The Australian Government abstained from voting for the successful UN General Assembly resolution on the recognition of the "non-member observer state" of Palestine. The Government, which already accepts the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination, unfortunately won’t get the opportunity to vote on the side of history again.
Anyone with an interest in the region will be aware of the difficulty that both Israelis and Palestinians face in confronting and dealing with the issues of territory, Israeli settlements and Palestinian refugees. The necessary compromises will inevitably be painful and for many, seem like a betrayal of long-held aspirations. The task of the Israeli government and future Palestinian government, together with the international community, must be to guide both countries towards a resolution they can both live with.
Putting aside the propaganda and rhetoric that permeates this debate, Israel and the Palestinians formally recognised each other when the Oslo Accords were signed in 1993. But 19 years of on-again, off-again negotiations since then have all ended in failure. The recent flare up of violence between Israel and Gaza in which Israel exploited Hamas’ short fuse, divisions between the two main Palestinian factions, Israel’s continuing settlement expansion in the West Bank and the legitimisation of extremism, are all factors working against finding a resolution to the conflict.
The current political dynamic has not favoured a resumption of negotiations. However, the UN vote was a clear statement by the international community that Palestinians deserve a state of their own, that they are a people with rights, and Israel must come to terms with this reality. However, such recognition also comes with expectations for Palestinians. It is a significant move towards dealing with the Palestinian refugee issue within the boundaries of previous UN resolutions, and rather than solely through the principle of an inalienable "right of return", much as that is a cherished belief.
Formal recognition of Palestine has caused fury in Israel, who today in reprisal withheld millions in funds to Palestine for the payment of civil servants. But it is also likely to renew debate about the brutalising effect of the 45 years of occupation, the resulting damage to Israel’s own democratic processes, and the sustainability of the settlement project.
There seem to be several lessons from the recent politics around this episode in the Australian public sphere:
First, the so-called official leadership of the Australian Jewish community (the Israel "Lobby") overplayed its hand in trying to influence foreign policy; its murky political wheeling and dealing, revolving around support for one party or another, is now bubbling to the surface.
The result was an ugly brawl in government in which the "interests of Israel" were seemingly rebuffed by those concerned for Australia’s own independent foreign policy. How the Lobby is to be regarded or treated in the future in Canberra is a matter for speculation, but it is an opportunity for considered viewpoints to be taken more seriously.
If the Coalition wins next year’s election, it is likely that the same tensions will surface — there are Liberals who share the same views about Palestine as "pro-Palestine" Labor or Green members. For Labor, it became painfully obvious that icons such as Bob Hawke, a strong Zionist, understand the reality of international politics, where Gillard appears amateurish.
Second, for those on the progressive side of politics, hopes such as the full right-of-return or a one-state solution, for which thousands of aspirational words have been written, may not get international support. What the international community can broker may well be the solution that the Left needs to deal with: the emergence of a state-actually two states — with strong, secular civil societies that can work out their relationships non-violently, whether in a federation or weak-border partnership, or any one of a number of models that are proposed.
It is a fantasy to think that Israel can be wished out of the equation, or that the ideology of "anti-normalisation" that has become a mantra in some quarters, puts Israel out of the question as a partner to conflict resolution. The reality is that Israel has to be dealt with, and in one shape or other, it will continue to be a centre of Jewish life and a neighbour to Palestinians.
Third, recognition of Palestinian observer status means a change for progressives from the current narrow focus of discourse and action, which revolves around the evils of the occupation, Palestinian rights and the Boycotts, Divestments and Sanctions (BDS) campaign. We are beyond student politics.
It may mean working with Canberra much more effectively to develop credible alternatives for Palestinian governance post-occupation that can be raised in influential international forums and directly, with Palestinians of all political shades, difficult as this may be. The development of positive alternatives coming from democracies is something which Right-wing Israelis and their diaspora supporters will find increasingly difficult to white-ant because all they will have to argue for is a control regime with apartheid-like features that benefits one group over another, rather than a true democratic process.
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