Sitting on the Fence: Australia’s Current Stance on the Israel-Palestine Conflict

A protest in Melbourne, 2010. Photo: Takver on flickr Last month, the Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs, Bob Carr, released a statement asserting that “the Australian Government strongly opposes the Boycott Divestments and Sanctions (BDS) campaign” against Israel. The BDS movement, a worldwide campaign, seeks to put pressure on Israel to meet its international law and human rights obligations. “Such boycotts, in addition to harming Palestinian people economically, are unhelpful to the Middle East peace process,” continued Mr Carr’s statement, which came a day after the Australian senate—Mr Carr included—actually opposed an anti-BDS motion. With Palestine seeking to become a “non-member observer state” of the UN before the end of 2012, the time has come for Australian politicians to take a consistent and coherent stance on the Israel-Palestine issue.

At the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), Australian governments have repeatedly voted in favour of Israel, often to the chagrin of the international community. Most recently, however, Australia has abstained from voting, perhaps indicating a change in policy. Reasons attributed to the abstention range from being a reaction to Israel’s fatal Gaza flotilla raid to not wanting to alienate the international community before Australia’s United Nations Security Council (UNSC) bid, which is to be decided on later this month.

Results of a recent study suggest that the Australian public supports a resolution to the Israel-Palestine conflict based on international law, human rights, and universal values. Yet Israel continues to violate international law and the rights of the Palestinian people. Thus, if the Australian government, following its UNSC bid, were to continue support of Israel, then doing so would be against public sentiment. However, it is unclear how much public sentiment affects public policy. With such a long-standing tradition of supporting US’ policies, it is probable that the recent US memo encouraging nations to oppose Palestinian attempts at achieving statehood will be adhered to by Australian politicians. The memo, distributed during the most recent UNGA, claimed that Palestinian statehood “can only be achieved via direct negotiations with the Israelis”. However, negotiations, just like the “peace process” Mr Carr mentioned, have stalled.

When asked to respond to Mr Carr’s statement, the Palestinian Ambassador to Sweden, Hala Husni Fariz, claimed to be unaware of any “peace process” taking place. Indeed, the last time direct talks took place between Palestinian and Israeli leaders was in September 2010. Since then, the continued construction of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and in East Jerusalem has prevented any progress from occurring between the two parties.  Fariz continued by refuting Carr’s assertion that the BDS campaign harms Palestinians, “we are running out of options,” said Fariz.

It is unclear how much of an impact BDS is having on the Palestinian people, but with persistent rises in the price of fuel, an increasing rate of poverty, and unemployment over 50 percent, the effects of the BDS campaign are the last of the Palestinian Authority’s worries. Israel’s continued control of Palestinian trade means that the Palestinian territories are increasingly reliant on foreign aid in order to function. Here, the Australian government is also showing signs of increased support for Palestine by last year announcing a partnership with the Palestinian Authority through the World Bank, providing 120 million Australian Dollars in loans to Palestine over the next five years. Moreover, Australia is one of the ten largest donors to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). 

The most recent negotiations, 2010. Photo: The US Dept. of State on flickrHowever, not all agree that Australian aid for Palestine is a good thing. Peter Wertheim, the executive director of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, said “whilst UNRWA does invaluable humanitarian work, we believe that it is wrong in principle for there to be one UN agency specifically for assisting Palestinian refugees… .” Similarly, certain members of the mainstream Australian media have warned that the Australian government’s aid agency is directing aid to a Palestinian group with links to terrorists.

Although successive Australian governments have effectively supported Israeli policy, analysing recent Australian actions suggests there may be a gradual change occurring. However, these actions may be an attempt to gain international favour ahead of Australia’s UNSC bid. Will Australia continue its long-term alliance with the US, or will it begin a new-dawn of an independent policy on the Israel-Palestine conflict? With Palestine’s proposed UN bid to be tabled before the end of the year, the Australian government must take a stand—one way or the other.

 

SEAN KEARNS