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Labor’s ‘symbolic’ shift on Israel a split from Western allies

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There are not many occasions when a middle power with a relatively small population, like Australia, can make a significant impact on world affairs. Either on the field of battle or in diplomacy.

A few instances, however, immediately come to mind. In 1918 – the year of victory on the Western Front – the Australian Imperial Force played a fundamental part in the Allied victories that defeated the German army.

Then on April 24, 1951, Australian forces, with the support of Canadians, thwarted a major Chinese attack on Seoul, the capital of South Korea, during the Korean War. This proved central to the thwarting of North Korea’s intent to conquer its neighbour.

In diplomacy, Australia’s role in the creation of the state of Israel in 1948 stands out. Labor, led by prime minister Ben Chifley, was in office at the time and Bert Evatt was minister for external affairs.

In his position as president of the UN general assembly, and in other capacities, Evatt played an influential role in the decision to separate the region of Palestine into Jewish and Arab entities and to admit Israel into the UN in May 1948.

It’s against this historical background that the decision of the Albanese Labor government warrants consideration. On Tuesday, Foreign Minister Penny Wong announced a change in Australia’s policy with respect to Israel.

Wong indicated that, from now on, Australia will refer to the area conquered by Israel in its defensive Six-Day War in 1967 as “the occupied Palestinian territories”.

In 2014, the Coalition government led by Tony Abbott used the term “disputed territories”.

In 1967, Israel conquered the West Bank from Jordan. Along with Gaza and Sinai from Egypt and the Golan Heights from Syria.

Israel returned the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt in 1982 after a treaty was negotiated between the two nations.

Then in 2005, Israel quit Gaza and left it in the control of the Palestinian Authority – it was soon taken over by the Islamist terrorist group Hamas, which wages rocket attacks on Israel from time to time.

Jordan has no wish to control the West Bank as it did following the collapse of the Ottoman empire in 1918. And Egypt does not want Gaza back. The border between Syria and Israel has remained relatively quiet since 1967.

Both Labor and the Coalition support the two-state solution to resolve the issues unresolved since 1967. Namely a Jewish state of Israel (which contains a large Arab minority, most of whom want to remain there) and a state inhabited primarily by Palestinians (in which some Jews may wish to remain).

Negotiations have broken down for a number of reasons, including the fact that Israel does not have an obvious negotiating partner.

Hamas, which controls Gaza, wants to see the destruction of Israel.

And the more moderate leadership of the Palestinian Authority, based in the West Bank, is reluctant to do a land swap lest it be overthrown by Islamist extremists.

Moreover, successive Israeli governments, whether of the right or centre, are not going to risk the destruction of the Jewish state by surrendering territory central to the defence of the nation.

For Israel to survive, some land exchanges would be necessary.

In view of the evident complexities, it is not at all clear what a change of emphasis in the position of the Australian government can achieve. After all, Australia is not a big player in the Middle East.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has stated that despite the decision to declare the West Bank and Gaza are “occupied Palestinian territories” and Israeli settlements on the West Bank are “illegal”, he remains a strong supporter of Israel.

Wong has said much the same about the territories and commented that this is “consistent with the approach taken” by “the UK, New Zealand and the EU”.

So it is. But not with that of the US and Canada.

Wong has also said Australia regards the West Bank as including Jerusalem and Gaza. This means Australia seems to regard such traditional Jewish places in the Old City as the Western Wall and the Temple Mount as illegally occupied – rather than places whose status would be determined in a negotiated twostate solution between Israelis and Palestinians, whenever that might occur.

And then there is the matter of West Jerusalem. The Coalition during Scott Morrison’s prime ministership recognised West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital – rather than Tel Aviv. This followed a similar decision by president Donald Trump, which has not been reversed by President Joe Biden.

The Coalition’s decision has been overturned by the Albanese government. Yet the status of West Jerusalem should not be a matter of any doubt, since it is within the borders of Israel as determined by the UN in 1948.

Writing in the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s The Strategist on Wednesday, Roger Shanahan described the government’s changes announced this week as “relatively symbolic”. But symbols can be important. Moreover, Israel is an ally of Australia and the two nations benefit from mutual trade along with intelligence-sharing of considerable security benefit.

There is little doubt the changed policy was influenced by the Labor Party’s Left faction in the lead-up to the ALP national conference in Brisbane next week. But not only by the Left.

Former NSW premier Bob Carr, a member of the Labor Right, has also been in the vanguard of this movement.

The aim of the Left in this instance is for Australia to support the establishment of a Palestinian state. It’s not at all clear how this would work without a two-state solution in the first instance.

Then there is the likelihood Hamas could take over power in the West Bank as it did in Gaza.

Which would inevitably lead to more conflict.

During the past year the Albanese government has done well in the handling of foreign affairs and defence policy. The current disagreement over Israel is unfortunate since it is an international matter over which Australia can have little real impact. Unlike in 1918 and 1951.

Gerard Henderson is executive director of the Sydney Institute.

Article link:
Article source: The Australian | Gerard Henderson | 12.8.23

2024-05-08 07:04:10.000000

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