Australia’s opposition to the Palestinians’ admission to UNESCO, the UN cultural organisation, shows why some of us want to take this portion of foreign policy into our own hands through boycott, divestment and sanctions. By joining just 13 other countries in the "no" camp, out of 173 to cast a vote, Australia confirmed its position on the pro-Israeli fringe of world political opinion.
Even the US State Department spokeswoman, pressed by an unusually persistent reporter, struggled to articulate one good reason why the move should be seen as harmful to whatever tattered prospects remain for a renewed "peace process" with Israel.
This "hard core" was even smaller, at seven votes, in the UN General Assembly this time last year, on a motion that:
"Reaffirmed the illegality of Israeli actions intended to change the status of Jerusalem… [and]Reaffirmed [the General Assembly’s]commitment to the two-State solution of Israel and Palestine living side by side in peace and security within recognized borders, the Assembly also stressed the need for Israel to withdraw from Palestinian territory occupied since 1967, including East Jerusalem."
The wording was designed to maximise consensus in favour: nothing in it is at odds with the generally recognised facts of the situation, and the main points of international law. And yet Australia opposed this too, along with the US, Israel itself and those luminaries of the international community, the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru and Palau.
In this, it is out of step with Australian public opinion, which would favour a more balanced approach. An online Research Now survey of 1,021 Australians last year, by researchers from Griffith University, showed that "The majority (55 per cent) understand the Israel-Palestine conflict to be about ‘Palestinians trying to end Israel’s occupation and form their own state’".
The UN General Assembly motion precisely reflects this view — but Australia rejected it.
Earlier, the Prime Minister (then deputy PM), Julia Gillard, characterised ‘Operation Cast Lead’, the attack on Gaza in 2008-9, as no more than Israel exercising its "right to defend itself". But a separate opinion poll, conducted by Roy Morgan for the Coalition for Justice and Peace in Palestine, found that more Australians rejected this view than supported it.
The UNESCO vote came shortly after some 20 academics at the University of Sydney, contacted at short notice, signed a letter objecting to a so-called ‘Israel Research Forum’ held at the University this week.
The privately funded event was intended to burnish Israel’s image through fostering research partnerships with universities including Technion, in Haifa, which — like several other institutions involved — is up to its neck in complicity with weapons manufacturers and the Israeli military.
It’s also home to the Samuel Neaman Institute, which in 2009 published the Neaman Report on public diplomacy, commissioned by Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. It considers how to present and promote Israel abroad, in response to the perceived "problem" of international public opinion about the conflict with the Palestinians. One of its recommendations is to identify "beneficial clients" of public diplomacy including "educational organizations … active in areas such as professional aspects of technology, industry, agriculture etc".
Coincidentally or not, it was just such areas that were being discussed at the University of Sydney event. One of the objections was that it risked being seen as public diplomacy, based on attempts to "change the subject" away from Israel’s breaches of international law and treatment of Palestinians.
Students who attempted to register for the Forum were accepted if they gave "Anglo" names but not if they had Arabic names. Some of the latter were told the event was full, even though they had emailed before some Anglos who were invited to attend: an apparent attempt at racial profiling, which served merely to amplify the existing concerns.
Reports of the event, and the criticisms it received, smoked out familiar objections to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, from supporters of Israel and of Canberra’s reflex pro-Israel line at the UN and elsewhere.
Chief among these is: why pick on Israel, when there are much worse abusers of human rights? We do not take matters into our own hands when it comes to dealing with, say, Iran or Syria because (a) neither of them is carrying on an illegal military occupation of someone else’s territory and (b) the abuses their governments mete out to civilian protesters and dissidents find no apologists in Australian politics, and are already and rightly condemned by Australian diplomacy.
Neither, by the way, is any other country carrying out a collective punishment of another people, in violation of Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which is what Israel’s continuing siege of Gaza amounts to. Hence the Freedom Flotilla, which has just reached international waters with an Australian, Sydney youth worker Michael Coleman, on board, along with supplies of banned materials.
Why not boycott America? Surely its indiscriminate drone attacks on Pakistani villages, its aggressive invasion of Iraq and long record of exceptionalism make it the obvious target?
In a sense, this campaign is indeed aimed at the unacceptable face of US foreign policy. In structural terms, Washington wants a peace process between Israel and the Palestinians but the record suggests it does not actually want peace. The former creates an ‘indispensable’ role for America in the Middle East, which is a major strategic asset. The latter would risk negating it.
As France’s President Nicolas Sarkozy told the UN Summit in September, when it discussed the Palestinians’ bid for statehood, the US-sponsored process has failed — unsurprisingly, since the self-appointed mediator is also the chief arms dealer and diplomatic protector of one of the parties. It serves Washington’s interests but not those, ultimately, of anyone else.
That is why the Palestinians have taken matters into their own hands, and that is why we in the Boycott Divestment Sanctions movement are doing our bit to support them.
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