Australian Foreign Policy and Israel: An Enduring Disgrace

The recent visit to Australia by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the forthcoming foreign policy White Paper should provide an opportunity for Australia to re-examine its support for the State of Israel.  There is, however, every indication that the current and past levels of support will endure.  The most puzzling question is: why is this the case?

The creation of the State of Israel in 1948 and its subsequent acceptance into the then largely white man’s club of the United Nations has been fraught with difficulties from the outset.

As early as 1950 (Resolution 394) the UN was calling for Arab-Israeli peace negotiations and a solution to the problem of Palestinian refugees.  The Palestinian refugee problem was created by the massive displacement of Palestinians from their ancestral lands by the creation of the Israeli State.  Nearly 70 years later, far from being resolved, the problem is greater than ever.

The Six Day War in 1967 was another hammer blow to the hopes of the Palestinians for a resolution of their problems.  Not only did Israel annex more Palestinian land, it occupied Jerusalem and seized the Syrian Golan Heights.  If there was ever a possibility of a “two state solution”, it surely died then.  Repeated claims to finding a two State solution through some “peace process” have been part of the standard rhetoric ever since.  It is delusional.

Since the Six Day War there have been innumerable UN Resolutions, both in the Security Council and in the General Assembly variously either condemning Israel for repeated violations of previous UN Resolutions, or endeavouring to advance the resolution of what was already an intractable problem.

The pattern is by now a familiar one.  The resolutions typically demand, for example, that Israel cease its violations of human rights; withdraw from the occupied territories; and comply with international law.

The Security Council, as long ago as 1979 (Resolution 446) determined that Israeli settlements were a serious obstruction to peace and called for Israel to abide by the terms of the Fourth Geneva Convention.  That convention, ratified by Israel in 1951, provides for the humanitarian protection of civilians in a war zone.

Labeling the expansion of Israeli settlements a “serious obstruction to peace” is essentially what Resolution 2234 of December 2016 did.  This latter resolution was passed by 14 votes to nil, with the United States abstaining.  The Australian government, however, labeled it “one-sided” and said that if it had still been a member of the Security Council, it would have voted against the resolution.

That statement was very revealing.  There has been no rational explanation as to how the resolution was “one-sided” when it was consistent with UN policy for several decades, and the votes of the massive majority of UN members in regular General Assembly resolutions over the past 40 years.

Perhaps more significantly, given the generally dismissive attitude of successive Australian governments to the expressed will of the majority, and its equally frequent condemnation of nations that fail to comply with what it is pleased to call “a rules based international order” is that Australia’s stance is inconsistent with international law.

Australia, for example, is also a signatory to the Fourth Geneva Convention and Israel is manifestly in non-compliance with its obligations under the Convention.  The term “occupied territories” was first used in relation to the Palestinian territories in UN Security Council Resolution 242 in November 1967.  Since then the Security Council, the General Assembly, a plethora of learned articles in international law journals, and most significantly, the International Court of Justice have all described the Palestinian territories as “occupied”, and Israel as the “occupying power.”

The significance of this terminology is that it thereby invokes the 1899 and 1907 Hague Conventions as well as the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1948.  The most relevant provision of the Fourth Geneva Convention for present purposes is Article 49 (6), which states:

The occupying power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies.

Nothing could be plainer.  Resolutions condemning the Israeli settlements on occupied land simply reflect the terms of Article 49(6).  In what way is that “one-sided” as the Australian government insists?

Another area in which the Australian government policy is marked by hypocrisy and duplicity is in the issue of nuclear weapons.

Resolution 3263 on 9 December 1974 called for the establishment of a nuclear free zone in the Middle East.  Israel has ignored that resolution and is now the fourth largest nuclear power in the world (after Russia, the United States and China).  The fact that Israel is nuclear armed is not something that is ever admitted by Israel, nor is it discussed or debated in the Australian parliament or the mainstream media.

This lack of public acknowledgment goes further.  UNSC Resolution 36/98 of 9 December 1981 demanded that Israel renounce possession of nuclear weapons and submit its facilities for inspection.  That this has never happened will come as no surprise.

Notwithstanding its own total lack of cooperation with the UN, Netanyahu has been among the loudest of voices since at least the 1990s in insisting that Iran is only ever “months away” from having a nuclear weapon. Israel has demanded and obtained sanctions against Iran for its alleged nuclear weapons program.  Australia supported these sanctions despite the complete absence of any evidence of any such nuclear weapons program by Iran.  All 16 US intelligence agencies twice concluded that Iran did not have a nuclear weapons program, yet that did not silence the Israeli demands or Australia’s support for sanctions.

The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) brokered by Russia and unanimously approved by the Security Council in 2015 effectively precluded Iran from ever developing nuclear weapons.   Yet Netanyahu maintains his anti-Iran “nuclear threat” rhetoric, which Australia says or does nothing to rebut.

Australia also still maintains sanctions against Iran in clear violation of the terms of the JCPOA.

Australia also extends Israel the courtesy of silence on other multiple violations of international law.  A far from exhaustive list of instances of this friendly silence include:

  • Israel’s repeated bombings at various times of Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Jordan and Tunisia.
  • Israel’s repeated attacks upon Lebanon and its 18-year occupation of Southern Lebanon.
  • The occupation (since 1967) of Syria’s Golan Heights, which Netanyahu has vowed will never be returned to Syria.
  • Operation Protective Edge, which killed over 2000 Gazans, including 551 children and 299 women. There were 6000 air strikes in that Operation (Gaza has neither an air force nor air defences).  More than 18,000 housing units were destroyed, as were 22 schools with a further 118 damaged, and 24 medical facilities were either damaged or destroyed.
  • The deliberate destruction of civilian infrastructure is a war crime. Yet, on the occasion of Netanyahu’s visit the Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull opined in an op-ed in The Australian (22 February 2017) “our people’s are bound together first and foremost by the values we share- a mutual commitment to freedom, democracy and the rule of law.”  This is an entirely fanciful description of Israel.
  • The construction of a massive wall dissecting Palestinian territory. This is rarely if ever shown on Australian television and never with any critical commentary.  The propaganda use made of the Berlin Wall is an instructive comparison.

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop gave an interview to the Times of Israel, published on 15 January 2014.  The article was headlined: Australian Foreign Minister: Don’t Call Settlements Illegal Under International Law.  Bishop was further quoted in the body of the article as saying “I would like to see which international law has described them as illegal.”

This is an astonishingly ignorant statement by a Foreign Minister and former lawyer.  It is difficult to believe that she and her department are entirely oblivious to, inter alia, the various Conventions to which Australia and Israel are a party; the facts on the ground (after all there is a steady stream of Australian parliamentarians visiting Israel) and in particular the ruling of the International Court of Justice on 9 July 2004.

The ICJ ruled that the Palestinian Territories were “occupied” by Israel; that the settlements were a breach of international law; and that Israel was bound by the international humanitarian law embodied in the 4th Geneva Convention.

It is this wilful blindness both to the law and the facts, amply documented, that perhaps explains Australia’s voting record in the UN on all issues relating to Israel-Palestine questions.  That voting record is comprehensively analysed in “Australian Foreign Policy: Israeli Settlements, East Jerusalem and International Law” by Rebecca Borys in a Report published in 2014.

Her research may be summarised thus: since 1967, with a few minor variations depending on the government in power, Australia has either abstained or, more commonly, voted in favour of Israel’s position in General Assembly resolutions.  The details of this are again rarely reported fully in the Australian media.

On the multiple occasions when Australia has voted against resolutions critical of Israel, it has been with literally a handful of other nations to do so.  The balance of that handful is typically Israel, the United States, Canada, the Marshall Islands, Nauru, Micronesia and Palau.

Even the US occasionally abstains, so egregious is Israel’s conduct.  That was the case with Resolution 2234, which according to Bishop and Turnbull was “one-sided” and Australia would have voted against it had they still been a member of the Security Council.  Australia would then effectively be a minority of 1.

The puzzle remains as to why Australia is willing to be such an international pariah, defiant in the face of both the facts and the law.  It is not for trade advantages as Israel is well down the list of trading partners, accounting for 0.1% of Australia’s exports and 44 in the rankings.

It is equally unlikely to be electoral advantage.  As consistently shown in the national Morgan poll, a solid majority disapproves of Israel’s conduct and Australia’s policies toward Israel.  The Jewish vote, even assuming it was unanimous, which is far from the case, is only 0.5% of the Australian population according to the 2011 Census.

Even the Australia-Israel Jewish Affairs Committee issued a statement that was more critical of the latest settler moves by the Israeli government than was heard from either Labor or the Coalition government.

Perhaps the depressing conclusion of Professor Stuart Rees (New Matilda 18 February 2017) is correct when he says, the Australian and Israeli governments have much in common.  Each seems determined to not care much about international law and to care even less about the suffering of the Palestinians.”

One would prefer to think that the polls more accurately reflect the Australian people’s position.  The challenge is to translate that support for Palestine into an actual change in Australian foreign policy.  The long-standing stance of successive Australian governments is an affront to not only the legitimate aspirations of the Palestinian people.  The status quo represents a very real threat to peace in the region and by extension to the rest of the world.

James O'Neill is a retired Barrister at Law and geopolitical analyst. He can be contacted at Read other articles by James.