Some questions need to be asked about recent “Q&A” episode

Israeli MK Tamar Zandberg on "Q&A"

 

On its November 25 episode, the ABC TV panel talk show “Q&A” featured US Studies Centre research fellow, James Brown; the former US ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power; the foreign editor of The Australian newspaper, Greg Sheridan; the former Foreign Affairs Spokesperson, now Shadow Minister for Education, Tanya Plibersek and, as she was briefly described in the introduction, “Israeli parliamentarian Tamar Zandberg.”

On the show’s website, Ms Zandberg, who is in Australia as a guest of the left-leaning New Israel Fund (NIF) was described as follows:

“Tamar Zandberg, a serving Knesset member for the Democratic Union and a former Meretz leader, is a leading voice for human rights and social justice in Israel.

“Tamar, a former academic, was a leader of 2011’s social justice protests in Israel and a member of Tel Aviv’s city council before entering the Knesset for the Meretz party in 2013.

“She is a long time social and feminist activist, passionately advocating for human rights, sustainable urban planning and transport, affordable housing, religious pluralism, women rights and the legalisation of cannabis.”

The fact is that Ms Zandberg is on the far left of Israeli politics. Only those with a sound knowledge of Israeli politics would have picked up this important background from the website description, and no-one just watching the show would have been so informed.

This became especially relevant when, as expected, the panel was asked a question about the recent announcement from US Secretary of State George Pompeo that the Trump Administration would revert to the more common US position of not regarding Israel’s settlements on the West Bank as illegal.

The question was as follows:

“We know that if you keep on doing what you’ve always done, you always got what you always got. Trump’s gut instinct has, amongst other things, benefited the American economy, got more affordable drugs, and got criminal justice reform passed. So could it be that Trump declaring that Jewish settlements on the West Bank are not illegal is actually a smart move?”

Host Tony Jones referred the question first to Ms Zandberg. She responded:

“I think that the settlements in the West Bank, their existence and the fact that they’re not evacuated from there is actually against the interests, first of all, of Israel and Israelis. The settlements are huge, one of the biggest obstacles for peace, and one of the main reasons why we still don’t have a viable agreement between Israel and the Palestinians that would ensure a two-state solution, and having the two states independently neighbouring each other in peace and security.

“I know that Trump… I mean, this is a political… I don’t think it has to do with international law. It’s a political statement of support in the settlement policy, but actually this policy hurts Israelis and Israeli interests. We have been living for decades now under constant threats of violence, the peace process is being stopped and not taking place anymore, and we see the outcomes as Israelis. We live this reality.

“And, yes, we should solve this in bilateral talks between Israelis and Palestinians, between two brave leaders, deciding to change the course of history towards peace. We also need the help of our international allies and friends, and the US is the biggest one, also with Europe and other countries in our region.

“And statements like that, they’re a part of politics, and maybe they’re a part of the alliance between Israeli right and American right, and Republican right. But in terms of what is the Israeli interest, that would be going back on track of peace talks and reaching a viable agreement, rather than keep the conflict alive. And settlements, unfortunately, is part of what’s keeping the conflict alive.”

It is true that the settlements are one of the major issues that need to be resolved for there to be a two-state peace between Israel and the Palestinians. It’s even a view of many on the Left, not just the far Left, that their existence is against the interests of Israelis. However, it is also true that there are many other issues preventing peace, chief among them the refusal from the Palestinian leadership to genuinely accept Israel’s right to exist.

This would include accepting that the so-called “return” of not just the Palestinian refugees, but also their millions of descendants, is not compatible with a two-state peace, and that they would need to be accommodated in the new Palestinian state.

The continuing Palestinian demand for this “right of return” alone means that even if Israel was to evacuate every settlement tomorrow, there would still not be peace.

When Ms Zandberg says that what is needed is bi-lateral talks between brave Israeli and Palestinian leaders, she implies that no Israeli leader has been sufficiently brave, which is simply untrue.

There is a long history of peace initiatives by brave Israeli leaders being met with Palestinian intransigence. Ehud Barak at Camp David and Taba in 2000 and 2001, in conjunction with then US President Bill Clinton, offered a Palestinian state in all of Gaza and most of the West Bank, shared jurisdiction over the holy sites in Jerusalem, a Palestinian capital in east Jerusalem and land from inside pre-1967 Israel to compensate for settlement blocks Israel would retain.

In 2005, Ariel Sharon withdrew unilaterally from Gaza and four West Bank settlements.

In 2008, Ehud Olmert expanded on the Barak offers, with the Palestinians to receive land equivalent to 100% of the West Bank and Gaza, a land bridge between the two and a limited return for Palestinian refugees with financial compensation for the rest. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas later admitted that he had rejected the offer “out of hand”.

Initiatives from Binyamin Netanyahu to encourage talks have included an unprecedented moratorium on building in the settlements and the release of Palestinian prisoners who have killed Israelis, but all to no avail.

Another obstacle to peace is the justified Israeli need for security guarantees, in light of the terrorist Intifada which followed the 2000 Camp David offer and which saw over 1,000 Israelis murdered and thousands more seriously wounded, and the constant terrorism from Hamas-ruled Gaza that has followed the Israeli withdrawal from there in 2005.

Yet, in her long answer, Ms Zandberg did not even allude to these crucial issues.

The next to have an opportunity to answer was James Brown, who stated:

“Look, I think Tamar is right to point to the triumph of the tactical over the strategic. I mean, I’m very conscious…you know, there’s more I don’t know about Arab-Israeli affairs than I do know, but I think the principle of trying to keep the door open to a two-state solution, advancing things at careful, predictable way…

“There’s, of course, an appeal to someone like Trump, who throws the rock in the pond, and maybe will dislodge things and get a faster progress, but I just don’t think we’ve seen what Trump’s plan is for the Middle East yet. And the leader of that plan, the key-point person on that plan seems to be getting progressively downgraded in the Trump Administration. So, there may be an amazing plan there yet and I understand the domestic political pulls on both the Israeli side and on the American side, as well as the search for immediate tactical security from the settlers, but I just don’t think we’ve seen a plan that’s going to get us on a better path to that two-state solution.”

Tony Jones then asked Samantha Power the loaded question, “Samantha Power, what are the implications of Trump overriding UN resolutions in this manner?”

As would be expected by a member of the Obama Administration, she responded:

“Well, it is just not the case that a country gets to unilaterally decide what international law is – it’s called international law for a reason, in fact – and there are successive Security Council resolutions that have weighed in on this. I think the larger implications…I mean, we’ve been talking about, potentially, the need to get back to the negotiating table. How is the United States – the traditional broker of peace in the Middle East, whether between Israel and Egypt or Israel and Jordan, the work, the painstaking work that US diplomats have done through the ages – how would we be in a position to be a broker of anything when we have weighed in so forcefully on one side, not only in this instance, but also in announcing that we’re, you know, recognising Jerusalem as the capital, moving our embassy there?

“I mean, these were the kinds of issues, and the question of settlements and their ultimate… some settlements and their disposition and what will happen in an ultimate peace deal, these are the kinds of things that were to be negotiated between the two parties, with the United States, again, in the best case scenario, as a catalyst for helping make that happen. Now who is going to step into that role? Who’s going to have standing with both parties?”

This is an unintentionally ironic statement, and also an example of the double-standards and self-righteousness of the Obama Administration when it came to the Israeli-Palestinian issue. Albeit that it was before Ambassador Power’s time, the settlements only became a major issue when Obama raised them to that status early in his first term, just one example of his Administration “weighing in forcefully” on one side.

Of course, the major contribution by the Administration, which happened when she was the US Ambassador to the UN, was to facilitate the passage of the infamous Security Council resolution 2334 in the dying days of the Administration on  December 23 2016. This resolution sought to overturn nearly 50 years of international law by declaring in the Palestinians’ favour matters about the status of the West Bank that, until then, under various UN Security Council resolutions among other things, were to be the subject of negotiation. Among other things, it declared as legally invalid any Israeli presence in the West Bank, including even east Jerusalem, where Judaism’s holiest sites are situated. In doing so, it sought to transfer what had previously been temporary armistice lines reached at the end of Israel’s War of Independence in 1949, with no legal significance, into legally binding international borders.

Ambassador Power’s answer, was, seemingly, not sufficiently damning of President Trump for Jones’ liking, so he gave her another go, asking her, “Do you make anything of the timing of this, given the trouble that Bibi Netanyahu – who’s a close ally of Donald Trump – is in in his own country?”

She met his expectations, responding, “I think the timing in two places. You might have noticed that Donald Trump is not having the best fortnight of his political life, and so, you know, diversion, playing to the base, he’s going all in. I mean, this isn’t with an eye to peace. I mean, that’s the rhetoric, of course, that you’re going to envelop any move you make in. You’re not going to say it’s pandering, certainly overtly, but I don’t…I mean, there’s no other logic than domestic politics in two places.”

At that stage, Tony Jones threw to Greg Sheridan, who said,

“Well, look, you know, Australia recognised West Jerusalem as the Israeli capital and holds the view that east Jerusalem, like the rest of the West Bank, is disputed territory, so I think there is actually a solid legal argument that the settlements per se are not illegal. Remember that, a few years ago, Julie Bishop and George Brandis, when he was attorney-general, reversed the terminology of the occupied territories because they said they got a legal opinion from the Australian Foreign Affairs Department, and attorneys-general, and they said, you know, the last state power that was a sovereign power in the West Bank was the Ottoman Empire. The territory is disputed.

I think Israeli settlement policy is very ill-advised. I think everyone accepts that the big settlement blocs, Ma’ale Adumim, Gush Etzion, and so on, are going to remain part of Israel forever. I think it’s very stupid… I think it’s ill-advised myself for the Israelis to allow undisciplined settlement behaviour beyond those settlements. But…you know, there’s a simplistic pantomime quality about this debate very often that Israel should withdraw from the territories. What happens the day after they withdraw? They withdrew from Gaza, and what happens the day after that? Who provides the security?”

Tony Jones had apparently heard enough of a view that he didn’t agree with by that stage, as he interrupted Mr Sheridan as he completed that last sentence, saying, “Actually, I’m just going to throw that back to Tamar. What do you… How do you respond to that?”

Zandberg said,

“We have been living in a conflict for over 50 years now. We have two peoples sharing one land. I belong to the Jewish people, who got its right of self-determination, by the way, from the UN, recognised by almost all the countries in the world, maybe except Iran. We are, right now, in military control over another people sharing the same land with us. That’s the basic fact, and we need to think how we can solve this.

“The best way… And we’ve been living in 50 years of violence around this conflict. Just two weeks ago, we saw another violent round in Gaza. I live in Tel Aviv, the biggest city in the centre of Israel, and we had alarms to sit in shelters for missiles, and the south of Israel get even more in constant reality. The only way to solve this conflict in a peaceful and secured solution is dividing the land between two states – Israel, that already exists and recognised, including our capital in West Jerusalem, and Palestine next to us. And this can be achieved in an agreement, in diplomacy, in talking, not in fighting with each other. We can keep on fighting forever. But we don’t want to.

“We want to change our course into a peaceful and secure solution. Um…we need the help of the world. Of course, we’ll have to achieve it, you know, between our, uh…leaders in the region. But, you know, going back to the Ottoman and…and British mandate and history, it helps us understand reality. But we need to better understand the future and look forward how we solve this…this conflict. And actually, the solutions are on the table. They are there. We need a brave leadership to pick them up and make them a reality. This is what leaders should do for their people.”

Again, no mention of the history of Israeli offers and Palestinian rejectionism, which Greg Sheridan would likely have mentioned had Tony Jones given him the opportunity.

Instead, Jones said, “I’m just going to go back to the other side of the panel, and Tanya Plibersek. This is a divisive issue in Australia. How would the Labor Party respond?”

Ms Plibersek started by saying, “I just think it’s so fantastic that we’ve got Tamar here to talk about it firsthand, and I feel a little bit self-conscious that we’re all commenting on what’s happening in her land. So, thank you for bearing with us.”

Jones cut in with “Yes. So, how would the Labor Party respond if the Morrison government decided to go along with Trump on the issue of the settlements?”

Plibersek answered,

“Oh, I… Well, I’d be very surprised. I mean, we… Australia has always supported a two-state solution. And certainly it’s the Labor Party position that expansion of settlements on occupied territory is a roadblock to peace. And anything that delays peace in a two-state solution for even a day is a…is a terrible thing. I was a little disappointed that the, um… uh…well, the government was prepared to use the declaration of Australia moving its position on the capital and the embassy to Jerusalem during the Wentworth by-election, in a domestic effort to get domestic political support. I don’t…I don’t think that it’s appropriate to use really consequential issues of international policy like this for domestic political gain.”

So anything that delays peace for even a day, such as, apparently, Israeli settlements, is a “terrible thing”, but something that has delayed it for 20 years – Palestinian refusal to accept peace offers or even negotiate further – isn’t worth mentioning.

Sheridan then commented, “So, just a footnote, Tony. I think the Australian position is the Trump position. I think we recognise West Jerusalem as Israeli sovereign territory and we regard the West Bank as disputed territory. I haven’t seen a statement from an Australian government minister for a long time describing settlements as illegal under international law.”

This led to the following exchange:

JONES: “So, would you expect the Morrison government to come out and support the Trump position if you’re right and they already do?”

SHERIDAN: “I think that is their position, but you don’t…”

JONES: “They won’t state it, is what you’re saying?”

SHERIDAN: “Well, I think it’s pretty clear, but you don’t have to say everything at a megaphone volume, you know? You don’t provoke people needlessly.”

JONES: “Unlike Donald Trump, you mean?”

SHERIDAN: “I mean, we do. Yeah, journalists provoke people. But governments don’t always do that.”

In answer to a question about what Australia should do to ensure its security given President Trump’s trade protectionism and abandonment of the Kurds means the ANZUS Treaty is in question, Ambassador Power said,

“Well, I think I agree in large measure that there’s a…a thick foundation to this relationship (between Australia and the US.) and so not as nervous, I think, as the questioner sounds. But I see where the question is coming from, right? It’s not just the abandonment of the Kurds, it’s the painstaking work our diplomats did together to put us…ourselves in a position to push forward the Trans-Pacific Partnership. It’s something the Australians weren’t informally involved in the negotiations, but wholeheartedly supported the Iran nuclear deal. It’s the Paris climate treaty, where, unfortunately, we have more in common now than is in the interest of your generation and future generations in…really, in not taking…in each not taking the leadership we need to be taking to combat climate change.

“And so, there’s a kind of context of abandonment. There are attacks on NATO and attacks on some of our closest allies in Europe. Verbal attacks, largely. But a sense within NATO – you know, how shaky is it? Could we wake up one morning to a tweet that says, you know, “We’re out of here”? Even if there’s no actual measure for…for leaving NATO in the treaty. So, that…I think that’s the context in which this happens, and I think the sooner… I mean, the basic message is, the sooner we get back to keeping our word, to trying to restore our credibility, the less nervous you’ll be and, hopefully, the more constructive, collective action of the kind of…”

Again, this is very ironic in the context of the Obama Administration’s betrayal of Israel at the UN, not to mention the verbal attacks on allies that characterised his eight years in the White House. Furthermore, as Greg Sheridan then pointed out,

“I apologise to Samantha in advance for saying this and…and I’m sorry for it, but I honestly think the big discontinuity came between Bush and Obama. Obama, himself, was extremely reluctant to take any military action. He announced his red lines in Syria and then pulled back from them. He was extremely reluctant to lead any campaign against the Chinese acquisition of an area the equivalent of the Mediterranean in the South China Sea. The Defense Secretary, Ash Carter, would announce aggressive freedom of navigation operations and then they’d be cancelled by the White House over the top of the Pentagon’s wishes.”

Ambassador Power admitted that at the time, she was pushing President Obama to take a more active role in Syria.

The next question from the audience was, “So, recent elections across the globe has seen the rise of nationalist strongmen who have been elected on the platform of strengthening their country’s place in the world using often inflammatory and divisive words and actions. Why do you believe these strongmen have become so popular? And does it reflect a broader crisis in our political and social systems?”

With all the recently elected strongmen in the world, the panel had many to choose from, but there was one alleged “strongman” in particular who Jones wanted to discuss, so he redirected the question by saying, “Tamar, I’ll start with you, and you can reflect on the strongman in Israel who may or may not be re-elected and who’s facing serious corruption charges simultaneously.”

Zandberg responded,

“Yeah, we do have a strongman leading the country for 10 years in a row and 13 altogether, who is now being indicted for three very severe corruption cases and actually hasn’t been able to form another government for the second time in one year. We might go to third elections before very soon. Yeah, and we see Prime Minister Netanyahu, and I can understand the question, because I think he’s very similar to many leaders, starting from Trump, going to some leaders in Eastern Europe, in the Philippines, in Brazil.

“They’re all also allies with each other and they all have kind of a backlash from many of the values that the liberal, human rights-supporting democracy has been promoting for the last decades. By the way, leaders from left and right used to promote the same values up until recent years, where you see some kind of a mix of populist, nationalist leaders trying to withdraw from international coalitions, from values of human rights, of equality, of pluralism, of the liberal democracy.

“By the way, you see that towards women as well. You see a backlash on feminism, a backlash on gay rights. Many of the values that these widespread democracies used to promote are now in a backlash and under attack. And I think that is a challenge, a challenge towards which we, the supporters of these values, have to unite and be very strong and be very self-assured up against. One of the problems is that the extreme right is very blunt, certain, and that’s also like a man style, you know, to be very sure of what you’re saying, no matter how, you know, it can be lies or just nonsense.

“I think the other side of leadership should be the same, should have the same self-confidence in our beliefs, because these are the just values. Our values saved lives across the 20th and 21st century, promoted equality for women, for gays, for minorities. So I think we have nothing to be ashamed of, and we have to push back for this, both style and policy.”

Sheridan pointed out that “there’s plenty of extremism on the left as well as the right. This is a bipartisan culture-wide problem. Jeremy Corbyn could be prime minister of Britain, with his decades-long history of antisemitism, pro-terrorism, and he’s basically an unreconstructed communist surrounded by unreconstructed communists. There is also tremendous extremism in left-wing protest movements.”

While we have no problem with Tamar Zandberg appearing on “Q&A”, the program should have made clear the background necessary to understand her contributions. And if the show can’t have a panel that is evenly split on these issues, Tony Jones should also give the opposing views a semblance of equal time and opportunity to be heard. It would also be a welcome change if the program was to host some of the many distinguished visitors from Israel, including members of the Knesset as well as top commentators, who actually do represent the mainstream of Israeli politics.

But our experience is that “Q&A” seems uninterested in balance or professionalism when it comes to Israel.