IN THE MEDIA

Australia’s Middle East decision ill-conceived

Aug 10, 2023 | Colin Rubenstein

Israel and Palestinian territory divided by the security wall (Image: Shutterstock)
Israel and Palestinian territory divided by the security wall (Image: Shutterstock)

An edited version of this article appeared in the Daily Telegraph – 10 August 2023

 

The Federal Government’s decision that it will, from now, refer to the entirety of the West Bank, including east Jerusalem, and Gaza as “occupied Palestinian territory” and all settlements as “illegal”, is profoundly disappointing and counterproductive. It will severely strain Australia’s long-standing bipartisan national policy of supporting a negotiated two-state peace, even though the Government says it continues to support this outcome.

Contrary to the Government’s claims, this is not simply a reversion to the stance of previous Labor governments. No previous Australian government of any persuasion has ever taken the position that the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem are all properly termed “occupied Palestinian territory”, and for good reasons.

As the Government is well aware, no Palestinian state has ever existed, so there is no such thing as sovereign “Palestinian territory”. Israel captured the West Bank and east Jerusalem from Jordan – which illegally occupied those areas – in a defensive war in 1967. Before that, the boundaries of the West Bank and Gaza were simply armistice lines, not national borders as defined by international law.

The Government is now purporting to claim to know what the boundaries of any future two-state resolution must comprise. At the time any Palestinian state is established, its territory must be determined by final status negotiations, not baseless legal claims made in foreign capitals, or politicised and unhelpful UN votes. This is what the legally-binding Oslo Accords, signed not only by both Israel and the Palestinians, but also endorsed by the UN, say.

Indeed, this new Australian position – in contradiction to the publicly-stated positions of like-minded democracies such as the US and Canada – flies in the face of previous comments by the Government that final status issues should only be resolved by negotiations between the parties.

This was the rationale for reversing the previous government’s recognition that Israel has the same right as any other country to declare where its capital is – in this case, in west Jerusalem.

While the Jerusalem decision clearly did not actually affect final status issues, given that no one disputes west Jerusalem will remain in Israel in any two-state resolution, purporting to determine which territory is “Palestinian” is very much taking a position on a final status issue.

The legal status of the settlements and the West Bank more generally are indeed complicated questions, with varying views from learned experts. It is the position of Israel and of various legal experts that the territories are best described as “disputed”, given the circumstances under which Israel came to control them means no other country has a stronger legal right over them than Israel.

The Palestinian Authority (PA), which rules the West Bank’s cities, has long refused to genuinely engage in the peace process. Every Israeli peace offer, such as Camp David in 2000, Taba in 2001 and the offer made by Israeli PM Olmert in 2008, were met with a point-blank Palestinian refusal. Yet these offers conformed to international expectations of what a two-state peace would entail.

Further Israeli confidence-building measures and attempts to negotiate peace were similarly spurned, and since 2014, the PA has refused to even talk about peace. Instead, it encourages terrorism by inciting hatred of Israel, glorifying terrorists and paying generous pensions to terrorists and their families, and at every opportunity vilifies Israel in all available international arenas. It hopes to ultimately gain its state without needing to negotiate or compromise, as a first stage, and then continue to make further claims against Israel.

For a respected democracy such as Australia to take the one-sided position just announced only rewards and encourages the continuation of these destructive Palestinian tactics.

Meanwhile, those who demand that Israel summarily withdraws from the West Bank without a peace deal in place, ignore the legacy of its earlier total withdrawal from Gaza in 2005. Israel hoped Gaza would become a peaceful and prosperous enclave living in harmony with its Israeli neighbours, paving the way for further withdrawals and, ultimately, peace. Instead, the terrorist group Hamas took over and turned it into a terrorist mini-state, and well over 20,000 rockets have been fired at Israel from there since. As well as demonstrating why Israel can’t be expected to just leave the West Bank, this also shows it is simply inaccurate to label Gaza as “occupied”, as some do.

All that aside, the most concerning element of the Government’s new 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 for 19 years. Asserting that the Western Wall and Temple Mount, Judaism’s holiest sites, are “Palestinian territory” is ill-conceived and unjust.

This decision will make it extremely difficult for Australia to present itself as a credible and effective advocate for a two-state peace, and is also detrimental to Australia’s broader national interests.

Dr. Colin Rubenstein is Executive Director of the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council (AIJAC). 

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