John Howard comments on Israel, the Middle East

John Howard comments on Israel
Former PM Howard receives AIJAC's award

The former Prime Minister spoke at a dinner in Sydney conferring upon him AIJAC’s Distinguished Leadership Award, attended by 280 supporters on November 29, 2012.

He was introduced by AIJAC National Chairman Mark Leibler at the function MC’ed by AIJAC’s NSW Chairman Barry Smorgon, received his award from Frank Lowy and a vote of thanks from AIJAC Executive Director Dr Colin Rubenstein.

Also in attendance were US Ambassador Jeffrey Bleich and Israeli Ambassador Yuval Rotem.


Edited transcript [download audio]

Tonight is not in any way an occasion for partisan politics and I have made the point of the identification of your community with both sides of politics as important. I would be failing in my duty to you as somebody who retains a keen interest in public affairs… if I didn’t say something about the current debate about the attempt to upgrade Palestine representation at the United Nations…

I admire very much the fact, while we are in a bipartisan mood, of acknowledging and applauding the coincidence of views adopted by the recently re-elected President Obama and his neighbour across the border Stephen Harper, who is the conservative Prime Minister of Canada and both of these gentlemen have taken a view on this resolution that is coming before the General Assembly which is based on principle, based on common sense and based on understanding that if we are to achieve what we all want – peace based upon a two-state solution and that has been my view and the view of the Liberal Party for a very long period of time and I know it is the view of many men and women in the Australian Labor Party as well – if we are to achieve that, we will not achieve it by constantly providing incentives to the Palestinians to walk away from the negotiating table and that is basically what is involved in this current proposition before the General Assembly of the United Nations.

The only way in which lasting peace will be achieved and I know it is the heartfelt desire of the people of Israel and the heartfelt desire of the Jewish community in Australia and I am sure it is the heartfelt desire of millions of Palestinians as well…is by a total acceptance on both sides of the right of others to exist behind secure and internationally respected boundaries and until those on the Palestinian side fully accept and understand that peace cannot be achieved unless they unconditionally accept Israel’s right to exist, we are not really going to have any hope of achieving that peace.

In my opinion this resolution before the General Assembly of the United Nations will make it less likely that that acceptance from groups such as Hamas and others will come rather than walk away and I fail to understand the logic of the arguments that have been advanced by some who claim that this will make peace more likely and make it more likely that meaningful negotiations can be entered into.

I do know from my own time as Prime Minister what efforts were made by Israel in the year 2000 to bring about a peace settlement with the Palestinians.

I have not forgotten an interview I gave on 3AW in Melbourne on the eve of my going abroad to Gallipoli, then to the battlefield sites of Northern France and then on to Israel, of being asked by Neil Mitchell was it true that I was thinking of going to visit Yasser Arafat at Ramallah. I said “Yes it was” and he said “why are you doing that?” And I replied that there had been peace proposals made by Ehud Barak who was then the Prime Minister of Israel and it was the view of my government and it was the view of the Israeli government that that proposal should be pursued. After I left the studio some leading members of the Jewish community phoned the radio station and supported my intention.

I remember going to Israel and meeting Ehud Barak and being encouraged by him to go to Ramallah and to meet Yasser Arafat and his colleagues because that was the spirit in which the Israeli government was behaving at the time.

The offer that was made by Barak approximated to well over 90% of what the Palestinians had been arguing that they wanted but that did not come about because in the end Arafat was unwilling, unable or whatever combination of the two to finally agree with President Clinton at Camp David in the dying days of President Clinton’s presidency. And I also recall Sandy Berger, who was President Clinton’s last national security adviser, coming to Canberra some six months after that abortive meeting at Camp David when every effort was made by the former American president to bring about a peace settlement. Berger explained to me in detail how in the end it was the refusal of Arafat to agree to what Barak had offered that brought those peace negotiations to an end.

With that experience vividly in my mind, I have always greeted with extraordinary scepticism the criticisms that have been made about the alleged intransigence of the people of Israel and the governments of Israel on this issue.

I know this is a difficult issue and I guess everybody, no matter what opinion you take, despairs of this ever achieving an outcome, but it will eventually if people of goodwill continue to pursue it, but if they pursue it from a position of strength. And in the case of Israel that of course includes her continuing right to effectively respond in a retaliatory fashion against rocket attacks and incursions on her sovereignty and threats to the life and safety and liberty of her people.

There is goodwill throughout the world towards a settlement. It will continue to be long and difficult just as many people despaired about there ever being a settlement in a place called Northern Ireland… Of course the Middle East is a different scale and dimension and a different history. But the principle is not that different.

They are my views and the views I have had for a very long time… They are based on a belief that a two state solution is the only way fair and just outcome and if that can be achieved there is a real prospect of a great tranquility in that region which is so valuable to the religion and the history of many people around the world.