Australian stance is not the action of a true friend of Israel
- November 19, 2013 – 1:10PM
Last week the UN considered two motions to condemn the expansion of Jewish settlements on Palestinian land. Since 2008 Australia has voted for such condemnation. But Julie Bishop has delivered for supporters of the Netanyahu government in Australia. We shifted our vote to avoid criticising the Israeli position.
Even with peace talks under way there is a frantic burst of settlement activity. According to the Israeli organisation Peace Now there has been a 70 per cent rise in construction starts compared with the equivalent period last year. And only 32 per cent were west of the fence or separation barrier; that is, on territory likely to be exchanged with Israel in an eventual peace trade-off. The rest is on land that will be in a future Palestine.
This hugely complicates the peace process.
Our new position of condoning “the settlement mission” of expansionist Israelis (opposed by other Israelis) undermines the prospect of a Palestinian state. Yet this is essential to a lasting peace, based on the 1947 UN decision that supported both a Jewish and Arab state in Palestine. It violates the rights and reasonable expectations of the Palestinians.
And this new Australian stance is not the action of a true friend of Israel. The country may end up holding a slab of territory that resembles the Greater Israel that some members of Benjamin Netanyahu’s cabinet advocate. But it means Israel will be governing a despairing population of 2.7 million Arabs living in conditions dramatically inferior to those of the 400,000 to 650,000 settlers (Peace Now uses the high figure and it varies according to whether one includes the settlers in East Jerusalem). The settler population occupy the favoured terrain, draw three times as much water per head and use reserved infrastructure.
Former Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak claims that hard “retentionists” in Israel are creating “an apartheid state”. When I spoke to Barak last year he deliberately refrained from using a word “used about another country on another continent”, as he put it to me. But critics of Israel will not hesitate to invoke apartheid if, without a Palestinian state, Arabs on the West Bank live in undeniably inferior circumstances to those of their Jewish neighbours.
This would condemn Israel to a reality captured in the recent movie The Gatekeepers (a tribute to Israel’s capacity for searching self-criticism) in which six former heads of Shin Bet talk on the hopelessness of endless battles with a restive Arab population. One Shin Bet leader spoke about having a son in the paratroopers who’s been required to invade Nablus on three occasions. He says, “Did it bring us victory? I don’t think so”.
All settlement activity is illegal under international law. The Fourth Geneva Convention states that “The Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies”. In 1967 West Bank territories were won from Jordan in the Six Day War. Then-prime minister Levi Eshkol sought advice on the legality of settlements. His chief law officer, Theodor Meron, came back with this: it would be simply illegal under international law because of the Geneva Convention. Again, Israel’s own liberal instincts rebuke the state’s chauvinists and ultra-religious.
Last week’s announcement of 3500 new settlements forced John Kerry, US Secretary of State, to lament that more settlements raise questions about Israel’s commitment to peace. He asked, “How can you say, ‘We’re planning to build in the place that will eventually be Palestine?’” In other words, how can the Israeli cabinet repeat its support of a two-state solution and continue to lay down suburbs on land that must comprise a Palestinian state?
The US position is that all settlements – every one of them – are illegitimate.
It’s clear how Australia should vote on this, namely, the way we have since 2008. It is a shame – in the deepest sense – that we stopped doing the right thing.
Bob Carr is former Australian foreign affairs minister and NSW premier.