Australia/Israel Review

Editorial: Labor’s “Palestine” folly

Aug 28, 2023 | Colin Rubenstein

Image: Twitter
Image: Twitter

The recent ALP National Conference decision to leave unchanged the party’s existing party platform on Israeli-Palestinian issues, despite calls from extremist and ideological elements in the party for immediate recognition of the currently non-existent ‘state of Palestine’, has to be seen as a relatively positive development, given all the circumstances. 

However, unprecedented changes to Federal foreign policy on the Middle East made in the days leading up to the conference, tilting towards Palestinian maximalist positions, appear to have been announced to appease these same extreme elements.

This incessant pressure coming from substantial fringes of the Labor party risks undoing Australia’s foreign policy achievements with Israel developed over many decades, as part of policy initiatives of successive Australian governments led by both major parties. It also risks denting the credibility of Australian national security interests more broadly.

This trend can’t be attributed solely to political differences with the current controversial Government in Israel, since the Albanese Government began this regrettable process in mid-2022 – when Naftali Bennett and then Yair Lapid were leading Israel’s broadest unity government ever. It was in October 2022 under Lapid that Foreign Minister Penny Wong announced a sudden reversal of recognition of west Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

Just as suddenly, on August 12, Senator Wong announced that the Australian Government would henceforth term the entirety of the West Bank, including east Jerusalem, and Gaza “occupied Palestinian territories” and begin referring to Israel’s West Bank settlements as “illegal under international law.”

This unprecedented Australian position of insisting on referring to “occupied Palestinian territories” – in contradiction to the publicly-stated positions of like-minded democracies such as the US and Canada, and the stances of all past Australian governments – flies in the face of previous comments by the Foreign Minister that final status issues should only be resolved by negotiations between the parties. This was the rationale offered for reversing the previous Morrison Government’s recognition of Israel’s right to declare where its capital is – a right every other country on the planet has.

The Morrison Government’s Jerusalem decision did not in actuality affect final status issues, because no one disputes west Jerusalem will remain in Israel in any two-state resolution. However, purporting to determine which territory is “Palestinian” is very much taking a position on a final status issue. 

As the Government is well aware, no Palestinian state has ever existed. Israel captured the West Bank and east Jerusalem from Jordan – which illegally occupied the areas – in a defensive war. Before any future Palestinian state can be established, its territory must be determined by final status negotiations – not baseless legal claims made in foreign capitals, or politicised and unhelpful UN votes.

As for the legal status of the settlements, these are complicated questions, with varying views from learned experts, and our Government should not be making legal determinations about this vexed issue. 

That aside, the most concerning element of the new Government policy is the idea that any Jewish presence in any part of the West Bank, where Jews have lived for thousands of years, and in east Jerusalem, where Judaism’s holiest sites are located, is illegal simply because the Jordanians ethnically cleansed the areas of Jews between 1948 and 1967. Asserting that the Western Wall and Temple Mount, Judaism’s holiest sites, are on “Palestinian territory” is simply unacceptable.

These policy changes make it extremely difficult for Australia to present itself as a credible and effective advocate for a two-state peace, and strain our long-standing bipartisan national policy of supporting a negotiated two-state resolution. They are thus detrimental to Australia’s national interests. 

Of course, if enacted, the Labor platform demand for the Government to recognise “Palestine” as a state would make matters worse by an order of magnitude. Such a foolhardy decision, in contradiction to the stance of almost all our democratic allies, would make Australia complicit in a violation of the Oslo Accords, which explicitly bar any such unilateral steps to change the status of the territories in question.

As the world observes the 30th anniversary of those Accords this month, it’s understandable some are questioning the viability of a peace process that has been in a deep freeze since 2014. That’s when the Palestinians walked away from US-brokered peace talks under then-President Barack Obama, and went all-in on a long-term strategy of “internationalising” the conflict – warfare by other means against Israel.

The Albanese Government risks being drawn into, and reinforcing, that deliberately obstructive Palestinian strategy. Elements of the ALP want to prioritise feel-good symbolism over substance. Their idealism is ill-informed, empathetically one-sided and lacking nuance – which is not at all the same thing as constructive idealism shaped by realism and genuine on-the-ground knowledge, and dedicated to fostering genuine coexistence. The latter should be the basis of Australian policymaking on this issue.

The Labor platform’s retention of a demand to recognise “Palestine” as a state – a dictate inserted while Labor was in opposition, when real-world consequences seemed distant – appears to have been swept under the rug for now. 

Yet the activists behind it plan to raise it again and again in the future, and the Australian Federal Government can’t afford to have its foreign policy held hostage by these ideologues and one-eyed obsessives. 

Prime Minister Albanese and his front bench should stand up to the gadflies within their party and defuse the time bomb in the Labor platform. They should deliver, openly and clearly to the activists, haters and factional powerbrokers, a dose of sorely needed pragmatism, based on historical and contemporary realities – which would be much more likely to foster the desired outcome of negotiations leading to a two-state outcome.

The Government should take premature Palestinian state recognition off the table by expressing in no uncertain terms that a Palestinian state can only arise out of a negotiated peace agreement between the two parties, and ALP bodies cannot change this fact. They can only make its eventual arrival more distant through ill-informed, counter-productive and short-sighted posturing. 

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