Fatalism is no basis for policy towards the Middle East

Bob Bowker’s recent article in The Strategist was a sobering read as we approach one month since Hamas’s attack against Israel on 7 October plunged the region into another bout of violence and brinkmanship.

Bowker, a retired Australian diplomat with decades of experience in the Middle East, cogently explained why wishing for a two-state solution—the coexistence of an independent Palestine and an independent Israel—will not make it so. But in the absence of credible alternatives, rejuvenating longstanding international efforts towards a two-state solution is the only foundation available on which to build a lasting peace. Bowker is right to expect ‘recurring cycles of violence’, but treating the conflict as inevitable increases the risk of catastrophe.

Bowker is not alone in pouring cold water on the prospects for a two-state solution. Such pessimism reflects the world we find ourselves in, which seems unrecognisable from the post–Cold War moment that galvanised the Israeli-Palestinian peace process in the 1990s. Our politicians know this.

But responsible governments don’t have the luxury of doom-mongering; they must put forward a policy. In this light, Foreign Minister Penny Wong has espoused the five core priorities of Australia’s approach to this crisis, which include pursuing a durable peace by working with countries of influence in the region.

As Wong asks critics of a two-state solution, what is the alternative? Writing in the Sydney Morning Herald the day after Hamas’s attack, Bowker suggested that Australia and others should change diplomatic course—dumping a two-state solution to instead support ‘a single political entity that provides for equality between Jews and Palestinians’. That seems even less feasible than a two-state solution. If Israeli Jews would feel unsafe living next to a Palestinian state, as Bowker argues, surely they would reject a political union that wouldn’t guarantee Israel’s future as a majority Jewish state.

Unfortunately, Bowker offers no policy suggestions in his later analysis in The Strategist. Instead, he predicts that an even more brutal ‘Hamas Mark 2’ will rise from the ashes of Gaza, and that eventually, perhaps decades from now, Israel will lose its war with the Palestinians and ‘the reckoning will be terrible’.

Unflinching candour from regional experts like Bowker is essential if the Australian public and our policymakers are to comprehend the magnitude of the challenges facing the Middle East. But realism needs to be matched by a stocktake of the agency Australia has to address this multifaceted crisis, which risks polarising our communities and politics. Without presenting options, we risk those members of the public who feel baffled by events tuning out or concluding that this is someone else’s concern which Australia has no means to influence. That’s not true. As I proposed previously, while Australia lacks heft in the Middle East, our statecraft should leverage our Indo-Pacific partnerships, including with Muslim-majority countries like Indonesia and Malaysia.

Given the fever pitch of the debate surrounding the Hamas–Irael war, we must also choose our words with care. For instance, Bowker says that conflict is inevitable ‘unless the occupation of Palestine ends’, but he doesn’t specific which territory Israel is supposedly occupying. Most advocates of a two-state solution expect negotiation in good faith over the status of Jerusalem and Israeli settlements in the West Bank. But for some, including Hamas, all Israeli territory is part of Palestine and the Jews must leave or be killed.

Similarly, Bowker should have elaborated what ‘terrible reckoning’ Israelis might face if they ever lost a war against Palestinians. The 7 October massacre revealed what Hamas has in mind—the extermination of Jews and anyone else that Hamas determines has no right to live between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River. Experts like Bowker recognise that the Jewish experience of persecution underpinned Zionism and helps explain why Israel defends itself as it does, including possessing nuclear weapons as the final safeguard against national annihilation. But our stake in avoiding such a catastrophe isn’t evident to all Australians, including many young Australians less accustomed to the imagery, ranting, threats and disinformation that accompany the Israeli–Palestinian conflict.

Lastly, to nurture constructive debate in Australia, it’s important to situate the Hamas–Israel war in the wider international context. When Bowker says that Hamas Mark 2 may be more ‘ideologically driven, and possibly more globally focused than before’, it’s important to unpack what that means for the international campaign against Islamist terror and extremism, which remains a priority for Australia. Similarly, the role of Iran, its contest for influence with Arab rivals, and its links with authoritarian regimes in Russia and China, deserves attention. It is lopsided to associate the two-state solution with ‘Western rhetoric’ without acknowledging its place in Moscow’s and Beijing’s policies, even if their actions, which include pro-Hamas information operations, contradict their stated intent.

Hopefully, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese will raise the Hamas–Israel war in his meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing today. If the government is in the market for fresh ideas, it might draw inspiration from Australia’s past successes convening broad groups of countries to address issues of mutual concern, as the Australia Group and the Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Initiative have done with weapons of mass destruction. Wong could, for example, suggest to her Indonesian and Malaysian counterparts that they convene a study group of eminent people to visit the Middle East—a group that Australian experts of Bowker’s calibre could be invited to join.

The auguries are poor, but the world faces a greater catastrophe if we succumb to fatalism and turn our backs on the hope of enduring peace.