Australian statecraft will be tested as Israel confronts Hamas’s terror

Hamas’s surprise attack on Israel on 7 October marks a decisive moment in the Israeli–Palestinian conflict and will be a crucial test of Australian statecraft. As a respected regional power with significant interests in the stability of the Middle East, Australia has the means and legitimacy required to play an active role in managing the crisis and developing the basis for an enduring peace. As shown by the collective response to Russian aggression against Ukraine, sitting on the fence is not a viable option.

To channel Churchill, we are not even at the beginning of the end of this crisis. Right now, we are fixated by the horrific reports coming from Israel, which include the deliberate slaughter and hostage-taking of hundreds of Israeli civilians going about their ordinary lives. Israel has been shocked to its core just as the American people were by the 9/11 attacks. In the coming weeks and months, we should expect Israel to retaliate by attempting to destroy Hamas and its grip on the Gaza Strip, which will almost certainly involve a long and bloody ground campaign that will test the stomach of public opinion in Australia and around the world.

This crisis has much wider implications for the Middle East and global order. Israeli strategists will already be planning how to reshape the region in pursuit of long-term security. Those plans will cover measures against Iran and its regional proxies, including Hezbollah, which is already exchanging fire with Israeli forces across the border with Lebanon. The course Israel pursues will depend largely on the position of the US, which has deployed an aircraft carrier and other warships to Israel’s Mediterranean coast. Among the autocratic powers, Beijing’s position will weigh on decisions in Tehran and Moscow. Canberra must acknowledge this wider context without losing sight of the facts on the ground in Israel and the Palestinian territories.

The first task for the Australian government is to get its lines right. Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has condemned Hamas’s attack as indiscriminate and abhorrent and recognised Israel’s right to defend itself. A stronger and more coherent message would be sent if Australian ministers consistently referred to Hamas’s conduct as terrorism rather than as fitting the ‘definition of terror’, which was how the PM put it. This would align our rhetoric with the US, the UK and others and reflect the fact that Australia already lists Hamas as a terrorist organisation.

Foreign Minister Penny Wong is right to urge for the protection of civilians—after all, the laws of war must be observed even when dealing with terrorists that pay them no heed. But opposition leader Peter Dutton has a point when he criticises those calling at this stage for restraint—the immediate threat to Israeli hostages and civilians in range of Hamas’s rockets must frame our expectation of proportionality. Finding a common and consistent lexicon to discuss this crisis could help avoid the national debate descending into partisan sniping and allegations that Labor has feet of clay on Palestine and Iran.

The government must also be clear that this seemingly faraway crisis affects Australian interests and the safety of our citizens. Our potential adversaries around the world will be gauging solidarity and resolve among Western countries, as well as mulling opportunities to exploit the crisis for gain elsewhere, as we saw from Beijing during the Covid-19 pandemic. Like our regional partners, we rely on stability in the Middle East not only for critical supplies like oil, but also maritime connectivity to Europe through the Suez Canal. At an individual level, the murder of Israelis in Egypt raises the risk to Australians overseas, Jewish or otherwise. Thankfully, the public’s clear-eyed indignation about Russia’s aggression against Ukraine shows that Australians are not isolationists by nature—we are ready and able to handle a grown-up conversation about the stakes and the options we have.

Beyond our shores, Australia should consistently articulate its stake in this crisis across our diplomatic channels. While Australia lacks heft in the Middle East, it has regular dialogue with Indo-Pacific partners—including large Muslim countries like Indonesia and Malaysia—that have intimate ties to Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern countries. Similarly, Australia’s Quad partner Japan relies on the Middle East for more than 90% of its oil imports and has expanded its diplomatic reach accordingly. Strong support for Israel from another Quad partner, India, would also be significant. Even Indo-Pacific partners that don’t immediately spring to mind could send useful signals. For instance the Philippines, with its experience of Islamist terrorism, might send a message similar to that of Australia. Wong met her counterpart at the Philippines–Australia Ministerial Meeting in Adelaide today.

Australia’s upcoming summits with the US and China are an acid test for the government’s vision of middle-power agency in a crisis. Albanese will expect to discuss this crisis with President Joe Biden when he visits Washington at the end of the month. He should also be clear that the crisis in the Middle East will be high on the priority list when he visits Beijing shortly afterwards, however crowded the bilateral and regional security agenda. If Chinese leaders want China to be seen as a responsible country, they cannot duck playing a constructive role in this crisis—in public comments and through channels to Moscow, Tehran and other Middle Eastern capitals. Even more importantly, the appearance of Australian disinterest in the Middle East that could be conveyed by not raising the topic might be viewed by Beijing as another sign that Western democracies are parochial, distracted and ripe for division.

Finally, no discussion of the Middle East should be attempted without drawing on history. This month marks the 106th anniversary of the First World War Battle of Be’er Sheva, in which ANZAC forces played a decisive role. Today, the Israeli city of Be’er Sheva is handling the casualties of Hamas’s terrorism. Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister Richard Marles spoke about the enduring ties between Australia and Israel at the 2022 Be’er Sheva Dialogue, which ASPI jointly hosts. Now is the time to ensure that Australia again plays its part in seeking that most elusive but worthy of goals: a peaceful future for the Middle East.