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Giving solace and seeking focus

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20 January 2024, The Age & Sydney Morning Herald, by Matthew Knott

Three months on, it’s the smell of death I remember most. The rancid odour of dried blood filling my nostrils. On a reporting trip last year, when photographer Kate Geraghty and I visited Kfar Aza – a kibbutz in southern Israel that was attacked by Hamas on October 7 – the once tranquil communal town was a massacre site frozen in time.

There was a chilling emptiness to the place: all Kfar Aza’s remaining residents – those that hadn’t been killed or taken hostage – had been evacuated. The body bags were gone, but you could still see bullet holes, blood-smeared walls and clothing scattered everywhere, macabre mementos of the violence that took place there. Then there was the smell, one that still makes me flinch if I close my eyes and think back.

Many foreign politicians who have visited Israel since October 7 have participated in similar kibbutz tours organised by Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Among them: British Foreign Secretary David Cameron, European Union foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell and German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier.

Many others have not. US President Joe Biden did not tour a kibbutz when he visited Israel. Neither did Secretary of State Antony Blinken. Nor did the foreign ministers of Canada and Japan. Yet the Coalition and pro-Israel lobby groups became apoplectic when Foreign Minister Penny Wong decided not to visit a kibbutz during her Middle East trip this week. Instead, she met with families of Israeli hostages and visited a Holocaust memorial.

‘‘Petulant and childish,’’ said NSW Liberal Senator Dave Sharma, a former ambassador to Israel, of her decision. The leaders of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry branded it ‘‘insulting and deeply concerning’’.

The backlash was a uniquely Australian phenomenon: the US, Japan and Canada’s top diplomats were not pilloried and certainly, declining to do so not was not interpreted as a lack of sympathy for the victims of the Hamas attacks or a slap in the face to Israel.

The focus on the symbolic aspects of Wong’s itinerary was a distraction from the substance of her trip and the diabolical array of problems plaguing the Middle East: the war in Gaza, with its mounting death toll and no end in sight; the growth of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and fading hopes of a two-state solution; Iran-backed Houthi rebels menacing merchant ships in the Red Sea.

While a moving experience, visiting a kibbutz will not help resolve any of these issues.

Hanging over Wong’s trip, her first to the region since Labor took office, were two questions: how much of a difference can Australia make in the region, and how much time and energy should the government expend there?

Wong sought to keep expectations low, saying pre-departure that Australia is ‘‘not a central player’’ in the region but that ‘‘we have a respected voice’’. When asked in Jerusalem about the breakdown in co-operation between Jewish and Muslim communities since October 7, Wong said: ‘‘I should come to this with some humility because I’m an Australian politician and I don’t have an answer for the Middle East.’’

The candour was striking. Wong visited the region not to offer solutions but to ensure Australia’s perspective was heard. The most important practical contribution: an extra $22 million in humanitarian aid targeted at Palestinians affected by the war. While certainly not a disaster, the trip could hardly be hailed as a triumph. The outcomes were slender, reflecting the visit’s low level of ambition and Australia’s lack of clout in the Middle East.

In her meetings with Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz and President Isaac Herzog, Wong expressed Australia’s horror at the Hamas attacks and called for all hostages to be released unconditionally. Describing the humanitarian situation in Gaza as ‘‘dire’’, Wong said that Australians have ‘‘strong concerns’’ about the number of civilian deaths since fighting began. The death toll in Gaza has passed 24,000, according to the Hamas-run Ministry of Health.

While in Ramallah, the defacto Palestinian capital of the occupied West Bank, Wong met Palestinians who have been affected by Israeli settler violence. This was a notable and gutsy move, undertaken to draw attention to an issue that Israel’s advocates would rather not discuss but is inescapable when you visit the area.

During our October reporting trip I met Sohaib, a 16-year-old Palestinian boy who said he was shot by Israeli settlers while picking olives with his family. In the groves near Ramallah, a third-generation olive farmer told me he lived in constant fear of attack. ‘‘This is a settler strategy to steal the lands,’’ he said. ‘‘They are hunting us. They don’t want to see any Arabs in front of them.’’

Wong is now facing calls from some Labor MPs to go beyond words by issuing travel bans against extremist settlers and making it illegal for Australians to fund settlement activity.

While in the Middle East, Wong argued that the only pathway to enduring peace was a two-state solution. Before her visit’s end, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu defiantly told reporters he opposed the creation of a Palestinian state when the war in Gaza ends. By yelling the quiet part out loud, Netanyahu highlighted not only Australia’s impotence but that of the United States, Israel’s closest security partner and biggest military aid donor. Biden has been privately urging Netanyahu to scale back the war and work towards a two-state solution, but his efforts have clearly fallen flat.

In the near term, Wong’s desire for a solution looks much like her call for Hamas to lay down its arms: wishful thinking. Wong has previously said we ‘‘need to deal with the world as it is’’ while trying to shape it for the better. Unfortunately, the world we live in is one where Hamas is determined to fight on and the two-state solution is going nowhere.

While Wong was navigating the turbulent waters of Middle East diplomacy, trouble was bubbling up far closer to home. On Monday, Nauru announced it was switching diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China. In itself, the decision is not alarming: the vast majority of countries, including Australia, formally recognise China rather than Taiwan. More troubling is the question of why Nauru made the switch and what it means for the future. Solomon Islands’ diplomatic shift to Beijing in 2019 paved the way for the signing of a security pact with China that alarmed policymakers in Canberra and has required persistent effort to placate the Solomons’ mercurial Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare.

Two days later, China’s top representative in Australia stood up in Canberra for his annual new year press conference. Clutching a glass of Australian red wine to raise a toast, ambassador Xiao Qian was jovial as he reflected on the improvements in China-Australia relations over the past 12 months, including the return of many Australian goods to the Chinese market and resumption of high-level diplomatic dialogue.

But the tone grew darker as Xiao and his embassy colleagues warned Australia not to meddle in China’s affairs by conducting naval exercises near its waters or by congratulating Taiwan on its recent presidential elections. Provocatively suggesting that Japan may have been responsible for a November sonar blast against Australian naval divers, Xiao called for the resumption of joint military exercises between Australia and China. Don’t expect Defence Minister Richard Marles to agree to that idea any time soon.

Xiao’s press conference was a reminder that, even after the government’s success at stabilising relations, profound differences remain between Australia and its biggest trading partner. Managing the China relationship will continue to be a delicate and complicated task – one that will impact Australia far more directly than events in the Middle East.

As Peter Dean, director of foreign policy and defence at the United States Studies Centre, said this week while defending the government’s decision not to send a warship to the Red Sea to deter Houthi attacks: ‘‘Strategy is about focus, discipline and the allocation of finite resources to a multitude of issues’’. Australia will be distracted and overstretched if we try to play ‘‘whack a mole in every international crisis’’.

That’s why Wong has avoided the Middle East until now, instead crisscrossing the Pacific and South-East Asia. While events in the Middle East reverberate throughout the world, it is ultimately the Indo-Pacific that will shape the future of Australia’s economy and national security. It’s where Australian foreign policy can have the biggest impact and where the government’s focus must remain.

When it comes to our immediate region, not having a solution is not an option.

Article link: https://todayspaper.smedia.com.au/theage/shared/ShowArticle.aspx?doc=AGE20240120&entity=Ar04000&sk=139018BA&mode=text
Article source: The Age & Sydney Morning Herald | Matthew Knott | 20 January 2024

2024-05-08 07:04:10.000000