Australia's UN vote on Palestine does a disservice to all sides, including Israelis | Bob Carr
Australia's UN vote on Palestine does a disservice to all sides, including Israelis
Australia’s voting record at the UN on Israeli-Palestinian issues has changed under the Abbott government. A true friend of Israel should be able to send a message about what Australians think
More Australians winced than applauded when they learned of their country’s very last vote at the end of its two year term on the security council. On 29 December Australia was one of only two nations to vote against a Jordanian draft resolution designed to hasten a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. Once again the conservative side of Australian politics was delivering what the pro-Israel lobby in Australia wanted, ignoring majority Australian opinion and the views of more liberal Jewish Australians. Ignoring as well, the national interests of Australia, the increasingly dire conditions of Palestinians and – a case easily made – the enduring interests of Israel itself.
That is, the long term security interests of Israel as opposed to the expectations of its current ethno-nationalist leadership. Australia was ignoring the prospect Israel will end up as a “Greater Israel” governing 5 million Arabs with inferior legal status to Israelis – and be isolated and condemned as a result.
It was a lousy way to wrap up a two year term on the security council, given the intense competition to win the seat.
The draft resolution tabled by Jordan was unexceptional in terms of 25 years of work on Israeli-Palestinian peace. It called for a settlement on pre-1967 lines. It declared East Jerusalem capital of the Palestinian state within three years. It called for security arrangements, thus meeting the long term western commitment to security guarantees for Israel. These would include a “third party presence”; that is, western peacekeepers. It thus captured the recent Palestinian concession that there should be western peacekeepers within the territory of their putative state. And Australia voted that down.
There were eight votes in favour of the resolution. Those of France, Luxembourg and Chile added enough western heft to give even a nervous Australia a level of comfort about voting yes. Five nations abstained, including the UK. Again, plenty of comfort if Australia had lodged its presence in the abstention column. But Australia under the Abbott government was unable to do what a conservative-led coalition government of the UK found routine – that is, break ranks with the US to make a point against the Israeli hardliners.
One can only imagine the despondency with which Australia’s accomplished UN ambassador, Gary Quinlan, read into the record a three-paragraph “explanation” of Australia’s position. The Australian foreign minister, Julie Bishop, normally eager to be in the news cycle, was completely silent. In a press release on 31 December proudly listing Australia’s achievements in its two years on the security council, this vote received no mention. Yet there could hardly be a more persistently nagging agenda item than Israeli-Palestinian peace.
The pro-Israel lobby lives in permanent nervous agitation. It frantically lobbies against any Australian government criticising settlements. It spends profligately on overseas trips for journalists and MPs. Sky newsroom reporters and one paper’s gossip columnist were recently recruited. Every MP elected at the 2013 election has been offered a trip. One member of the NSW upper house was off weeks after being elected. Yet the cause does not have majority support among Australians. A poll by Roy Morgan on 5 November, commissioned on behalf of the Australia Palestine Advocacy Network, recorded that 57% of Australians supported a yes vote to advance Palestine’s full UN membership. Remarkably only 8% believed Australia should vote against an independent Palestinian state. The public are way out in front of their political leadership.
Last year three state conferences of the Australian Labor party – New South Wales, Queensland and South Australia – voted to recognise Palestine. The motions were carried on the voices. That is, without a vote. Among those allowing the motions to become party policy were MPs, union officials and others who had been given, even in the previous few months, paid trips to Israel from the Israel lobby. One can imagine that some of the business people who donate to fund the trips are asking why those who return don’t even raise a protest on Israel’s behalf!
The majority within the federal parliamentary Labor party which would support a pro-Palestinian tilt is greater than it was in the last parliament, especially given the European move to unilateral recognition of Palestine.
The erosion of the pro-Israel instinct in Australia became evident when I was foreign minister. In November 2012 the Gillard government had to determine how Australia would vote on a general assembly draft resolution that elevated Palestinian status in the general assembly (still only a matter of non-state status). Some readers found the battle within the government to be the most entertaining narrative I shared in Diary of a Foreign Minister (published in April last year).
My position was that Australia should not block the Palestinian bid. I would have liked a yes vote but was resolved on getting us to abstain at the very least. In the diary I spelled out in full the stubborn opposition from former prime minister Julia Gillard, who had a member of her staff seemingly engaged full time in appeasing the Likud-aligned pro-Israel lobby.
It came to cabinet on 27 November. Minister after minister – people I hadn’t had time to lobby, whose views I wouldn’t have guessed – spoke up and favoured a yes vote or abstention. I wrote in my diary: “Moments like this – moments of clarity and outspokenness – make it possible to love the party”.
They had lost patience with Israel’s hardline leadership. Years of publicity about settlement expansion, the poor living conditions on the West Bank and in Gaza, and an apartheid legal system in the occupied territories, had corroded the instinctive social democratic sympathy for the Jewish state. Israel itself had changed. It was running a permanent occupation and undeniably undermining a two state solution. By the time the discussion wrapped up the prime minister’s position that Australia should vote no was looking very fragile. Only two colleagues had supported it.
The next day, at a full meeting of the federal parliamentary Labor party, Gillard faced defeat. A motion was to be moved by a backbencher committing us to abstain on the Palestinian bid and it was going to be carried, and carried by a decisive majority. In other words, so strongly did the parliamentary party feel, they would have voted against their own prime minister. She remodulated. She explained that after listening to all the arguments, she had changed her position. She now favoured an abstention. So a shift of opinion in the Labor government saw Australia reject voting down the Palestinian bid. We abstained, in respectable company: with Germany, the Netherlands, Singapore and the United Kingdom.
Overwhelmingly, public opinion – the editorials, commentaries and by all accounts the broader public – supported this decision. It was a signal defeat for the take-no-prisoners, win-at-all costs approach of the Likudniks who, for example, had been outraged at any suggestion Australia should ever criticise expansion of Israeli settlements and had used their influence with Gillard’s office to overrule me as foreign minister on the subject (again as recorded in Diary of a Foreign Minister, under the entry for 10 November 2012).
But the Abbott government, elected in September 2013, has proceeded to give the lobby everything. Australia’s position on the regular votes criticising Israel has been reversed. Australia no longer votes for general assembly motions criticising settlements or motions that note all settlements are illegal under international law. Even for the first half of the Howard government, between 1997 and 2002, Australia voted in favour of the argument that Israeli settlements were illegal.
There were 25,000 settlers in 1977, 10 years after the Six Day War. Now there are 500,000. No rusted-on friends of Israel can defend these ugly pre-fabricated suburbs and outposts crammed with fanatics who appear to despise Palestinians and paint “Death to Arabs” on churches and mosques – and whose violence against Palestinians is now routine.
Even the pro-Israel lobby struggles to defend a project that is making Palestinians strangers on their ancestral soil, settlements timed to blow up any American-sponsored peace talks, settlements that are gobbling up the land that for 25 years has been intended as a future Palestinian state subject to security guarantees for Israel and mutually agreed trade-offs about boundaries.
Our voting pattern conveys that Australians are happy to go along with Israeli behaviour deliberately – the word can no longer be avoided – designed to undermine the two-state solution that has been the mantra of all sides in the post-1967 battle for an Israel-Palestine peace. Israeli ministers came out in opposition to a two state solution (60% of the cabinet) and there is no message from Australia. Instead the voting pattern of Australia sends the message that Australia is completely relaxed about the degradation of Palestinian life. The treatment of Palestinian children and youths under Israeli military law alone would justify a symbolic vote to encourage the moderates battling Israelis’ now dominant chauvinism.
Wouldn’t a true friend of Israel feel an obligation to send a message about this? Let alone a friend of the Palestinians.
Of course, without a Palestinian state Israelis are left administering 5 million Arabs. The process of downgrading the citizenship of those in Israel has only been halted because elections have been called. Israeli novelist Amos Oz warns the country is in danger of becoming an “isolated ghetto”. Ministers of Binyamin Netanyahu’s government talk of annexation of the West Bank. The whole settlement process has been corrupted, according to the Israeli opposition, with millions in government funds supporting the settlements, run by people who vote for the rightwing in Likud primaries. Yet the country now values settlements more than international friends. Hence the European thrust to recognise Palestine.
Around Canberra it’s possible to encounter the argument – a pretty tinny, half-hearted one – that we can’t depart from our American friends on this (other US allies do, regularly – the UK, France, Germany). During the November 2012 debate in the Labor government there were hints of this in the arguments from our prime minister. She quoted the fact that Obama had agreed the vote on Palestinian status “will make no difference”. I took a different view.
I believe the State Department and White House would see it as remarkably helpful if Australia broke ranks with the pro-Israel voting pattern that America is locked into because of the influence of its own Israel lobby. I encountered this in a meeting with John Kerry on 18 March 2013, when I told him why Australia had voted not to block enhanced Palestinian status. Kerry said that the vote was “fine” by him and if the vote were held today the Israelis wouldn’t get a vote from anyone except themselves. Since then the US has forcefully attacked the raft of yet more settlements announced by Jerusalem.
Why wouldn’t an American secretary of state like to see Israel even further rebuked? Even more so now, after they used more settlement announcements to blow up the last round of US sponsored talks in April 2014.
It’s the only way of bringing the ethno-nationalists in Jerusalem into line, although – subject of course to the current Israeli election – their wrong-headedness looks irreversible. And, if they have their way, so does Israel’s isolation.