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Wednesday, 12 October 2011
Page: 7177

Senator CAMERON (New South Wales) (13:48): I rise on a matter of public interest—that is, the quest for peace in the Middle East. This is not only a matter of public interest in Australia; it is a matter of international public interest and international importance. Peace has been a loser in the Middle East. It has been over 40 years since the Middle East war of 1967 and it has been over 60 years since United Nations General Assembly resolution 181 in 1947 to establish separate Jewish and Arab states. This was a resolution that the Australian government supported.

Last month, the international community expected to face another totemic resolution on the Middle East peace process at the meetings marking the beginning of the 66th United Nations General Assembly. This could have included: elevated status for the Palestinian Authority at the UN; a framework under which renewed peace process negotiations could take place; and a push for UN members to bilaterally recognise a Palestinian state. But, instead, on 23 September in New York, President Abbas submitted an application to Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon for the admission of Palestine as a UN member state. The Secretary-General conveyed the application to the Security Council, as UN procedure requires, and it is now before a standing committee, the Committee on Admission of New Members, for consideration. It is not clear how long this process in the Security Council will take; this has varied in the past from case to case and can take anywhere from weeks to months.

The government has made its position clear: Australia supports a negotiated two-state solution with a secure and independent Israel living side by side with a future secure and independent Palestinian state. Over 120 countries, however, have already chosen to recognise a Palestinian state. This is a reflection of the frustration of the international community at the slow progress of the Middle East peace process. As defined last month by Robert Serry, the UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, this process 'is in profound and persistent deadlock'.

Israeli-Palestinian peace talks have been stalled since September last year following Israel's refusal to extend a 10-month freeze on settlement activity in the occupied Palestinian territory. This was despite concerted efforts by the United States—one of Israel's closest friends and partners—including an offer to Israel of a package of incentives, including 20 F35 fighter planes worth $3 billion in exchange for a new three-month settlement ban. This overture was ignored and negotiations, which had resumed only a few weeks earlier after a two-year hiatus, again collapsed. Meanwhile, as per its two-year commitment, the Palestinian Authority has made concrete steps towards preparing for statehood.

Both the World Bank and the IMF this year indicated that much of the basis for a functioning Palestine state already exists, including necessary governance structures and the ability to provide services and manage public finances. Australia has played its own part in supporting these state-building initiatives. Since 2007 Australia has provided nearly $170 million in humanitarian and institution-building assistance to the Palestinian Authority and refugees. Australia is now the 10th largest donor to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East. The government has also established a $120 million five-year development partnership with the Palestinian Authority, including regular budget support delivered through the World Bank and scholarships focusing on disciplines critical to institution building.

On the ground, however, the gap between Palestinian statehood maturity and political dialogue is widening. US President Obama's speech in May laid out what could possibly form the basis of parameters for a resumption of negotiations when he said that a future Palestinian state could be formed along the lines of 1967 borders with mutually agreed land swaps. During his following speech to congress, Prime Minister Netanyahu said Israel would be willing to make painful compromises to reach peace but also laid out preconditions, including a Jerusalem united under Israeli rule and a rejection of any return of Palestinian refugees or their descendants to Israel.

In recent months, Israeli settlement activity has continued, and the calm between Israel and Gaza that was restored earlier this year has been challenged by the firing of rockets into Israel and air strikes and incursions carried out by Israel in Gaza. Ongoing Israeli settlements are undermining confidence in the peace process and are undermining prospects for a resumption of negotiations.

I believe there is a need for Israel to stop settlements. They need to ensure that they take steps to work towards a genuine peace, because a genuine peace in the Middle East will mean a genuine peace around the world. It will mean that security around the world is improved and that the opportunity for the world to move on from many terrorist attacks is improved. As I said, ongoing Israeli settlements are undermining confidence in the peace process and are undermining prospects for a resumption of negotiations.

The Australian government clearly expressed its disappointment at Israel's announcement last month that it would build approximately 1,100 new housing units in East Jerusalem and criticised them as counterproductive to the Middle East peace process. Simply continuing to encroach on Palestine properties in East Jerusalem is not the way forward for peace in the Middle East. Ongoing Israeli settlements have also been publicly criticised by the Quartet—that is the group comprising the UN, the US, the European Union and Russia—which has been working towards a resumption of talks.

The future of Jerusalem is a highly sensitive element of the peace process. It must be a final status issue, to be addressed through negotiations. These settlements prejudge these negotiations. Again, in my view it is not appropriate for the Israeli government to be prejudging the negotiations in the Middle East by continuing to build 1,100 new housing units in East Jerusalem.

Let me be clear: no-one is under any illusions about the scale of difficulty of the negotiations in the Middle East. But it is clear that we now face a critical opportunity for progress in the Middle East peace process, and that is an opportunity that Israel must take. The transitions we are seeking to take place in the Arab world are historic, but along with these transitions we are also seeing tensions in relationships in the region—between Israel and Egypt and between Turkey and Israel. There are risks that in the absence of a negotiated agreement we will see a rapid deterioration in Israel's security situation. There are also risks that if we do not see progress the changing geopolitical dynamics of the region will make the prospects of a lasting resolution even more remote. Meanwhile, Iran's nuclear program and support for terrorist organisations remain the greatest threat to Israel's security.

As I said at the beginning, progress has eluded us for decades. Difficult questions remain, including the role of Hamas. Australia is a longstanding friend and close partner of Israel's. We have a strong, longstanding commitment to Israel's right to security and self-defence, and that support is unwavering. Acts of terrorism cannot be accepted. But the right of Palestinian men, women and children to a safe and secure state is undeniable. Unless there is progress in the Middle East peace process, then men, women and children in Palestine will continue to suffer not only under state sponsored terrorism but from acts of violence that take place within those regions. It is absolutely unacceptable that we continue to see no progress in the process of Middle East peace. Middle East peace requires the Israeli government to actually take genuine steps to recognise the role that the Palestinian state has taken to put a hand out for peace in the region. It is absolutely essential for world peace that we have peace in the Middle East, and Israel has a major part to play in that process.