11 Feb 2010

Taking Sides In The Middle East

By Ailsa Burns
Australia has been one of Israel's most uncritical supporters since its beginnings, writes Ailsa Burns, but how long can we keep this support going, and what is it costing us?
Not long after taking office, and after a meeting with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, Prime Minister Rudd announced Australia's intention to seek a seat on the UN Security Council for 2013–2014. He claimed it was time Australia had a voice in world affairs appropriate to our status as a diplomatic middle power and castigated the former Howard government's lack of concern for our international reputation and its servility to the US.

Shifting from UN-speak into his colloquial mode he noted that the last time Australia sat on the Security Council was 1986, and it had been "a long time between drinks ... We're about to have a go. I think 30 years is a fair enough old wait between drinks and I think it's time we actually got cracking and see what support we can get." He added that success was far from guaranteed but "you have to declare your intention and run like fury and that's what we intend to do."

Since that time DFAT has indeed run like fury on the issue, investing large diplomatic and financial resources in its bid for the seat allotted to the Western European and Others regional group. Last week, however, Australia's prospects took a serious blow when Hashem Yousseff, chief of cabinet to the secretary-general of the League of Arab States, announced that our consistent support for Israeli interests at the UN could undermine our chances. The Arab League of course commands a significant bloc of votes so their opposition is a serious threat.

Australia's rivals for the Security Council seat are Luxembourg and Finland. Neither could be regarded as a middle power, but both are considered to have a more even-handed voting record on Israel at the UN. For Australia this raises the embarrassing possibility of being beaten to the seat by Luxembourg, a tiny country with a population of only half a million.

The Arab League's announcement was quickly labelled as "blackmail" by the Australian's pro-Israel columnist Greg Sheridan and by local Jewish groups. The Israeli embassy in Canberra pronounced that "Any nation considering their support for a vote on a Security Council seat should first reflect on the merits of the nominee and the contribution that they may make to international affairs before considering their own self-interest."

Colin Rubenstein from the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council denounced both Yousseff and the Arab League for having "rarely displayed any inclination to be a constructive force for Middle East peace and their traditionally retrograde and unhelpful strategy of focusing on boycotts and diplomatic posturing to isolate, condemn and debunk Israel [which was] again on display in Mr Yousseff's statements.

Taking a different approach, the Executive Council of Australian Jewry president Robert Goot chose to praise Australia as a means of chastising Yousseff, who "should know that Australians do not succumb to stand-over behaviour. Goot allowed that it "would be a good thing for Australia to have a seat on the UN Security Council", but thought it would be best to lose our ambition "if the price for obtaining it is to abandon our principles and bow to bully-boy threats". Goot expressed his confidence that Australia's leaders had the "moral fibre" to continue supporting Israel, apparently predicting that we would therefore need to forget about the seat.

So what is all this about? How can it be that Australia's Security Council prospects have been caught up in this distant conflict and are any of our other national interests involved?

There is no doubt that Australia has been a strong and longstanding supporter of Israel. This began with Doc Evatt who midwifed, so to speak, at Israel's birth and subsequently arranged for post-war Jewish immigration from Europe such that Australia received more Holocaust survivors per capita than any nation besides Israel. Since then our leaders have consistently expressed their admiration for and loyalty towards the Jewish state.

Coalition governments have been particularly supportive, peaking under John Howard, who was described by one Jewish Australian leader as having "raised the Australian-Israel relationship to new heights" but with only a mild hiccup during the Whitlam years, Labor governments (present government included) have spoken and acted very similarly. Interestingly, Israel's adoption of more brutal policies towards the Palestinians under the Sharon and Netanyahu regimes has not affected our government's support, although opinion polls show that these policies have diminished the public's respect for Israel, in Australia as elsewhere.

This support is reflected in our voting record at the United Nations and other international fora. During the Six-Day war, for example, the Holt-Gorton government was described by Israeli Foreign Minister Abba Eban as "endemically pro-Israel". The Fraser government either abstained or voted against UN resolutions critical of Israel, often as part of a minority of three or four. Bob Hawke was famed for his support of Israel and became a close ally of Jewish community leader, Isi Leibler, subsequently a financial backer of the ACTU.

The Howard government regularly joined Israel, the US and its four satellite Pacific states as the only votes against resolutions calling for change in Israeli policies. These have included resolutions calling for the cessation of settlement-building in the occupied territories, condemning human rights violations in the territories, calling for the Geneva Conventions to apply there and requiring Israel to comply with the finding of the International Court of Justice that its "security" fence is in breach of international law.

The Rudd Government changed our vote regarding the cessation of settlement-building in the territories and for the Geneva Conventions to apply there but maintained Howard's opposition to seven other resolutions, including one regarding Palestinian human rights, on which we were again joined by only Israel, the US, its four Pacific satellites and Canada. Our government also joined these countries and five other states in boycotting the Durban II World Conference Against Racism, on the grounds that it would probably involve criticism of Israel's policies. Following Ehud Olmert's "Cast Lead" invasion of Gaza in December 2008, Rudd supported "Israel's right to self-defence" and the need for a diplomatic solution that will "bring a halt to rocket attacks against Israel by the terrorist organisation Hamas, [and] ... a halt to armed shipments into Gaza". (The Gazans meanwhile were to be the object of "humanitarian concern".)

In line with this position, Australia has since joined a small minority (Israel, the US, Germany, the Netherlands, Canada, New Zealand and several Eastern European nations) in voting against the acceptance of the UN-commissioned Goldstone report on human rights violations during "Cast Lead".

It is not hard to understand how these actions and words can lose Australia a lot of international support with the Security Council seat as just one aspect of this. Diplomats and journalists who have served in the Middle East have long warned of the dangers to our reputation from what is seen in Middle Eastern eyes as a policy of ignorant one-sidedness. Ross Burns, ambassador at different times to Lebanon and Syria and to Israel, describes Australia's interests as perceived "solely through the optic of our relations with Israel ... [and] our stocks [with other Middle Eastern countries] have never been lower. Former ambassador to Israel Peter Rodgers also sees Australia as having adopted an "unbalanced" position in international fora that "only encourages Israel's leaders to avoid the realities of their situation to their own detriment, and in consequence, ours". A third former ambassador to the Middle East, Pierre Hutton, describes how Australia's official attitudes are perceived there as at best out-of-touch and at worst uncritically pro-Israel.

An important contributing factor to this history is that foreign policy-making in Australia is quite unorganised, with influence flowing directly from lobbyists to politicians, rather than being mediated through a formally applied set of principles. This results in our being especially vulnerable to lobbying from groups such as the pro-Israel organisations.

And then there is trade. Trade with Israel increased under the Howard government but remains modest and strongly in their favour: our exports there in 2008–09 totalled $262 million while imports were $715 million. It has long been dwarfed by our trade with the Arab Middle Eastern states (exports of $9.3 billion in 2008) which is also rapidly growing — by 30 per cent from 2007 to 2008.

Opportunities for further expansion are also growing and not always taken up. For example, US trade with Libya grew from $18 million in April 2006 to $4.9 billion in 2008 and exports from Germany and China also increased. Libya needs goods that Australia excels in supplying, for example agricultural machinery, but our exports there remain minimal.

We have no embassy in Libya to raise our profile and Austrade's official Libyan business advisory is discouraging. Our Austrade office in Egypt (a growing economy) was shut down last year following earlier closure of offices serving Jordan and Syria. These closures, of course, diminish trade opportunities, but also Rudd's hope of selling Australia internationally as a sagacious middle-range power capable of contributing even-handedly to the Security Council (and other) international deliberations.

In her June 2009 Jerusalem address to the Australia Israel Leadership Forum, Julia Gillard reminded her audience that Australia was the first to vote in favour of UN Resolution 181 which established the state of Israel and she described how "our support has continued as strongly as ever since". Is it time for some change? Or should we follow Robert Goot's advice and abandon the Security Council seat quest if this looks like conflicting with our loyalty to Israel?

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Posted Thursday, February 11, 2010 - 15:56

I wonder what Doc Evatt would have thought of Israel's record in the ME since its creation.Uncritical support for Israel is a condition of the US alliance, apparently, and Israel is 'family' as far as the Americans are concerned,so what else can a sychophant Australian government do but support the insupportable and defend the indefensible, along with the Americans.

Incoming!!!!!Take cover!!!!

Posted Thursday, February 11, 2010 - 16:17

Getting to the real truth behind the Arab Israel conflict has been lost over the extended period of Jewish immigration and expansionism to what were fundamentally Arab lands. The genesis was basically a well organised practice of illegal immigration that was supported by European and US governments, albeit that the UK had to suffer many casualties during their period of control from the terrorists who bombed and murdered to achieve their stated aim of creating their own sovereign state.
The suppression of truth, both tacit and active, and the control of access to areas of conflict to anyone who might give an alternative understanding of what is really going on, means that our ability to be fair and impartial has been heavily biased in the favour of the state of Israel rather than the Arab communities that were invaded and then illegally occupied for many years.
Until we can properly understand both perspectives in this conflict we will be driven by our own prejudices, only a full appreciation of history and the truth, which I would expect to very ugly at times from both sides of the conflict will be helpful in finding lasting solutions.
M E McKiggan

Posted Thursday, February 11, 2010 - 16:26

I don't know what the solution can be for Israel / Palestine, but we are only contributing to the problem so far - time for a change.

Posted Thursday, February 11, 2010 - 17:35

It is hard to understand precisely what Ailsa Burns is objecting to. She seems to misunderstand the difference between what she calls "uncritical support" or "ignorant one-sidedness", and support for Israel's right to exist. Most of the international community support the latter. They - including the Australian government and previous governments - also support the right of the Palestinians to an independent state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip via a two-state solution. As far as I am aware, the Australian Government also enjoys a good relationship with the PA, and does not support Israeli settlements in the Palestinian Territories.

The Australian relationship with Israel has not always been as pally as Ailsa suggests. Rather than referring to retired diplomats who seem to hold one-sided and jaundiced views, she should read the objective and balanced account by archival historian Chanan Reich, Australia and Israel, which documents the ups and downs of this relationship.

But at the end of the day, Australia and Israel are both liberal democracies with relatively free media and social freedoms, and vigorous trade unions, and have much in common. This is the basis of their friendship. Unfortunately, the current non-democratic nature of Palestinian (and most Arab) political culture doesn't lend itself so easily to close connections.

Philip Mendes

Posted Thursday, February 11, 2010 - 19:45

Except for P. Mendez, hooray for everything above.
Australian votes on the Security Council would be nothing more than another 'follow' America, come what may, israel can do not wrong. I have said this before, I say it again.
We DO NOT deserve a place on this council, probably never, ever will whilst we uncritically support a colonialist oppressor and occupier, a grouping of people plainly guilty of gross War Crimes and Crimes Against Humanity, thus annoying about a third of the World's population.
We play war games with Burma, cozy up the new Dictator in Sri Lanka, lick rear ends of the Indonesian generals.
What a wonderful addition to the Security Council we would be.
We are trying to emulate the Chinese web. blocking. A supporter of peace and freedom. I think NOT!

Posted Thursday, February 11, 2010 - 21:25

Philip Mendes, what we have done is say we support the Palestinians' right to an independent state, then stand behind Israel as it does everthing to make its realization impossible. And deny the Palestinians at every turn when they protest against this. I say this qualifies as "uncritical support".

Posted Thursday, February 11, 2010 - 22:43

First off a slight correction. Operation Cast Lead was launched in December 2008 not December 2009 and it was launched by the previous government led by Ehud Olmert not the current government led by Benjamin Netanyahu.

The author maintains that

<cite>The Arab League of course commands a significant bloc of votes, so their opposition is a serious threat. </cite>

this goes to the very heart of the uphill battle that Israel faces at the United Nations and why so many people, within Israel and in the International community, are at odds with the United Nations. The Arab bloc, along with the African bloc and several European states that rely on the Arabs for economic reasons, ensure that Israel cannot get a fair hearing. Considering that many within the Arab bloc are still at war with Israel it suits them that they control the majority vote within the UN General Assembly. They ensure that the spotlight constantly shines on Israel regardless of the infraction (hence why the oft-repeated claim that Israel has had more UN resolutions passed against than any other nation combined is a moronic charge) and ensure that member states within the Arab and North African blocs are rarely, if ever, rebuked or investigated by the UN. The credibility of various UN bodies is also seriously diminished by this bloc voting systems. The 'Human Rights Council', the laughable and extraordinarily bias successor to the Commission on Human Rights, was rebuked by its own Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon for "singling out only one specific regional item given the range and scope of allegations of human rights violations throughout the world".

The article asks if we should indeed be changing our stance at the United Nations and the answer is no. Regardless of whether or not we lose this seat it is imperative that we ensure that we do not lose our sense of right and wrong. The moral majority of the United Nations, such as the US, Australia, Canada, Germany etc, those democratic states that have the basic tenants of human rights enshrined within their actions, all side with Israel and against the immoral, dictatorial, theocratic states such as Iran, Sudan, Libya, North Korea etc etc who oppress their own citizens from speaking out against them.

Australia's rejection of the Goldstone was morally justified. The Goldstone report is fundamentally flawed and anyone would recognise this if they happened to read the entire document. The report not only disproportionately blames Israel (and immorally states that Israel had a military doctrine of deliberately targeting the civilian infrastructure) but it appears that their primary military analyst on the report, Col (ret) Desmond Travers, stated that 'only two' rockets were launched by Hamas in the month prior to Operation Cast Lead when there were in fact more than 30 rockets were fired at Israel by Hamas on Decembers 16,17,18 alone. Travers ignorance shows that this 'report' is not worth the paper it is printed on.

(please see: http://www.jcpa.org/JCPA/Templates/ShowPage.asp?DRIT=0&DBID=1&LNGID=1&TM...



In conclusion Australia's stance at the United Nations should remain unchanged. Increasingly more and more countries are joining the stance against the significant Arab/African blocs as we have seen with the nations that rejected the Goldstone report and boycotted the hateful Durban II review conference. Australia should stick by its moral compass and not give in to the hateful theocracies and dictatorships that control the UN with their petro-dollars and spit on the Human Rights charter.

Posted Thursday, February 11, 2010 - 23:01

Granted the apparent Orwellian world of the ME, "Animal farm" and the "Eye for an eye" policies over there have left most of the parties closest to the situation blind and bitter.

Those of us far removed who should be able to see reason are too concerned with narrow short term benefits such as exports and trade and cudos and self-interest.

Maybe rather than cowtowing to the UN and big power interests, we should be boycotting them and setting an example by concentrating more on the Asia - Pacific region, where we live, and think as well as act more locally, and let the UN and globalisation go take a flying leap.
After all China, japan and India will look after our economy, ie if we don't criticise their human rights records, stop their whaling,or bash up their students.

Posted Friday, February 12, 2010 - 00:58

The other price is paid by our service personnel in Afghanistan.
The cowards in Canberra are despised as much at home as abroad.

Palestine, Tibet, Kashmir and West Papua. Hardly the Gallipoli spirit.

Posted Friday, February 12, 2010 - 11:14

Dear Raffe

Thanks for your comment and pointing out the error with the date.

This has now been amended.


Managing Editor
<a href="http://newmatilda.com" target="_blank">newmatilda.com</a>

Posted Friday, February 12, 2010 - 12:23

Australia's continued support of Israel has far more to do with having more common ground such as democracy, rule of law and religion, rather than it being a total lack of support for Palestine, who as a member of the Arab League are just as ethnically and racially prejudiced (if not more so) than Israel, who at least accepts non -Jews as citizens.
And no doubt many Australians are frightened by the extremist, fundamentalism of political groups such as Hamas gaining too much power and so tend to identify with Israel as a much safer, more modern and forward thinking option to support.
Also I'm sure most Australians would not believe that by supporting Israel this means not supporting Palestine, as support for the two states need not be mutually exclusive.
Hopefully, if Australia does gain a seat on the Security Council it will be by remaining true to our own values and principles, without fear or favour to any other state or nation.
Because sometimes economic values are, or need to be overidden by social ones.

Posted Friday, February 12, 2010 - 15:23

aidy griffin

I do agree with Raffe that it is "is imperative that we ensure that we do not lose our sense of right and wrong.". For precisely that reason I feel it is time for Australia to adopt a more balanced approach to ME issues.

For me and it seems, many other Australians, Israel's abhorrnet policies and actions mean that any claim Israel may have had to the high moral ground has long since disappeared. Ongoing brutal military occupation - after 40 years, there are no credible excuses left for ongoing occupation except expansionism - regularly-recurring war crimes and the never ending massacres of Palestinian civilians, including women and children offend my sense of right and wrong. Nor is it any defence to claim that the other side is just as bad/worse. Israel is responsible for its own actions and must face up to the consequences.

To me, it seems that the basis for a long term peace in the ME is clear to everyone bar the combatants. This involves a two state solution, with respect for security and territorial integrity, based on the internationally recognised pre-1967 borders.

This is the basis of the Arab League's current proposals for a peaceful settlement of outstanding issues, so it is not credible to argue that these proposals won't be accepted by the Arab side. Israel came close to this position with Barak's proposals in the past. I dare say a referendum on these proposals in both Israel and Palestine would achieve a popular endorsement for peace and co-existence. It would hardly be remarkable that, given the chance, ordinary people on both sides would choose peace where their leaders and "statesmen" cannot.

Australia's most effective, most moral and happily enough, most self serving contribution to a lasting peace in the ME would be to adopt an even-handed position supporting these proposals and to abandon its uncritical support of Israel's expansionism and consistent attempts to integrate the West Bank into the Israeli nation.

Posted Monday, February 15, 2010 - 13:22

How do our DFAT officials in Canberra find the cheek to reject the Goldstone report?
Goldstone, a Jew with a conscience and a jurist criticised for dealing with the truth, is just another victim of Zionism of the brand created after Herzl wrote "Der Judenstaat" (The Jewish State) back in 1896 and the founding of the World Zionist Organization which has morphed into modern day Israel.

For more than a century Zionists have been misleading themselves and others that their criminal intentions are somehow "democratic".

Goldstone highlights how we are all misled, Zionists and peace lovers alike.

The images of the IDF’s white phosphorus shells bursting over UN refugee shelters will never be removed from our collective memory. Not only that, but initial bold faced lying and Israeli denial that it used white phosphorous is also stored in our collective memory. The perception that Israel committed a massacre in broad daylight is not going to be wiped out, ever.

But for a very small and insignificant minority in Australia, and despite the efforts of our DFAT in Canberra, Australians are largely not divided about Israel being a criminal state and the biggest threat to world peace.

The repulsion towards Israel and its brutality is actually a growing unifying force amongst humanists, peace lovers and democrats throughout the world.

Justice Goldstone has introduced to the record of world history his report and from that report Israel will never be exonerated.

The courage of Goldstone can be best understood when considering the fact that, despite being a Jew his report criticises Israel, which defines itself as the Jewish state, and by extension its crimes reflect disastrously on Jews as a collective, something that not even a dozen Jewish anti Zionist activists around the world can change.

From an historical perspective it is rather clear that Israel has been very successful in exhausting the last drops of sympathy it may have had from the gullible west for the idea of Jewish nationalism with special privileges reserved for themselves in every country across the globe. As it happens, not a single humanist stands up against Goldstone or his balanced report.

And yet, as much as humanists are united behind the Goldstone report, our democratically elected leaders in Australia fail to confront Israel and its Jewish lobbies and until they do we have no place at any forum which affects the future or the security of our global community.