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Time for a new Australian approach on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

Image credit: gnuckx (Flickr: Creative Commons)

The last year has been unkind to Palestinian statehood aspirations. In February, Donald Trump signalled that the US was no longer committed to the two state solution. On top of this, Trump has openly canvassed moving the US embassy to Jerusalem. Such a move would amount to a de facto recognition of Israel’s claims over occupied East Jerusalem, despite Palestinian desires to have East Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian state. Meanwhile, an emboldened Israeli settler movement has successfully pushed for the creation of a new settlement and more homes. Far from playing a constructive role in defending the two state solution, Australian policy has only helped enable its demise.

Australia—along with the other Anglosophere nations—has traditionally been a close supporter of Israel. Several actions and statements testify to this. In 2014, Brandis infamously refused to refer to East Jerusalem as being occupied. More recently, despite the Turnbull’s government commitment to reform section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act in the name of free speech, Australia cancelled the visa of Palestinian activist Bassem al-Tamimi on public safety grounds.

Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent visit to Australia proved to be an excellent opportunity to further elucidate Australia’s policy vis-à-vis the peace process. Writing just before Netanyahu’s arrival, Turnbull refused to support and indeed even criticised United Nations Security Council Resolution 2334, which explicitly condemned Israel’s settlement enterprise as being in violation of international law. This followed Foreign Minister Julie Bishop’s earlier claim that the resolution was ‘one-sided’. Australia’s tacit approval of the settler movement puts Canberra at severe odds with the vast majority of the international community.

Admittedly, Turnbull directly encouraged Netanyahu to recommence negotiations with the Palestinians as well as restating Australia’s support for the two-state solution. However, in light of Canberra’s refusal to condemn Israel’s illegal settlements, the PM’s words are hollow and meaningless. Current Australian policy seems to support a peace process undertaken exclusively on Israeli terms, where settlements are not identified as an obstacle to peace. Given that settlement’s make the creation of a viable, contiguous Palestinian state a near impossibility, Australia’s approach to the peace process is clearly counterproductive.

Australia has a number of options when it comes to instituting a more balanced approach towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For starters, Australia could follow in the footsteps of Sweden in formally recognising the Palestinian state. Such a move would go a step further than the resolutions adopted by France, Italy and the UK, which have only symbolically recognised Palestine. Australia could also emulate the EU’s decision to label goods made in Israeli settlements. At this stage, supporting the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS) would arguably amount to an extreme and counterproductive measure. However, it remains an option if the far-right’s hold on Israeli politics continues to grow.

To be clear, these measures are not some kind of panacea that would instantly result in the creation of a Palestinian state and ensure lasting peace. But Australian recognition of Palestine, combined with lobbying efforts, would create momentum internationally and encourage others to recognise Palestine. Increased international recognition of Palestine would also considerably strengthen the Palestinian negotiating position in any peace ‘deal’ that Trump may seek to foster between the two sides.

Furthermore, the reluctance of even Netanyahu’s Likud party to officially sanction the building of new settlements until the coming of the Trump administration demonstrates that Israel is responsive to international pressure when it comes to settlements. With arguably the most pro-Israeli US government ever, Australia could play a key role in maintaining this pressure.

Aside from doing Australia’s bit to salvage any hope of a successful two-state solution, a shift in Australian policy would be prudent for other reasons. Although undoubtedly provoking the ire of Israel, Australia’s new policies would increase Canberra’s profile and prestige within the Arab and Muslim world. Tellingly, so incensed were a number of Arab states at Brandis’ 2014 comments regarding East Jerusalem that some even suggested imposing sanctions on Canberra. A change in Australian policy would forestall such a development, as well as indicating to the international community that Australia is willing to take a more-independent, less reflexively pro-American stance on foreign policy issues. Support for Palestinian rights and self-determination could also boost Australia’s chances of obtaining a seat on the 2018 UN Human Rights council.

Australia is not a major power and any policy shift on its behalf will not resolve the conflict. Nor are Israeli actions and settlements the only obstacle to peace. At the very least, however, an Australian recognition of Palestine would enhance Australia’s status in the Muslim world, as well as providing a glimmer of hope, however small, to the beleaguered two-state solution.

Henry Storey is the Australian Foreign Policy Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.

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