Israel Decides

On the ABC website, I have an opinion piece on the upcoming Israeli election.
We owe it as friends to warn Israel, The Drum, 15 January 2013

Israelis will go to the polls next Tuesday to elect a new government.

If early signs are to be believed, Israel's most conservative government ever may be replaced by one even further to the right.

Already, there are signs that settler activity will intensify after the election.

The question for Australia is: what can we do to bring about peace in the Middle East?

First, some background.

In last November's United Nations vote on Palestinian status, Israel lost the support of 95 per cent of United Nations members (including the United Kingdom, the Netherlands and Germany). If there was one reason, it was the remorseless spread of settlements.

Around 510,000 Israeli settlers now reside in the West Bank. Since the 1993 Oslo Peace Accord, the number of Israeli settlers has doubled. With every block of settlements, a Palestinian state gets harder.

All these settlements are illegal under international law.

The Fourth Geneva Convention, to which Israel is a party, says "the Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies".

This isn't just a matter of legal niceties. From a practical standpoint, settlements make it vastly more difficult - if not impossible - to set up a Palestinian state.

This is a view shared by most mainstream foreign policy makers around the world.

For example, the Conservative British Government could teach a lesson to our timorous Coalition. UK Foreign Minister William Hague said Israel's settlements plans would "alter the situation on the ground on a scale that makes the two state solution, with Jerusalem as a shared capital, increasingly difficult to achieve."

New Zealand's conservative government went further still, voting yes to the UN resolution.

The final United Nations vote last year saw 138 countries vote in favour of giving Palestine "non-member state" status (akin to the Vatican). Forty-one nations (including Australia) abstained. Only nine voted in favour.

According to news reports, Foreign Minister Bob Carr subsequently phoned the Palestinian Foreign Minister, Riad Malki, and warned him to proceed cautiously at the UN now that Palestine's status had been upgraded.

Australia does not want to see early reference to the International Criminal Court or for the Palestinians to use their newly-gained status to seek membership of other UN bodies.

But the response from Israel was deeply troubling.

Within 48 hours of the UN vote, the Netanyahu Government announced it would build 3,000 new housing units in East Jerusalem and the West Bank and unfreeze planning in the area known as the E1.It was difficult for reasonable observers to see this as anything other than the Israeli Government using settlement policy as punishment.

Former Obama chief of staff Rahm Emanuel said Israel had "repeatedly betrayed" the Obama Administration. The European Union said that the viability of a two-state solution was threatened by this systematic expansion of settlements. A two-state solution is the key to Israel's long-term security.

Yet that isn't the view from everyone.

In a recent article in The Guardian, Jonathan Freedland quoted two hardline members of Israel's right.

Referring to a Palestinian member of the Knesset, Naftali Bennett of the Jewish Home Party said: "When you were still climbing trees, we had a Jewish state here... We were here long before you."

Projections have the new Jewish Home Party winning as many as 18 of the 120 Knesset seats.

Moshe Feiglin of the Likud party reportedly said: "You can't teach a monkey to speak and you can't teach an Arab to be democratic. You're dealing with a culture of thieves and robbers ... The Arab destroys everything he touches."As former Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Yossi Beilin has pointed out: "Israel's right-wing parties - which in 1993 rejected the Oslo Accords that envisaged Israeli withdrawal from parts of the West Bank and Gaza Strip and the establishment of Palestinian autonomy in those areas - are now using, and abusing, that same agreement to prevent Palestinian statehood".

In this atmosphere, Australia has one responsibility above all: tell the Israelis, as one friend to another, that the path they are on is self-destructive.

Consider what happens if there is no Palestinian state, but only a Greater Israel as some settlers seek: Israel ends up governing a large Arab population.

As David Ben-Gurion famously argued, Israel can be a Jewish state, it can be a democratic state, and it can be a state occupying the whole of historical Israel. But it cannot be all three.

The risk, in the words of Tzipi Livni, leader of centrist party Hatnuah, is Israel becoming a "boycotted, isolated and ostracised state".

As a strong friend of Israel, Australia has a duty to highlight this danger.

The Australian Government has a warm regard for Israel as the strongest democracy in the Middle East. We acknowledge the power of its courts, of judges who can overrule its executive. We respect its freedom of expression, the lively political debate and acceptance of dissent like its vocal peace movement.

As an economist, I am a particular fan of Israel's vibrant culture of innovation, as exemplified in Dan Senor and Saul Singer's terrific book Start-Up Nation.

The Australian Government has firmly asked the Palestinians not to be provocative.

We have stressed that a return to negotiations based on recognition of Israel was the way to get a Palestinian state. But that won't work if Israel imagines it can count on our support even when it pursues a policy rendering a two-state solution unachievable.

There can be no peace without a Palestinian state. And there can be no Palestinian state if settlement activity roars ahead.

Andrew Leigh is the federal member for Fraser.

Please post any comments on the Drum website.

Update: On a similar theme, David Remnick's New Yorker piece on Israel's rightward shift is well worth a read.

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Cnr Gungahlin Pl and Efkarpidis Street, Gungahlin ACT 2912 | 02 6247 4396 | [email protected] | Authorised by A. Leigh MP, Australian Labor Party (ACT Branch), Canberra.