Taking Sides In The Middle East


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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