Labor And The Coalition Are Failing Palestine, It’s Time For Civil Society To Take Over

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Lobbying politicians in Australia has not brought them into line with international opinion. A new campaign aims to turn that around, writes Jake Lynch.

Australia’s peak Palestine support group, the Australia Palestine Advocacy Network, has voted at its Annual General Meeting to “endorse a policy of boycotts, divestment and sanctions (BDS) of Israeli and international institutions complicit in violations of human rights and international law in Israel-Palestine”.

APAN has resisted support for BDS in the past, preferring to concentrate on lobbying politicians, both individually and through parties, and doubtless aware of the demonisation and dirty tricks of the Israel lobby and its rightwing allies that are directed at anyone who actually does anything to uphold Palestinian rights and freedoms, as opposed to merely talking about them. Its new move represents a significant shift in tactics, borne of frustration at the lack of meaningful progress on either side of politics in Canberra. (The Greens are the honourable exception, with their campaign, led by NSW Senator Lee Rhiannon, for Australia at least to stop trading arms with Israel).

There are individuals within the Coalition parties who are sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, but the government benches are generally regarded as impervious to reason and evidence (on this and other key topics such as human-induced climate change, and the futility of bombing Syria).

How could it be otherwise, with a former Attorney-General (George Brandis) who unilaterally declared that Palestinian East Jerusalem was “not occupied territory” and a Foreign Minister who demanded to know, of an Israeli interviewer, which bit of international humanitarian law made Jewish settlements in the West Bank illegal. (Only the best-known bit, the Fourth Geneva Convention, which baldly states: “the occupying power must not transfer any portion of its population into the territory it occupies”).

For a long time, however, the Australian Labor Party was seen as potentially more amenable, especially as other social-democratic parties around the world had started to achieve success in their campaign for the recognition of Palestine, following the United Nations vote in 2012 to accord the Palestinians the status of a non-member observer state. APAN enjoys substantial links with Labor through trade unions, who represent some of the Network’s biggest affiliates.

Hence, a great deal of APAN’s effort and concentration was directed at the ALP’s triennial policy-making conference, which took place in Melbourne in late July. In the weeks leading up to the meeting, former Foreign Minister Bob Carr took a prominent role in arranging for Labor MPs to receive briefings on the situation in the Occupied Territories, including from prominent members of Australia’s Palestinian community.

In the event, the motion adopted did indeed commit “a future Labor government… [to]discuss joining like minded nations who have already recognised Palestine and [to]announce… the conditions and timelines for the Australian recognition of a Palestinian state, with the objective of contributing to peace and security in the Middle East”. Crucially, however, this commitment was diluted by an extra condition, inserted at the behest of representatives such as Melbourne Ports MP Michael Danby. The discussion presaged in the motion would commence only “if there is no progress in the next round of the peace process”.

This amounts to collusion in the cruel pretence that Israel will ever enter into meaningful negotiations, or make any concessions to the Palestinians, while there is no pressure on it to do so. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu lifted the lid on this deception with his pledge, while running for election, never to legislate for a Palestinian state: a pledge affirmed with absolute clarity by Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, who this month became the 11th member of the present Israeli cabinet to make such a public statement. “We are against a Palestinian state,” she said. “There is not and never will be a Palestinian state.”

It is, as President Barack Obama complained following Netanyahu’s re-election, now impossible to convince anyone that Israel is serious about peace. We should note the nuance, however: the standard requirement of an administration in Washington is not that Israel should be serious about peace, merely that it should remain possible to convince people that it is.

Instead, world political opinion is increasingly of the view expressed by a senior British Conservative MP, Richard Ottaway, who was Chair of the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee at the time of last year’s vote in the UK parliament to recognise a Palestinian state.

He had been a supporter of Israel since before entering politics, Ottaway recalled, but: “Looking back over the last 20 years, I realise now Israel has slowly been drifting away from world public opinion”. A recent move to annexe a chunk of the Occupied West Bank had, he said, “outraged me more than anything else in my political life. It has made me look a fool and that is something I deeply resent”.

This is why the realisation has spread so fast that only if complicity by the international community is withdrawn, and relationships made conditional on changes in behaviour, will there be enough pressure within Israel to give meaningful consideration to the claims of peace with justice. Contra to the ALP position, it is futile to promise recognition if the peace process gets nowhere: only if there is recognition, along with other forms of pressure, will talks have any chance of success. That is the meaning of the weekend’s APAN vote.

The worldwide BDS campaign is a nonviolent initiative that is beginning to make significant gains. It has brought pressure to bear on corporate complicity, leading to the French-owned multinational, Veolia, selling its stake in Jerusalem Light Rail, which connects West Jerusalem with illegal Israeli settlements. And a UN report found that foreign direct investment into Israel halved in 2014, a drop attributed by its Israeli co-author to revulsion at the indiscriminate military attacks on Gaza, coupled with the increasing profile of calls for boycott.

Of course, there are myriad BDS targets in Australia because the country is teeming with “institutions complicit in violations of human rights and international law in Israel-Palestine”, to quote the new APAN policy. One of them is the University of Sydney, where phoney Fellowship schemes link with the Technion University of Haifa, and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, both of which are up to their neck in the occupation.

Hence the call by the Sydney Staff for BDS group, which joined APAN this year, to revoke such schemes as a misuse of the University’s good name, and that of scholarly research in general, as part of so-called ‘public diplomacy’ whose aim is reduce pressure from the international community for a change in policy.

Jake Lynch is a member of Sydney Staff for BDS, which affiliates with APAN.

Jake Lynch

Associate Professor Jake Lynch is Director of the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Sydney; an Executive Member of the Sydney Peace Foundation and Secretary General of the International Peace Research Association. He is also a Senior Research Fellow of the School of Communication at the University of Johannesburg.

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