IN THE MEDIA

Labor’s Israel shift is a blow to peace and our credibility

Aug 15, 2023 | Ahron Shapiro

Image: Shutterstock
Image: Shutterstock

THE AUSTRALIAN – AUGUST 15, 2023

 

Ahead of Labor’s national conference, the Albanese government has cut Australian foreign policy loose from its historic policy moorings regarding Israel, the Palestinians and the peace process. Our national policy now seems to have been devised primarily to please the Labor Left’s most unhinged virtue-signallers.

Unveiling the new policy, Foreign Minister Penny Wong claimed that the decision for the government to refer to all the lands Israel captured from Jordan and Egypt in the 1967 war, including Gaza and all of east Jerusalem, as “occupied Palestinian territory” was only restoring terminology used by previous Australian governments.

Unfortunately, you’d be hard-pressed to find any evidence to support this claim.

Australian officials have referred to “occupied territories” – but that’s not the same thing. In international diplomacy, entire conflicts can hang on a single word, which is one reason why key international peacemakers – outside the grossly politicised UN – have rejected this specific phrasing as not only one-sided but contrary to the signed agreements between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organisation.

In March 1994, shortly after the signing of the 1993 Oslo Accords, then-US ambassador to the UN, and soon-to-be secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, put it well at a Security Council debate.

“We simply do not support the description of the territories occupied by Israel in the 1967 war as ‘occupied Palestinian territory’,” Albright explained, astutely noting “this language could be taken to indicate sovereignty, a matter which both Israel and the PLO have agreed must be decided in negotiations on the final status of the territories”.

Far from harming the peace process, this principled position facilitated it, allowing the US to serve as an honest broker, forging new interim agreements and ensuring the implementation of the Accords.

Lest it be forgotten, these pacts created the Palestinian Authority, which to this day governs and secures the areas where the vast majority of Palestinians in the West Bank live.

These Accords specifically left the most contentious issues, including the fate of Jerusalem and settlements, to be determined only by final status agreement between the two sides. The PLO agreed to this in writing, with the force of a treaty, and these agreements were endorsed by the UN, EU and numerous other states and international bodies.

Meanwhile, again at odds with Minister Wong’s claims, the Gaza Strip ceased being occupied territory in 2005, when Israel withdrew all its forces and evacuated every settler. Gaza also controls its own border with Egypt.

The government’s unwise decision has already harmed efforts to promote peace. Within hours of the announcement, the PA’s ministry of foreign affairs urged Australia to recognise Palestine as a state.

Neither Australia nor any other Western country except Sweden and Iceland have taken this step, and for good reason: it would make Australia complicit in a violation of Article XXXI, paragraph 7 of the Oslo Accords’ 1995 Interim Agreement, which explicitly bars any such unilateral steps to change the status of the territories in question.

In the years following the 1993 Oslo Accords, Albright and then US president Bill Clinton successfully shepherded the peace process through a tumultuous period.

The US never faltered as an honest broker that took great care not to prejudice the talks by taking steps that might be construed as favouring either side. Remarkably, it caused even the Oslo-sceptical Benjamin Netanyahu, when he was first in office between 1996 and 1999, to not only shake hands with Yasser Arafat, but agree to withdraw Israeli troops from most of the especially contentious city of Hebron.

The two lessons here are, firstly, that peacemaking is hard, especially when the two sides are both holding tight to a sense of trauma. And secondly, taking explicit sides over the most difficult issues – such as declaring all of the West Bank, east Jerusalem and Gaza “Palestinian territory” – doesn’t help anyone.

It doesn’t help the Palestinians, whose leaders cling to hopes they can gain a state without making peace and continue the destabilising Israeli-Palestinian conflict in perpetuity, and for almost a decade have been refusing to negotiate peace with Israel at all. Encouraging them to continue this self-destructive path represents no favour to the Palestinian people.

It certainly doesn’t help the Israelis, who have made at least three credible offers of a two-state peace, with a Palestinian state in land equivalent to all or almost all of the West Bank and Gaza, which the Palestinian leaders rejected. Most Israelis now fear they have no peace partner on the Palestinian side.

Encouraging further Palestinian rejection by declaring our support for their maximum territorial demands only worsens this problem.

And it certainly doesn’t help Australia’s national interests. We lose credibility and damage valuable relationships when we needlessly alienate either side, and we harm our interest in a negotiated peace outcome by making such an outcome less likely.

Ahron Shapiro is a senior policy analyst at the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council.

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