Netanyahu visit historic for Australia

In the history of Australia’s relationship with Israel, which goes back to Labor Foreign Minister Herbert Vere Evatt’s role in drafting the partition plan that created a Jewish homeland, no Israeli leader has visited Canberra.

That will change with a long-planned visit next week of Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

For policymakers in Canberra, the timing of the Netanyahu visit is awkward given that it will focus attention on a repugnant law passed through the Knesset by the Netanyahu government that retroactively approved the expropriation of Palestinian land.

In response, an Israel-friendly Australian government described the passage of the Settlements Bill as “concerning”.

This was about as mild a diplomatic rejoinder as could be constructed given the widespread condemnation that has ensued.

The European Union, for example, has postponed a high-level dialogue with Israel in protest over what it regards as a flagrant violation of international law, and various United Nations resolutions and conventions.

In light of the EU’s action and that of others, it would have been better if the Netanyahu visit had not gone ahead until matters had been resolved by Israel’s Supreme Court, which has shown commendable independence over the years.

But that will take time. Such action might be stillborn in any case if an even more repugnant measure passes the Knesset that would curb Supreme Court powers.

In its valid claims to be regarded as a country that respects the rule of law, Israel is now at risk of demeaning that reputation if Netanyahu’s settler supporters are allowed to have their way.

Canberra needs to not be seen as aligning itself with forces in Israel that disrespect the rule of law, are antagonistic to international conventions and believe in a policy of territorial expansion.

In a nutshell, policymakers need to make it clear to Netanyahu that whatever legitimate reservations might be held about Palestinian willingness to engage in the peace process, no purpose is served by disregarding basic principles of international law. These are enshrined in UN Security Council resolutions 242 and 338, which rest on the principle of the inadmissibility of the seizure of territory by force.

Those resolutions passed in the wake of the 1967 war called for a peace settlement based on pre-war boundaries.

Australia should tell Netanyahu that irrespective of obfuscations that he might employ about his commitment, or otherwise, to a two-state solution to the Palestine issue, Canberra remains committed to such an outcome, and not just committed it cannot see any other reasonable alternative.

This is despite strangely cryptic remarks by President Donald Trump this week, in which he appeared to step away from America’s own commitment to a two-state solution:

I’m looking at two state and one state, and I’d like one that both parties like.

Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop echoed Trump’s formula in an interview with Sky News. This might be regarded as a concerning sign that Australia is preparing to sidle away from its longstanding commitment to a Palestinian state living side by side with Israel.

One might interpret Trump’s remarks – seemingly endorsed by Bishop – as reflecting a desire that a Middle East-wide Arab peace proposal be dusted off to break an impasse, but that interpretation would be generous.

A less charitable explanation would be that Trump simply doesn’t comprehend the complexities of the dispute that has defied sincere efforts over many years to achieve an historic compromise going back to the unfairly-criticised Oslo Accords of 1993.

It is worth noting that at that Washington press conference – as was the case a week or so earlier, when Netanyahu went to London to meet British Prime Minister Theresa May – Israel’s prime minister avoided committing himself to a two-state solution in order not to antagonise his settler base.

Asked for his views in Washington, Netanyahu blustered:

A state that doesn’t recognize the Jewish state! A state that is basically open to attack against Israel! You know what we are talking about? Are we talking about Costa Rica? Are we talking about another Iran?

Given the fragility of his coalition, Netanyahu has difficulty detaching himself from the impulses of his partners. These include the likes of Naftali Bennett of the pro-settler Jewish Home Party, who advocate annexation of a chunk of the West Bank occupied in the 1967 war.

Netanyahu tolerates Bennett in the interests of maintaining his coalition, however antagonistic that might be to international opinion and prospects for Middle East peace, and for that matter, to many Israelis themselves.

Canberra does not have to indulge such a state of affairs. This is Netanyahu’s problem, and significantly one of his own making over many years since his prime minister-ship has enabled the rise of the settler right.

Let us be absolutely clear: Benjamin Netanyahu’s contributions to peacemaking have, for the most part, been half-hearted, and on occasions downright obstructive.

Readers might note a contribution to the debate about the Settler Law from former Canadian Justice Minister and Attorney General Irwin Cotler, now emeritus professor at McGill.

In this commentary, Cotler, a supporter of Israel over many years, describes the Knesset expropriation bill as “indefensible”, and an affront to Israel’s founding principles.

He quotes former Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin as saying the following:

Yesh shoftim b’Yerushalayim – there are judges in Jersusalem.

This was Begin’s way of reminding Israelis that the Supreme Court should be respected as an arbiter beyond the grubby world of politics.

It is be worth noting that Netanyahu will come to Australian with several police investigations hanging over his head, including allegations that he might have accepted gifts in an unauthorised manner.

These investigations are separate from allegations about inappropriate tender procedures for Israel’s purchase of German submarines.

Australia does not need to have a view about these matters, but such allegations might give political leaders pause in their enthusiasm for a Netanyahu-led administration.

As Labor leader Bill Shorten prepares to meet Netanyahu in Canberra and seeks to navigate an awkward (for him) route as a leader of the pro-Israel faction in his party, he will not have welcomed interventions over recent days from former Prime Minister Bob Hawke, among others.

Hawke, and former Labor Foreign Ministers Gareth Evans and Bob Carr have called on Australia to join 137 other countries, including the Scandinavians, in recognising Palestine.

Shorten can’t ignore these interventions, nor should he. He should make it clear to Netanyahu that Labor will recognise Palestine if the settlement process – and the expropriation of land in defiance of international law – continues unabated.

It should go without saying such a Labor position would constitute a matter of principle.

This article first appeared on The Conversation.

Photo: Reuters/Carlos Barria