Australia’s diplomatic pragmatism

Last week the UN granted the Palestinians non-member State observer status.  Australia abstained from the vote.  Israel reportedly retaliated against the UN vote by approving the construction of 3000 new settler homes, dealing a heavy blow to the prospects of resumed peace talks. Australia’s position might be about taking a pragmatic rather than a principled stand, but it is at odds with world opinion on the issue of Israel and Palestine and lacks moral courage.

In 2008 Australia voted No to the resolution on the Special Committee to Investigate Israelis Practices Affecting the Human Rights of the Palestinian People and Other Arabs of the Occupied Territories.

The Australian Government says publicly that it is in favour of a two-state solution based on direct negotiations between Palestinians and Israelis and yet in 2009 and 2010 it voted against the UN General Assembly resolution on the Peaceful Settlement of the Question of Palestine along with Israel, the United States and a handful of islands under American control like the Marshall Islands and Micronesia. Then in 2011 it again abstained from voting on the Peaceful Settlement of the Question of Palestine.

A November 2009 US embassy cable is revealing both as to Australia’s conformity with the US position and as to a glimmer of hope for independent thinking:

… Australia has traditionally voted with the United States against most of the 21 resolutions heavily biased against Israel including all three of the resolutions on Palestinian-exclusive UN institutions. However, Australia has since 2008 consistently voted for two among the 21: the resolution concerning the applicability of the Geneva Convention in the Occupied Territories and the resolution concerning Israeli Settlements in those same territories.  During this UNGA session, Australia will vote for a third – the Right of the Palestinian People to Self Determination on the grounds that it is in line with the Australian policy of support for the two-state solution. Australia has advised partners (including Israel) of this change.   On all other resolutions, Australia will continue to vote with the US and to urge other nations to vote or abstain on anti-Israeli resolutions.

Australia did just that.  The excuse given by Australian representatives voting against the December 2009 UN resolution (A/RES/64/10) calling for the Government of Israel and the Palestinian side, within a period of three months, to undertake independent investigations into the serious violations of international humanitarian and international human rights law reported by the UN Fact Finding Mission of the Gaza Conflict, was “because of reservations about the text and the flawed nature of the Goldstone Report.”

According to some experts the only thing flawed about the Goldstone report was that it was cast in the language of violations of the laws of war when there was no war in Gaza, there were no battles nor did Israeli soldiers meet with Hamas militants in the field, a factual scenario supported by the testimonies of Israelis soldiers in the 2009 report ‘Breaking the Silence’, which describes the lack of any direct threat against Israeli forces.

In February 2010 Australia abstained from voting on a further resolution which requested the UN Secretary-General to submit a further report on investigations into violations of international humanitarian human rights law during the Gaza Conflict. Its explanation: “While Australia’s vote did not change its concerns about the Goldstone Report, or its preference for allowing the parties sufficient time to study the investigations, it was not helpful to drive them apart. Now was not the time to convene a Conference on the High Contracting Parties as doing so would involve a counter-productive political debate…adding that the prevailing political situation was neither acceptable nor in the interests of Israel, the Palestinian Authority or its neighbours.”

This decision was taken even after revelations that suspected Mossad agents used fake Australian passports to enter Dubai and kill a Hamas commander. In fact, a February 2010 US embassy cable had confirmed that “Despite the harsh rhetoric coming from government officials… Australia is highly unlikely to reverse its previous “no” vote on the Goldstone report.”

It is also interesting to note an October 2009 US embassy cable titled ‘Urgent Demarche Request On the Goldstone Report’ which said “the United States Government has serious concerns about the report [Goldstone], including its unbalanced focus on Israelis actions; its sweeping conclusions of law; and the overly broad scope of its recommendations, some of which go into areas that must be resolved politically in the context of permanent status negotiations between Israelis and the Palestinians.”

When one compares the position taken by the Australian Government with the “broad objectives” outlined in that cable and the US’s clarion call to like-minded nations, it’s fairly obvious that Australia’s position was not arrived at independently.

Other US diplomatic cables from October 2009 tend to confirm that: “Australia will instruct its UN delegations in New York and Geneva to coordinate with the US delegations prior to the Security Council Meeting on the 14th of October and the Human Rights Committee on the 15th and 16th. Australia will support the US position on the Goldstone Report and the peace process, and that will oppose any effort to have the Security Council take up the issue.”

In following the US lead, and in abstaining rather than voting contrary to the US-led vote, the Australian Government is taking a position that is contrary to that of the primary judicial body in the world, being the International Court of Justice, the primary political body in the world, being the United Nations, and the world’s major international human rights organisations, including Amnesty International, all of which are in overwhelming agreement that there needs to be a permanent two-State solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict endorsed by the Security Council, that the acquisition of territory by war is unlawful, that the Israeli settlements in the Palestinian territory occupied since 1967, including East Jerusalem, are illegal, and that all Palestinian refugees have the right to return to their homes and receive compensation.

How must it have looked to international observers when Australia voted against the Palestinian Authority being granted full membership of the UN cultural agency, UNESCO?

Australia’s stance is not about diplomacy, and it’s not about pragmatism: it’s about taking sides for reasons unconnected with what’s in issue and rewarding a country with our support when it is in clear violation of international law. You can’t dress conduct like that up in moral garments, which is why there is never any attempt at moral or human justification for the position Australia takes.

The Israeli Dialog opinion poll commissioned by the Yisraela Goldblum suggests widespread Jewish support for apartheid, but only if the occupied territories are annexed, and most Israelis oppose annexation.   Fifty nine percent of Israelis want preference in public jobs for Jews over Arabs; 49% want the state to treat Jews better than Arabs; 33% object to Israeli Arabs having the right to vote; 69% object to giving Palestinians the right to vote if Israel “annexes” the West Bank; 74% support separate roads for Jews and Palestinians in the West Bank, and 42% object to their children going to the same school as Arabs.

It wasn’t so long ago that white South Africans were doing the same,  increasingly supporting the globally condemned apartheid  policies of their government and the actions of their security forces. A survey conducted by the Human Science Research Council in February 1984 showed that the vast majority of white South Africans favoured excluding black South Africans from the political system, white schools, residential areas and public amenities. Even when apartheid obviously was on its knees, 57% of white South Africans still favoured detention without trial for suspected violators of security laws.

The victory against apartheid in South Africa was won in the international court of public opinion. The votes cast in the United Nations show a similar weight of global popular opinion in support of the Palestinians as increasingly people see for themselves the human consequences of the policies and practices of the Israeli Government,  implemented with the unwavering and uncritical support of the United States.

Too often the Australian Government speaks of moral principles and human rights and freedoms when it suits it, as it did to justify following the US into Iraq;  but when it does not,  it ignores exactly those precepts and acts on “power principles”.   Power principles that, according to US diplomatic cables, require any potential leader of our country to know that they have to move to the centre and show their support for the alliance with the United States and, reading between the lines, Israel. That explains why Prime Minister Gillard took the position she did on last week’s vote, until wiser counsel and wider party support forced her to a middle ground. And why Tony Abbott and the Liberal Party would have toed the US line had they been in power.

“Pragmatism” will not save the Australian Government from a global reputation for turning a blind eye to the ongoing human rights violations of, and disproportionate use of force against, the Palestinian people if it continues down this diplomatic road. No government and no politician can sit neutral on such a hot issue, and the Australian Government’s reluctant abstention from last week’s vote will not protect it from worldwide popular opprobrium for the path it has followed and no doubt will continue to follow.

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