Noted and Quoted – November 2019

Bibi steps

Editorialising on Israeli PM Netanyahu’s failure to form a coalition government, the Age (Oct. 23) opined that “the very length of his tenure means that Mr Netanyahu has, rightly or wrongly, become the face of every impasse in Israeli public life, from the failure to reconcile the country’s religious and secular communities to African immigration and the dispute between liberal and conservative currents in Judaism worldwide over the right of women to pray at Jerusalem’s Western Wall. He has also become a symbol of deep social divisions over corruption and the judiciary, through the numerous cases of alleged graft in which he finds himself charged. In response he has touted himself, with some justification, as securing the Jewish state’s international standing (particularly through his relationship with US President Donald Trump), its safety from an array of regional threats and its economic prosperity.” 

The Australian (Oct. 23) was less preoccupied by Israel’s domestic concerns, warning that as “fallout of Donald Trump’s abandonment of the Kurds unfolds, both sides must put Israel’s security ahead of personal ambitions. The US withdrawal, which has boosted the alliance between Syria and Iran and provided Tehran with a potent strategic advantage to deploy forces along Israel’s northern border, underlines the need for strong, stable government in Jerusalem”.

Earlier in the Australian (Sept. 25), former Spanish foreign minister and EU official Javier Solana said “expansionism and aggression have been central tenets of [Netanyahu’s] regional policy. Of late, Israel and Iran have clashed repeatedly in Lebanon and Syria, both directly and through Iranian proxy groups.”

Does Solana believe that Israel should have ignored Iranian attempts to build military bases and missile sites in Syria that could severely threaten the Jewish state’s security? 

ABC fails election math

An ABC “News Radio” (Sept. 26) report from Middle East correspondent Eric Tlozek claimed that Benjamin Netanyahu was given the chance to form a governing coalition in September even though his “party didn’t win the most seats” because he received the backing of “a few more MPs [from the] religious and far-right parties.”

This is incorrect. Netanyahu received only one more recommendation than his rival Benny Gantz – who likely would have been asked to form government if the three MKs from the Balad faction of the predominantly Arab Joint List had backed him.

Weight gain

Martin Indyk, the Australian-raised and educated US Ambassador to Israel under Bill Clinton and Barack Obama’s Middle East envoy, backed Australian involvement in the US-led naval convoy protecting shipping through the Straits of Hormuz.

According to Indyk, “Australia has always been there in every circumstance when the United States has needed military assistance… I think paying that premium has been basically a worthwhile policy from a strategic point of view. And given that Australia, like all America’s allies, are now dealing with a mercurial and unreliable President who has a kneejerk disdain for allies who aren’t pulling their weight in his terms, I think it is probably a prudent thing for Australia to do.”

Indyk said US President Trump’s ambition to solve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict was “effectively dead from the moment the Administration moved the US embassy from Tel Aviv to the disputed city of Jerusalem”, Australian (Sept. 14).

Whilst this may accurately reflect the Palestinian leadership’s position, it disregards that Jerusalem has been Israel’s capital since 1950 and that Trump didn’t preclude a future state of Palestine from having its capital there. 

FM Stereo

Former Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer made the case for Australia backing US President Donald Trump’s foreign policy, saying, he “has been proven right to be tough with Iran. It’s kidnapped Westerners, including three Australians, it’s lied to the Brits about a tanker they released for sanctions-busting and gone ahead and delivered oil to Syria. It’s been helping Hezbollah, Hamas, and others to attack democratic Israel. It’s been complicit in attacking Saudi’s Arabia trying to disrupt oil supplies and hijacking oil tankers in the Strait of Hormuz. What’s more, it has resumed enriching uranium for no purpose than to build stockpiles to build a nuclear weapon. None of that is alright. It’s the behaviour of a… rogue state,” Australian Financial Review (Sept. 23).

Former British Foreign Secretary William Hague saw the attack on Saudi oil facilities as an “opportunity to bring the West back to a coherent and viable strategy towards Iran. A few years ago we thought we had that, when we negotiated the deal for Iran to give up its progress towards nuclear weapons capability for a decade. Yet while sticking to that deal, Iran continued to destabilise the rest of the Middle East,” Australian (Sept. 20).

Insoluble

US analyst Samuel Tadros questioned “whether there is any solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, “maybe the reality is that there are two peoples who claim the same piece of land and that no amount of effort or innovative solutions can solve this simple fact.” 

Tadros also queried the presumption going back to the 1950s that “American interest in the Middle East could not be achieved before solving the Arab-Israeli conflict.”

He said, “in reality, no one actually cared about the Palestinians – at least, not the region’s rulers [whose] priorities were everywhere besides Palestine… toppling the monarchs for some, searching for hegemony for others, or, for most, simply protecting their rule from revolutionary upheaval. The Palestinians, if they were considered at all, served simply as a bargaining chip; a cause to rally supporters and attack opponents. Despite this… the centrality of the issue was never to be questioned,” ABC “Religion and Ethics” website (Oct. 14).

All over the map

ABC RN “Late Night Live” host Philip Adams (Oct. 10) was happy to let Palestinian activist Salman Abu Sitta spruik his book “Atlas of Palestine 1917-1966” and make numerous factually dubious claims without any challenging or balance.

Abu Sitta said Britain’s Balfour Declaration issued in November 1917 that endorsed the establishment of a national home for Jews in Palestine “was a treacherous document because it was against the promise of allied forces that if we together worked in order to defeat the Turks, Palestine would be free and independent.”

The so-called British promise, vague as it was, was always contingent on the interests of France and arguably, actually excluded Palestine. 

Abu Sitta said he become a refugee on May 14 1948 when Israeli forces attacked his village, making it appear that Israel declared a state and then began attacking Arab towns and villages, without the vital context that five Arab armies were poised to invade that day, after the country had already been in a civil war since November 1947.

What Abu Sitta also overlooked was the role of his father and other family members in the Palestinian Arab military efforts to attack Jewish villages and assets in 1948. 

Making wilder and wilder claims, Abu Sitta said the Arabs who were displaced during the 1948 war amounted to “the largest ethnic cleansing in the history of Palestine. Imagine that the population of 560 cities, towns and villages in Palestine have been totally depopulated and then made into refugees. There is nothing like it in history.”

Adams clearly felt it was not his role to point out that if the Palestinian Arab leadership had not gone to war, then no Arabs would have become refugees. 

Instead, Abu Sitta even claimed that “the mention of Palestine and Palestinians is considered to be taboo” when there are numerous UN resolutions passed every year on the Palestinians’ behalf, a UN agency dedicated to their cause and an official day of remembrance to mark the passage of the UN Partition Plan. 

Abu Sitta implied that Israel is still today an illegal state, saying “Israel has occupied that part [pre-1967 Israeli] under no principle of law whatsoever. Only by brute military force. Even the Israeli law today never says that this land is owned by Israel.” 

Clearly the UN General Assembly disagreed, voting on May 11, 1949 to admit Israel as a full member.

Abu Sitta claimed the Palestinians have a right of return to what is now Israel which is “embedded in the international law without any exception.” 

Palestinian claims of a “right of return” rest on UN General Assembly Resolution 194 from December 1948 – which is a peace proposal, one provision of which states that “refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date.” 

As a UN General Assembly resolution, 194 has no binding legal force and the wording did not affirm any “right” of return, but made any refugee return conditional on both willingness to live in peace and practicality. Moreover, that resolution’s peace proposal had many other provisions which today no one advocates – only the words about refugees were seized on to claim a legally baseless “right”. 

Plane wrong

The dangers of not fact-checking propaganda supplied by extremist NGOs like Breaking the Silence (BtS) was manifested in a large feature article and two smaller accompanying pieces by journalist Terry Plane in the Adelaide Advertiser’s “SA Weekend” magazine (Sept. 14).

The main article focused on a BtS run tour of the West Bank city of Hebron where control is divided 80:20 in favour of the Palestinian Authority and Israel – a reality Plane did not explain. 

Readers were led to believe Hebron is a microcosm of the West Bank and a city that is an economic basket case with 70% unemployment (it is actually 20%), and a place where Palestinians are subject to apartheid rule and Israeli soldiers stand on every street. In reality, no Israeli can enter most of the city and the city is doing relatively well economically.

The piece also falsely stated Israel can arrest 8-year-olds in the West Bank, when the minimum legal age of arrest is in fact 12 – two years older than in Australia.

The pieces included claims that Gaza is under “Israeli military occupation” even though Israel withdrew from there in 2005; called Hamas a “resistance group” without mentioning it is the listed terrorist organisation which serves as the government of Gaza; falsely accused Israel of firing “phosphorous gas at populated Palestinian areas”; and misstated aspects of the recent Israeli election results. Also, Plane claimed Israeli PM Netanyahu “reneged on the Oslo Accords” when elected in 1996, even though he actually withdrew from Hebron and other areas on the West Bank as part of the Oslo process.

No background was given on how Israel assumed control over the West Bank and Gaza, nor on the Arab rejection of the UN Partition Plan in 1947 that would have established a Palestinian state, nor of Israeli offers to create a Palestinian state in the last 20 years.

Silence is not golden

In a right of reply in the same Adelaide Advertiser magazine (Oct. 11), AIJAC’s Ahron Shapiro made the point that BtS’s goal is to end Israel’s occupation on the West Bank, but it always conveniently ignores Israeli offers to create a Palestinian state that have been rejected by the Palestinian Authority. 

He said that while BtS represents an insignificant fraction of former Israeli soldiers, it relies on anonymous testimonies that cannot be investigated, presented as whistleblowing, to further the group’s political goals.

Shapiro explained that “BtS chooses Hebron to sell its anti-occupation propaganda pitch” because it’s “the only place in the West Bank where Israelis live on the same street as Palestinians, Shuhada Street. Before the 1993 Oslo Agreement and the subsequent 1997 Hebron Agreement that divided the city, they co-mingled there, but the deteriorating security situation eventually created a scarred, traumatised status quo… The BtS tour ignores the reality that more than 90 per cent of West Bank Palestinians have lived under self-rule for decades and normally don’t regularly encounter an Israeli soldier or settler unless they travel between these self-rule areas or work in settlements or in Israel itself”.

Correction corner

SBS’s Ombudsman upheld an AIJAC complaint regarding an online story (Sept. 4) entitled “Palestinian student barred from entering US back at Harvard”. 

AIJAC objected to the article’s tag line stating: “A 17-year-old star student from Palestine has arrived in Harvard just in time for classes to start after he was initially stopped from entering the US.”

There is no evidence that Ismail Ajjawi was born and raised anywhere other than Lebanon.

SBS’s reply said, “This editorial problem has been rectified and the abstract now reads ‘A 17-year-old star Palestinian student has arrived in Harvard just in time for classes to start after he was initially stopped from entering the US’.”

Of Jakarta and Jerusalem

Previewing Australian PM Scott Morrison’s planned attendance at the swearing-in ceremony for re-elected Indonesian President Joko Widodo, Nine Newspapers’ Peter Hartcher insisted Australia’s recognition of west Jerusalem as Israel’s capital remains a thorny issue. 

“The Foreign Ministry and other government participants at the political level and the officials level said to me, that there was remnants of distrust because of Scott Morrison’s decision during the campaign for the seat of Wentworth, to blurt out the announcement that the Australian government was considering shifting diplomatic recognition… of Israel, to Jerusalem. Which was intensely controversial, of course. The Government stepped back from that eventually, but the Indonesians were not impressed and remain sceptical about that. So Scott Morrison has a job to reassure Indonesia that he hasn’t totally lost his mind,” ABC TV “The World” (Oct. 17, 2019). 

PM Morrison’s actual announcement in October 2018 committed “the Government [to] carefully… consider recognising Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, without prejudice to its final boundaries, while acknowledging east Jerusalem as the expected capital of a future Palestinian state… [and] examine the merits of moving Australia’s embassy to west Jerusalem, in the context of our support for a two-state solution.”

Sadly, far too many Australian media commentators and former diplomats repeatedly ignored the actual policy in favour of whipping up “controversy”. 

In contrast, Indonesian media largely treated this as a non-issue. 

In the Australian media coverage and analysis of PM Morrison’s visit to Indonesia on Oct. 20, 2019, there appears to have been little if any reference to Jerusalem, which is surprising, if as Hartcher claims, it is still a point of contention.

Colonial matters

An ABC fact-checking article (Oct. 14) of federal shadow minister for Indigenous Australians Linda Burney’s claim that “The Australian constitution is the only constitution of a first world nation with a colonial history that does not recognise its first people” looked at Israel and the Palestinians. 

The article said “The Macquarie dictionary defines ‘colony’ as: ‘a group of people who leave their native country to form in a new land a settlement subject to, or connected with, the parent state’… it is clear that Ms Burney was referring to countries, such as Australia, settled by colonisers, such as Great Britain, that have indigenous populations.”

Three academics were asked whether Israel falls under this category.

Swinburne University’s Lorenzo Veracini, said the term “settler societies” includes Israel because “settler societies are societies that results from processes of settler colonisation. Australia, New Zealand, Israel, the US and Canada are these societies.”

The article said Newcastle University Associate Professor Amy Maguire and Flinders University Professor Schech did not think “that Israel’s status was… comparable in the context of Ms Burney’s claim”.

Dr. Maguire said, “‘In relation to the specific focus of your article, I don’t see that the analysis of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians fits naturally alongside, say, Australia’s treatment of its Indigenous peoples… Israel has certainly been analysed through the lens of settler colonial theory, but I haven’t seen it compared to the CANZUS [Canada, Australia, New Zealand, US] countries’”.

Professor Schech said, “‘Settler colonial theory has been applied to understanding conflicts in countries like Israel, but Israel is a complicated case for many reasons.’”

Fact Check said it decided “to exclude Israel from the list of comparable countries.”

Unfortunately, the reasons why Israel is not a settler-colonial society were also excluded. Which would be a recognition that Jews are indigenous to what is known as the Holy Land and therefore enjoy historic and legal rights of national self-determination there recognised by both the League of Nations and UN.