Australian politics and the Israeli–Palestinian issue

Australia has never really had a coherent diplomatic or political strategy in the Middle East, which is puzzling given that we’ve been engaged there in one way or another for a large part of our modern history as a nation. There are many reasons for our shifting focus over the years, although the complexity of the region and the feeling of many in Canberra that it’s all just too hard and the region is a diplomatic minefield are two factors that shape our approach and carry more weight than they probably should.

The vexed issue of the Israelis and Palestinians has in the past few years gained a prominence (if somewhat short-lived) in Australian politics that it hasn’t had for some time. US President Donald Trump’s decision to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel in October 2017 was a once-in-a-lifetime gift to Israel. A year later, Prime Minister Scott Morrison raised the idea of Australia doing the same in the lead-up to the Wentworth by-election, in a move no doubt designed to shore up support from the electorate’s significant Jewish minority. He walked that back somewhat after his party’s candidate failed to secure the seat.

A year later, the policy thought bubble was killed off by the new Labor government, prompting Israel to call in Australia’s ambassador for a ‘please explain’.

Now the Israeli–Palestinian issue is once again leaching into Australian domestic politics. In the lead-up to the Labor Party’s national conference, to be held in Brisbane next week, a relatively symbolic change to policy has, in true Middle East fashion, elicited far more controversy than it deserves. Amid talk of recognising Palestine as a state, Foreign Minister Penny Wong has indicated that the government will return to a previous convention of referring to the ‘Occupied Palestinian Territories’ in line with the United Nations and most of our democratic partners.

There’s little doubt that this move was designed to head off greater demands at the party conference. Realistically, it does not signal a change in Australia’s relationship with Israel other than to recognise the reality of the situation on the ground and to revert to language that was used less than a decade ago.

Nevertheless, the move has elicited criticism, which the government would have expected even if the counterarguments carry little weight. Writing in The Australian, Greg Sheridan argued that they were disputed, rather than occupied, territories, even though they can obviously be both at the same time. The Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council pointed out that the government’s position contradicted the policy position of like-minded democracies such as the US and Canada, but neglected to mention that it aligns us with the position of other like-minded democracies such as New Zealand, the UK and the Europeans. Washington and Ottawa are the democratic outliers in this regard.

Mainstream Australia, as much as it gives it any thought, would likely not look kindly on the government using language that fails to recognise the reality on the ground, particularly when it comes to the vexed issue of Israeli settlements illegally constructed on Palestinian land, an action that has united democracies in opposing it. Even if Australia can do little to stop it happening, the least it can do is recognise it through the language that it uses.