By George Browning
Apart from Israel, the only country to officially oppose the UN resolution on Israel’s settlement program has been Australia. Clearly, something is wrong.
Even the lead up to the recent historic vote on Israel’s settlement program was fraught with tension.
The day before, Egypt had withdrawn its sponsorship of UN Security Council Resolution 2334 under what its ambassador described as “intense pressure” from US president-elect Donald Trump.
When New Zealand joined with Malaysia, Senegal and Venezuela to take up the resolution, its foreign minister, Murray McCully, was warned by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that Israel would regard his support for the resolution as a “declaration of war”.
When McCully refused to back down, the Russian ambassador suddenly called for a postponement of the vote. On the previous day, Israel had acceded to a Russian request to absent itself from a vote regarding war crimes in Syria. In return, Netanyahu had persuaded Putin to delay the passage of the resolution.
Yet the Russian objection was rejected and the vote went ahead. Fourteen members of the Security Council, including Russia, voted in favour. The US abstained and withheld its veto.
When the resolution was adopted on December 23 the 15 ambassadors to the Security Council burst into unanimous applause. At the end of a year of bitter debate over issues ranging from the use of barrel bombs in Syria to China’s militarisation of the South China Sea, the UNSC had proved that it was still capable of bringing the great powers together in a consensus on issues of international security.
Substantively, the resolution was a simple one. Reaffirming the UN’s longstanding position that the establishment of Israeli settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories “constitutes a flagrant violation under international law”, it demanded that Israel “immediately and completely cease all settlement activities”.
To allay US concerns it was one-sided, it also condemned all acts of violence against civilians, including terror, provocation and incitement.
Israel’s reaction surprised even those accustomed to the Netanyahu government’s penchant for hyperbole. It equated the resolution to a ban on the French building in Paris. Netanyahu himself, without a hint of irony, denounced the Security Council for ganging up on Israel while doing “nothing to stop the slaughter of half a million people in Syria”.
However, the response of the international community was overwhelmingly positive.
Amnesty International, which described Israel’s settlement policy as “inherently discriminatory”, noted that the settlements gave rise to “grave human rights violations including destruction of homes, forced evictions, unlawful killings, arbitrary detentions and collective punishment”.
Human Rights Watch called upon the international community to stand firm in its condemnation of settlements.
Even Germany, Israel’s closest ally in the EU, welcomed the resolution and restated its opposition to Israeli settlements as an obstacle to peace.
In fact, apart from Israel, the only country to oppose the resolution has been Australia.
Speaking at a Chanukah ceremony at Sydney’s Central Synagogue, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull denounced the resolution as “one-sided” and “deeply unsettling to our community”. Without once mentioning settlements as the core issue of the resolution, he declared Australia “supports a two-state solution just as the government of Israel does”.
But the purpose of Israel’s settlement program is to destroy the territorial basis of a two-state solution by colonising the Occupied Territories with Jewish settlers.
Netanyahu has boasted that his government is “more committed to settlements than any in Israel’s history”.
As US Ambassador Samantha Power noted in her address to the Security Council: “One cannot simultaneously champion expanding Israeli settlements and champion a viable two-state solution that would end the conflict.”
In The New York Times, Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Thomas Friedman warned Israel’s settlements are not only endangering its existence as a Jewish and democratic state, but also empower Islamic extremists. For Iran and groups such as ISIS, he notes, Israel’s 50-year occupation of the Territories is an invaluable propaganda resource that enables them both to demonise the West and undermine the legitimacy of pro-Western Arab governments, which they represent as partners in the Palestinians’ displacement.
For the Prime Minister to ally Australia with Israel against our ANZUS partners and almost the whole of the international community raises troubling questions regarding his foreign policy priorities.
What Australian interests are being served in taking such an isolated position on an issue of such international sensitivity? Has Turnbull thought through the national security implications?
While such partisanship may win him the support of certain powerful domestic constituencies, it is no substitute for a realist foreign policy based upon an understanding that Australia’s interests are best served by upholding a regime of collective security grounded in a commitment to universal human rights and international law.
George Browning is the former Anglican bishop of Canberra and President of the Australia Palestine Advocacy Network