The time for peace has come

Colin Rubenstein

Sydney Morning Herald – April 29, 2008


Next week, Israel will mark the 60th anniversary of its founding. Israel’s story in that time has been an amazing and inspiring one, a fact too often forgotten in the debate over terrorism and violence, peace plans and peace processes, accusation and counter-accusation.

A scattered, dispossessed people, suffering oppression and having just emerged from history’s most heinous genocide, accepted the newly formed UN partition plan and built an enviable society in part of their ancestral homeland, which now serves as a vibrant cultural centre and beacon for Jewish identity worldwide, including for the Australian Jewish community.

Importantly, Israel remains virtually the sole democracy in the Middle East, with full protections for the democratic and human rights of all its citizens, including the nearly one-fifth of its population that is Muslim or Arab. Israeli Arabs are represented in Israel’s parliament and at the highest levels of the judiciary and government. Arabic is one of the state’s two official languages.

Australia’s Jewish community can be proud the unique Australia-Israel relationship has been an important dimension of Israel’s remarkable story. This relationship began in World War I at Gallipoli, where Jewish Zionist volunteers from what was not yet called Palestine fought alongside Australian diggers.

Following World War II, Australia helped midwife Israel’s creation, through foreign minister Dr H. V. Evatt’s possibly decisive role in securing the passage of the UN General Assembly’s Partition Plan in 1947 while serving as chairman of the UN General Assembly’s Ad Hoc Committee on Palestine.

Since then, almost all Australian governments of both political persuasions have sought to cultivate positive Australia-Israel relations. The relationship between the countries reached new heights under the Howard government. Kevin Rudd is committed to maintaining this strong relationship, as evidenced by the bipartisan resolution celebrating Israel’s 60th anniversary he introduced in parliament in March.

As that resolution made clear, Israel’s achievements over the past 60 years are cause for celebration and commendation. This is underlined by the long odds Israel has faced, from being attacked by five of its much larger Arab neighbours at its inception, to having not known a day of peace since. Sadly, had the Arab states not rejected the UN’s partition plan and opted to launch a war instead, we could be celebrating the 60th birthdays of both Israel and Palestine.

While it is understandable that Palestinians remember the suffering of 700,000 Palestinians who fled or otherwise lost their homes in 1948, it is worth remembering that this tragedy was completely avoidable had Palestinians and the Arab states heeded the UN’s resolution calling for two states for two peoples. Instead, a war to ethnically cleanse the area of Jewish inhabitants was launched.

Nor was 1948 the only time that the Palestinian leadership and Arab states spurned the opportunity to achieve the Palestinians’ legitimate aspirations for an independent homeland of their own in favour of clinging to maximalist demands for the destruction of Israel.

One such demand is for the so-called unlimited and legally unprecedented “right of return” to Israel for Palestinian refugees and their descendants. This would lead to the demographic destruction of Israel as a Jewish state.

Moreover, the Palestinian and Arab leadership have perpetuated the Palestinian refugee crisis by refusing to integrate them, preferring instead to use them as political pawns.

The decades of violence and attacks on Israel are even more regrettable since they have achieved nothing. Sixty years on, the only palatable solution to the conflict remains two states for two peoples. This is the model being pursued by the Israeli Government, the Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, and the international community.

Significant obstacles to realising this goal remain. Foremost among them is the fact that Hamas, a terrorist organisation, continues to deny Israel’s right to exist. It uses its control of the Gaza Strip to launch daily attacks on Israeli civilians with the aim of scuttling the peace process.

Yet just as clearly, Australia’s unique friendship and steadfast support for a fellow democracy, which has helped nourish Israel throughout its first 60 years, will remain a crucial and much-valued asset in the peace process as Israel continues to seek its final crowning achievement: a Jewish state whose citizens are at last able to live in peace and security with its neighbours.

Dr Colin Rubenstein is the executive director of the Australia/Israel and Jewish Affairs Council. He previously taught Middle East politics at Monash University.