By George Browning
The timing of this major policy shift has clearly been influenced by the Wentworth byelection
While the timing of Scott Morrison’s announcement that he is considering moving the Australian embassy to Jerusalem was clearly influenced by the Wentworth byelection, it is in relation to wider international developments that it needs to be understood.
In March prime minister Netanyahu announced that Israel would retain control of “the area west of the Jordan” regardless of whether it concluded a peace agreement with the Palestinians. In August the Trump administration announced that it was cutting off all aid to the UN relief and works agency for Palestinian refugees. Apart from being what the New York Times described as a “vengeful and shortsighted act” that will deprive millions of stateless people access to vital education, healthcare and housing, this marks a radical reorientation of America’s attitude towards the Palestinians.
There are about five million Palestinian refugees, who are barred by Israel from returning to their ancestral homes. The Trump administration is pressuring the United Nations to change its definition of refugees to include only those Palestinians who were actually expelled from their homes, and to exclude their descendants.
For the Palestinians this represents an existential assault on their identity. If the civilian victims of ethnic cleansing can lose their status as refugees within only a single generation then the Palestinians’ connection to Palestine itself must also be considered conditional and transitory. For Netanyahu, this represents the ultimate triumph of Israeli diplomacy, validating the long-held Zionist claim that the Palestinians are nothing more than an agglomeration of itinerant Arabs who can be blamelessly uprooted.
It was as a part of this wider strategy that the Trump administration moved its embassy to Jerusalem in May.
In July the Group of 77 elected Palestine to its chair. Known in the UN as the G77, the organisation was founded in 1964 to represent the interests of the world’s developing nations. Since then its membership has expanded to 134 of the 193 UN member states.
At Tuesday’s press conference, Morrison announced that Australia would be opposing Wednesday’s UN resolution endorsing Palestine’s elevation to the chair of the G77 on the grounds that it “seeks to confer an official status on the Palestinian Authority it does not have”; but by moving the Australian embassy to Jerusalem, he is doing exactly what he accuses the G77 of doing by recognising the city as Israel’s capital.
For the past 50 years, the international community has understood a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem is indispensable to Palestinian statehood. It has been united in refusing to recognise Israel’s claim to the city. When the United States shattered that consensus, even its closest allies were unanimous in declaring that they did not endorse the move. When, in June, the Liberal party’s federal council voted to follow Trump’s lead, Julie Bishop was quick to declare that Australia would not be doing so.
Today Bishop is on the backbench. Malcolm Turnbull, who, like Bishop, is a staunch supporter of Israel but who also opposed moving Australia’s embassy, is leaving parliament. So far, only the US and Guatemala have relocated their embassies. For Australia to follow suit would be a diplomatic coup for Israel, underscoring Netanyahu’s claim that there is no need to make any concessions to the Palestinians, who will ultimately be forced to accept a victor’s peace on Israel’s terms.
Because the corruption of morals always begins with the corruption of the intellect, a new form of what George Orwell called “political language” must be called forth to accommodate this “peace”. Since March, 111 unarmed Palestinians have been shot dead and more than 12,000 injured in Gaza for demonstrating for their right of return.
In Israel this is called “self-defence”. When Palestinians protest their oppression on social media, they are jailed for “incitement”. Last month, Israel’s supreme court approved the demolition of the Palestinian village Khan al-Ahmar to make room for Jewish settlement. This is called “encouraging voluntary transfer”. When activists around the world organise boycotts of Israeli institutions associated with such violence they are labelled “anti-Semitic”.
Obviously, the Australian government is no stranger to political language. On Monday its senators rallied around Pauline Hanson to deplore the “rise in anti-white racism”. Even so Tuesday’s announcement marks a profound shift in foreign policy orientation.
In his farewell address of 1796, George Washington cautioned his countrymen against passionate attachments to other nations on the grounds that such partiality leads to concessions that are ‘‘apt doubly to injure the nation making the concessions; by unnecessarily parting with what ought to have been retained, and by exciting jealousy, ill-will, and a disposition to retaliate, in the parties from whom equal privileges are withheld’’.
While the government’s frankly anti-Palestinian partisanship may well appeal to sections of Wentworth’s Jewish community and help it reconnect with its alt-right “base”, it reflects neither Australia’s national values nor our national interests, which have always been 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