and Labor policy on Israel and refused to criticise settlements. In my experience (including as ambassador under a Coalition government), there is no difference in the underlying policies, no matter how much parties might play down Israel’s “occasional mistakes” as elections draw near. This under-the-radar unanimity may be at risk, however, if Abbott pursues his theme that “international recognition of a Palestinian state should not be advanced until the Palestinians had endorsed Israel’s right to exist behind secure borders as part of a two-state solution”.
This is simply a plea for the Palestinians to renounce their negotiating rights (and commit to whatever borders Israel may subsequently define) before a negotiation process begins. It ignores the reality that in the 1993 accords, the Palestinian side accepted Israel’s existence. What the Palestinians would like is for Israel to accept that it cannot aspire to ever-flexible borders.
Abbott twice last week replayed the familiar refrain that Israel is a “bastion of Western democracy”, the only “mature pluralist democracy” in the Middle East – an Israeli talking point that is wearing thin after elections in several of Israel’s neighbours. The 20 per cent of the population of Israel who are not Jewish might also wonder at Abbott’s definition of “pluralist” given the difficulties they face in accessing many basic benefits of citizenship. And how many other mature, pluralist democracies occupy other people’s territories for 45 years or blockade their civilian populations?
In 20 years, Israel (if it is still occupying or blockading Palestine) will be a lot more mature but it may no longer be democratic when more than half the population under its control (including the growing Arab element) are denied the rights given to Jewish citizens. No party in power in Australia is doing Israel any favours by failing to support a settlement based on international law. Without that commitment, a two-state solution is fiction.
The abstention vote last month was a small gesture, signalling that Palestine’s more active role in the UN can only benefit the chances of peace – though a “yes” vote would have been more consistent with the principles Australia has professed to follow since Israel’s creation by the UN in 1948.
Ross Burns was ambassador in Israel from 2001 to 2003 and is on the executive of the Australian Palestine Advocacy Network