First published in the National Times on 19 September 2011.
FOR elements of both left and right in Australia, the Palestinian-Israeli dispute has become an issue of the first order, quite unrelated to any realistic assessment of its importance to Australia.
Some members of the Greens and the ALP support boycotts of Israeli products, which has created confrontations in Melbourne and Sydney. The mainstream of both major parties remains deeply committed to Israel, and any criticism of its government is denounced rather than discussed.
Even the suggestion that Australia might abstain from rather than oppose this week's General Assembly vote on recognising Palestinian statehood will bring abuse on the government.
Israel, backed by the United States, insists that admitting a Palestinian state to the United Nations would be a blow to the peace process. ''The road to peace,'' said US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, ''runs through Jerusalem and Ramallah, not New York.''
It is understandable that the Israeli government does not want to legitimise the General Assembly as a mediator in the conflict. The assembly vote would recognise the pre-1967 borders of Israel, thus eliminating large areas of Israeli settlement over the past 30 years.
Yet the Israeli government's adamant opposition to recognition of a Palestinian state is puzzling. If Israel is committed, as it says, to a two-state solution, would recognition not help in cementing support for the concept? Indeed, as increasing numbers of Palestinians and some Israelis come to argue that a two-state solution is no longer feasible, and as demographic changes threaten the ''Jewishness'' of Israel under its current borders, it is in Israel's long-term interests to build support for the two-state model.
The move to recognise Palestinian statehood is led by the more moderate faction under President Mahmoud Abbas, with whom Israel has consistently claimed it can negotiate. Indeed, some senior Hamas figures have spoken against it: one claimed it would mean ''the Palestinian resistance won't be allowed to fire one single gunshot at the Israeli occupation''. Is this not for Israel a desirable outcome?
Since the 1967 war, Israel has consistently placed short-term tactical victories ahead of longer-term strategic thinking. It has relied on military force and American backing to maintain a status quo. But one consequence of the so-called Arab Spring is that Israel's de facto Arab allies, particularly Egypt, can no longer be relied on to back this status quo.
It is significant that Turkey is moving quickly from being a de facto ally of Israel to a leading proponent of the Palestinian cause. This does not mean that Turkey seeks the abolition of the state of Israel. It is a signal that the most powerful country in the region - and a democracy, despite the claim that Israel is the only such state in the Middle East - recognises that a paradigm shift is required.
This is rarely acknowledged in Australia, where debate, while sometimes intense, rarely goes beyond entrenched set pieces on both sides. The pro-Palestinian lobby is small, and too often engages in acts that are counterproductive. The pro-Israeli lobby is far larger and influential, and has powerful emotional support on both sides of politics. Kevin Rudd once claimed that support for Israel was in his DNA, and Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott seem determined to go one better.
Just why there is such passionate support for Israel is difficult to explain. Neither national interest nor the small Jewish population explain it. I suspect it is born of the formative experiences of political leaders, now in their 40s and 50s; note that Gillard was a student leader when the national movement was destroyed by ferocious debates on Palestine.
Most of our political leaders identify with Israel as part of the mythical ''free world'' that Abbott says President Barack Obama leads, forgetting that this term was a product of the Cold War. They have ended up supporting an American position that is almost certainly more hardline than Obama himself would espouse were he not facing a difficult election in which the pro-Israeli lobby is enormously important.
Twenty years ago negotiating with the PLO was also denounced as against Israel's interests, until it became official government policy. In the same way UN recognition of the reality of a Palestinian state might break a deadlock. Those who are really concerned for the survival of Israel need recognise that a peaceful settlement is not necessarily achieved through support for every Israeli administration.
Dennis Altman is director of the Institute for Human Security at La Trobe University.