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Labor brings Israel-Palestine policy back to the middle: Will it matter?

Peter Rodgers
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Published: 28 October 2022

Last updated: 5 March 2024

Former Australian ambassador to Israel PETER RODGERS writes that the Government has taken Australia back to a saner position on Jerusalem. But if it’s really serious about two states, then we need some specific actions.

The announcement of the Albanese Government’s decision to reverse Australia’s recognition of “West” Jerusalem was sloppily handled. That was the only surprise in it.  

The move had been on the cards since December 2018 when the Morrison government abandoned decades of bipartisan policy on the vexed issue of Jerusalem and recognised “West” Jerusalem as the Israeli capital.

Penny Wong, as Shadow Foreign Minister, commented at the time that the status of Jerusalem could only be resolved “as part of any peace negotiations and a two-state solution”. Labor did “not support unilateral recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and in government would reverse this decision”.

The Albanese Government has returned Australian policy to a middle-ground position supported strongly around the globe. The Israeli government might be annoyed but it will hardly unfriend Australia. Any irritation in the bilateral relationship pales in comparison to the very real reputational, financial and possible national security costs involved in the Morrison government’s cancellation of the French submarine contract.

Critics of the shift on Jerusalem need to reflect on recent history. In October 2018, on the cusp of the by-election necessitated by Malcolm Turnbull’s departure from politics, Scott Morrison revealed he was “open-minded” about recognising Jerusalem as the Israeli capital and moving Australia’s embassy there. That was a thought bubble fixated by the situation on the ground - but the territory was in the Wentworth electorate, not Israel or Palestine.

The government loss in Wentworth in 2018 forced it to devise a face-saving position. This produced the recognition of "West" Jerusalem as the Israeli capital. Australian policy thus joined that of only one other country - Russia.

The Morrison government’s subsequent spectacular electoral loss in Wentworth forced it to devise a face-saving position on Jerusalem. This produced the December 2018 recognition of “West” Jerusalem as the Israeli capital, to where Australia would move its embassy, “when practical, in support of, and after, final-status determination”. Australian policy thus joined that of only one other country - Russia, which announced a similar approach in 2017.

Israeli representatives politely welcomed Australia’s decision, though some, including the speaker of the Knesset, mocked the notion of “West” Jerusalem. The Jerusalem Post editorialised that there was “something absurd” about Australian and Russian recognition of “the heretofore unknown entity of west Jerusalem”.

Morrison portrayed his policy as new thinking which might help end the “rancid stalemate” over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. There were significant shifts in the broader region in the near four-year period from Morrison’s Jerusalem policy announcement in December 2018 to the Albanese Government’s reversal in this month. They owed nothing to Australian policy.

The most striking development was a peace deal initially between Israel, the UAE and Bahrain, brokered by the US in September 2020. Known as the Abraham Accords, this was a genuine diplomatic and economic breakthrough. That said, the two Arab Gulf States had never fought a war with Israel and were anxious to create a coalition against a common enemy, Iran. The accords were of no direct relevance to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Of potentially much greater import for that conflict was the “Peace to Prosperity Conference” organised by president Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, in Bahrain in June 2019. Kushner aimed to raise $US50 billion for investment in Palestinian projects.

Fine words flowed about education and training, health, employment, infrastructure, transportation, trade, communication, legal and regulatory frameworks, quality of life, and so on. A $US5 billion superhighway would link the Palestinian Authority-controlled West Bank to Gaza, run by its nemesis, Hamas. A new Singapore, a new Dubai, a new Sweden would rise from the congested alleyways of Gaza and the abraded hills of the West Bank.

The plan was hallucinogenic. One Israeli commentator described it as “designed for a Palestinian economy that exists in an imaginary universe or on the moon”. Others criticised the plan as “amateurish hodgepodge” which promised “projects that cannot be implemented, funded by money that does not exist and contingent on a peace deal that will never happen”.

The Jerusalem Post editorialised that there was "something absurd" about Australian and Russian recognition of "the heretofore unknown entity of west Jerusalem".

Saeb Erekat, prominent in many other peace process negotiations, declared that engaging with the plan was tantamount to a Palestinian declaration of surrender. To that, Israel’s ambassador to the UN responded, “What’s wrong with Palestinian surrender?”

Kushner, nonetheless, hailed the conference a “tremendous success”. In his recently released autobiography he wrote, “humbled by the complexity of the task, I orchestrated some of the most significant breakthroughs in diplomacy in the last 50 years”.

His father-in-law suffered similar delusions with his Deal of the Century for Israeli-Palestinian peace announced in January 2020. With that, Trump gave then Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu all he could wish for, with Palestinian aspirations for statehood reduced to disparate West Bank enclaves, effectively under Israel control.

Ongoing Israeli settlement activity has made any prospect of weaving those enclaves into a viable Palestinian state even more fantastical. A recent report by the EU representative in the Palestinian territories noted that settlers now make up 14 per cent of the entire West Bank population (451,700 out of 3,267,704). An even higher rate of settlement expansion in 2021 reflected “the trend of a continuously increasing settlement expansion on occupied Palestinian territories”.

Ironically, the current Israeli Prime Minister, Yair Lapid, recently rediscovered a fondness for the two-state solution. He told the UN General Assembly last September that an agreement with the Palestinians, “based on two states for two peoples, is the right thing for Israel's security, for Israel's economy and for the future of our children”.

But Lapid faces an election next week which might see Benjamin Netanyahu, an unabashed opponent of a two-state solution, return as PM. One thing he and Lapid have in common is a shared belief in Jerusalem as the “eternal and united capital of Israel”.

Events of the past four years did not shift the dial on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict one bit. The Albanese government has taken Australia back to a saner position on Jerusalem, though clinging to the idea of a two-state solution suggests a reluctance to face reality. If the government is really serious about two states, what specific actions will it take to help bring this about?

A few examples give a sense of the task. What coalitions will the government try to build to pressure Israelis and Palestinians to return to the negotiating table? What will it do to persuade Palestinians to accept the legitimacy and reality of the Jewish state of Israel? What will it do to persuade Israel to accept that the formal division of an already divided Jerusalem is both just and sensible?

Australia does not have to take the lead on any of this. But its stated commitment to two states needs to be more than just a slogan. Continuing “rancid stalemate” is a poor policy option.

Photo: Tower of David light show in Jerusalem (Dennis Jarvis, Flickr, Creative Commons)

About the author

Peter Rodgers

Peter Rodgers is a former Australian Ambassador to Israel who has written two books on the Middle East, Herzl’s Nightmare: One land, Two peoples, and Arabian Plights: The future Middle East. He is a former journalist and winner of the Australian Journalist of the Year Award.

The Jewish Independent acknowledges Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the Traditional Owners and Custodians of Country throughout Australia. We pay our respects to Elders past and present, and strive to honour their rich history of storytelling in our work and mission.

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