An exchange during Senate Estimates Committee hearings on June 3 between Independent Senator Nick Xenophon, DFAT’s head of its Middle East and Africa division Marc Innes-Brown and Attorney-General George Brandis has featured a rather puzzling conversation about the nature of Israel’s demand that the Palestinians recognise Israel as a Jewish state as part of any peace agreement.
The inquisitor in the exchange was Xenophon, who went on an Australian Friends of Palestine Association (AFOPA) tour of the West Bank last year together with Palestinian millionaire businessman Sam Shahin (whose family both privately and in a business capacity have donated to Xenophon’s campaign). Xenophon is also a donor to AFOPA, one of the more extreme Palestinian advocacy groups in Australia: an organisation that claims to “support peace in Palestine” but actively supports the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign against Israel (BDS) on its website and does not actually take a stand on a two-state outcome or actually recognise the right of Israel to exist in any of its official documents or stated objectives.
In 2010, when Xenophon served as the keynote speaker at AFOPA’s annual dinner, AFOPA’s Chairperson Paul Heywood-Smith QC introduced him with a speech questioning the loyalty of Australian Jewish Members of Parliament to Australia and American Jewish politicians and officials to the US.
On June 3, Senator Xenophon entered into a bizarre, nonsensical line of questioning of government and DFAT officials, where he misrepresented the Israeli government demand that Palestinians recognise Israel as a Jewish state as part of any peace agreement as a demand upon Australia and other countries that they recognise Israel as a Jewish state.
Xenophon’s questions made absolutely no sense – Israel was formed as a demographically Jewish state, a homeland for the Jewish people, and was declared as such in both the UN Partition Plan of 1947 (Resolution 181) and Israel’s Declaration of Independence in 1948 and Australia has always recognised it as such. Yet Xenophon seemed to think this was some new idea that directly contradicted the idea of a two-state solution with the Palestinians. The irrationality of the line of questioning appeared to mildly confuse the officials at times.
Senator XENOPHON: Are you aware that Israel’s new Deputy Foreign Minister, Tzipi Hotovely, has stated that Israel wants to be recognised as a Jewish state and that it reserves the right to build settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories?
Mr Varghese : I might ask the relevant head of the Middle East and Africa Division to respond to that.
Mr Innes-Brown : Yes, I am aware of the statement.
Senator XENOPHON: The question is: ‘Are you aware that Israel’s new Deputy Foreign Minister, Tzipi Hotovely, has stated that Israel wants to be recognised as a Jewish state, and that it reserves the right to build settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories?’
Mr Innes-Brown : As I said, Senator, I am aware that the statement has been made.
Senator XENOPHON: You are aware of it.
Mr Innes-Brown : I am aware of similar statements.
Mr Varghese : I think the answer to the question is: yes.
Senator XENOPHON: I am a slow learner-I think the Chair is giving me some gratuitous advice; thank you, Chair. What are the implications of Israel being recognised as a Jewish state?
Mr Innes-Brown : Our general position on Israel and the Palestinian territories has not changed. We believe there needs to be a two-state solution. That is the thrust of our policy.
Senator XENOPHON: But the question is: ‘What are the implications of Israel being recognised as a Jewish state?’, given the Australian government’s policy that there ought to be a two-state solution. Would that go against that two-state solution?
Mr Innes-Brown : We have to have further discussions, in terms of whether that actually becomes operationalised in an Israeli policy position.
Senator XENOPHON: Are you saying it is not Israel’s policy, at the moment?
Mr Innes-Brown : It is not something they have conveyed directly to us.
Senator XENOPHON: Does the Commonwealth government of Australia have a view on whether Israel ought to be recognised as a Jewish state, as suggested by Israel’s Deputy Foreign Minister?
Senator Brandis: Senator Xenophon, the policy of the Australian government, as you know, is to recognise the state of Israel and to support the two-state solution. I am advised that the Minister for Foreign Affairs has not addressed the statement that you have quoted from the senior Israeli politician, and really there is nothing, I think, usefully to add by way of commentary on it.
Senator XENOPHON: So, Attorney, you cannot at this stage-
Senator Brandis: I think you are raising a false issue.
Senator XENOPHON: That is a bit offensive.
Senator Brandis: Australia recognises the state of Israel and we support the two-state solution.
Senator XENOPHON: Attorney, that is somewhat offensive.
Senator Brandis: We have not addressed or commented on the statement that you have-
Senator XENOPHON: Please withdraw that comment that I am ‘raising a false issue’. Will you withdraw that?
Senator Brandis: I think it is a false issue. I am not questioning your motives, Senator, but I do think it is a false issue. It has not arisen.
Senator XENOPHON: But can we support a two-state solution and also recognise Israel as a Jewish state?
Senator Brandis: This issue has not arisen.
Senator XENOPHON: Do we support the International Court of Justice and the international consensus? You are saying that Australia still supports the International Court of Justice position in relation to the two-state solution.
Attorney General Brandis was absolutely correct to describe Senator Xenophon’s construct as a “false issue”, as it misrepresents both Hotovely’s words and their true meaning.
But in addition, it’s ridiculous to suggest, as Xenophon appeared to, that there is a contradiction between recognition of Israel as a Jewish state and the two-state solution. On the contrary, many would argue that a two-state solution would be impossible without Palestinian acceptance of Israel’s current demographic makeup as a Jewish state, as I will explain shortly. Meanwhile, Xenophon’s invoking of the International Court of Justice into this contextual discussion is completely irrelevant. The Court has never said anything remotely germane to the question of whether Israel should be recognised as a Jewish homeland.
Jews are both a religion and a people, and Israel is the state of the Jewish people in its historic national homeland – but it is also a democratic state that enshrines equal rights of all of its citizens regardless of ethnicity or religion in its Declaration of Independence and its laws.
Moreover, Israel has always been considered a Jewish state and Australia has always referred to it as such, even before the state was declared in May 1948. Indeed, the United Nations General Assembly’s partition plan of November 1947 explicitly referred to the division of the lands of the Palestine Mandate into two-states – a Jewish state (with an Arab minority) and an Arab state (with a Jewish minority).
Then-Australian Minister for External Affairs Dr H. V. Evatt (ALP, Barton) summed it up well in Parliament in June 1949, in an overview which also took into account the reason why an Arab state was never formed – the Arabs rejected it and chose to try to destroy the Jewish state in a war instead.
“The British Government decided to give up the mandate in 1947, and referred to the General Assembly the whole question of the future of the government of Palestine. The General Assembly first of all appointed a special commission to go to Palestine, hear the evidence and make a report on the best way of solving that most difficult question. The commission was appointed and was directed to report back to the second annual session of the Assembly in 1947. At its meeting in that year, the General Assembly resolved upon a decision in favour of the partition of Palestine and the establishment of a Jewish State as one State in Palestine. It was done, not by any pressure of power groups, but simply by an adjudicating committee that went to Palestine, heard the views of both sides, and reported, I think fairly, justly and impartially, on the whole problem. The General Assembly had to fill the vacuum that was left by the termination of the mandate, and, step by step, with all the difficulties that had encompassed the problem of Palestine, the United Nations has held to a steady course, through both the General Assembly and the Security Council. When the decision was given in favour of partition in 1947, two Arab States openly defied the decision of the General Assembly. War commenced, attacks were made.”
[Hansard, 21 June 1949, Emphasis added]
As noted, Senator Xenophon misrepresented the statements of Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely. Senator Xenophon was apparently referring to Hotovely urging Norwegian Foreign Minister Borge Brende on May 19 to pressure the Palestinians specifically to recognise that Israel is the homeland of the Jewish people.
As Hotovely also told Ynet on May 16:
“I want [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud] Abbas to pay a price to show he is serious. What I’m asking him is whether he is willing to accept an end to the conflict when a Palestinian nation-state, which has failed to form many times because of Arab intransigence, is formed. Whether he will accept a Jewish state alongside an Arab state, which will be called the State of Palestine.”
There is nothing sinister about this Israeli demand, which has multi-party support at the Knesset. There is also nothing new about it. It has been the position of Israeli governments for more than a decade, touted by the centre-left icon former Kadima leader (now Hatnuah party head) Tzipi Livni and constituting Article 6 of the official Israeli response to the 2003 Road Map for Peace.
In connection to both the introductory statements and the final settlement, declared references must be made to Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state and to the waiver of any right of return for Palestinian refugees to the State of Israel.
There is nothing controversial about the idea that peace should include mutual recognition of the national rights of the Jewish people in their homeland Israel and the Palestinian people in their homeland Palestine. This goes to the essence of the concept of “two states for two peoples.”
Indeed, US President Barack Obama has recognised Israel as a Jewish homeland and referred to Israel as the Jewish state many times over the years and supported any peace agreement also doing so, including in interviews over the past month with Israeli journalist Ilana Dayan and Jeffrey Goldberg in The Atlantic.
The Israeli concern is that, unless the Palestinians agree that they will not try to challenge Israel’s right to self-determination as the homeland of the Jewish people with an undisputed demographic majority in lands under their control, in Israel’s view, there can be no lasting peace. The Arab state would likely continue to try to destroy the Jewish state, if not physically, then demographically.
The Israeli peace negotiator and Washington Institute Fellow Tal Becker explored this issue in his meticulously researched paper from 2011, “The Claim for Recognition of Israel as a Jewish State: A Reassessment”:
The term “Jewish state” is sometimes misconceived as implying an aspiration for a Jewish theocracy. Properly understood, however, the claim seeks no more and no less than public recognition of the right of the Jewish people to self-determination in a state of their own. In this respect, the demand for recognition is no different from the self-determination claims advanced by many other peoples under international law.
The claim should also not be seen as an attempt to negate the corresponding Palestinian right to self-determination. Indeed, today’s advocates of recognition argue that it is Israel’s acceptance of a Palestinian nation-state that justifies parallel Palestinian acknowledgment of the Jewish nation-state.
While the demand for recognition of the Jewish homeland is at least as old as Zionism itself, the claim’s legitimacy has been the target of increasing criticism.
Indeed, as efforts to delegitimize Israel’s Jewish character have intensified, many Israeli leaders have come to view international recognition as a means for not only preserving Israel’s national identity but also advancing its national security.
In tandem with the Jewish state canard, Xenophon tried to pressure Attorney General Brandis to criticise Hotovely’s comments about the West Bank. Indeed, she has recently encouraged Israeli diplomats to argue that Israel has a legitimate claim to the West Bank by right, and not merely by might or on security grounds.
Such a claim, it must be stressed, has no bearing on whether the Netanyahu government would enter a land-for-peace deal with the Palestinians under the right conditions – one can acknowledge the right to a territory while at the same time concluding that it may not be in the country’s best national interests to maintain control over it.
There is certainly evidence that the Netanyahu government was prepared to give up such control for peace. In fact, it was reported during the run-up to this year’s Israeli elections that Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu had privately conceded to the Palestinians during negotiations in 2013 that “The new secure and recognized borders between Israel and Palestine will be negotiated and based on the 1967 lines with mutually-agreed swaps, taking into account subsequent developments.”
It has long been Australia’s position that the dispute between the Israelis and Palestinians must be negotiated directly between the two parties as part of a comprehensive two-state outcome, and it was wise of the Attorney General not to allow Senator Xenophon to manufacture controversy through a misreading and misinterpretation of current events – or through his apparent misunderstanding of the issue of recognition.
Ironically, Xenophon’s ties with AFOPA – an organisation that has never endorsed the concept of two states for two peoples between the Jordan and the Mediterranean – should raise questions about his own commitment to a two-state outcome, and not anyone else’s.