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The Coalition, Labor and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict since 2013

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The Coalition, Labor and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict since 2013

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Posted 22/02/2017 by Renee Westra

Over the last decade, differences have emerged between the two major Australian parties in their approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, making it a foreign policy issue of unusual disagreement. While there is still declared bipartisan support for the long-accepted ‘two-state solution’, broader international dynamics now raise a number of questions for Australian policymakers. Such issues include increasing concern over the viability of such a solution due to increased settlement activity and possible changes in US policy.

Australian Government policy towards the Israel-Palestinian conflict up until 2012 is comprehensively detailed in existing Parliamentary Library Research Papers Australia and the Middle East conflict: a history of key Government statements (1947-2007)and The Rudd and Gillard Governments and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: November 2007-May 2012. This FlagPost article will focus on key elements of Coalition and Labor Middle East policy since 2013.

Coalition policy since 2013

Australia’s vote on several recurring UN resolutions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict changed following the Coalition’s election in September 2013, with the Abbott Government shifting its vote on two key resolutions from ‘in favour’ to ‘abstain’. The first calls for Israel (as the occupying power) to comply with the 1949 Geneva Conventions in relation to the occupied Palestinian territories. The second backs a cessation order on Israeli settlements in those occupied territories. This marked a return to the policy position of the late Howard years. In the interim, from 2008, the Rudd and Gillard Labor governments had changed Australia’s vote on those issues to ‘in favour’ from the previous ‘abstain’.

In November 2013, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said the change ‘reflected the government’s concern that Middle East resolutions should be balanced … The government will not support resolutions which are one-sided and which pre-judge the outcome of final status negotiations between the two sides’. This was the same rationale given by the Howard Government when it initially shifted its position to abstention on these resolutions in 2003. The voting patterns of successive Australian governments on the UN resolutions are outlined in the table below.

Australia’s votes: Key recurring UN General Assembly Resolutions on Israel/Palestine

Year/UNGA session

Israeli settlements are illegal

The right of the Palestinian people to self-determination

The Fourth Geneva Convention applies

Permanent sovereignty of the Palestinian

people over natural resources

2016/71 Abstain In favour Abstain Abstain

2015/70 Abstain In favour Abstain Abstain

2014/69 Abstain In favour Abstain Abstain

2013/68 Abstain In favour Abstain Abstain

Coalition Government elected

2012/67 In favour In favour In favour Abstain

2011/66 In favour In favour In favour Abstain

2010/65 In favour In favour In favour Against

2009/64 In favour In favour In favour Against

2008/63 In favour Abstain In favour Against

Labor Government elected

2007/62 Against Abstain Abstain Against

2006/61 Against Abstain Abstain Against

2005/60 Against Abstain Abstain Against

2004/59 Against Abstain Abstain Abstain

2003/58 Abstain In favour In favour Abstain

2002/57 In favour In favour In favour In favour

2001/56 In favour In favour In favour In favour

2000/55 In favour In favour In favour In favour

1999/54 In favour In favour In favour Abstain

1998/53 In favour In favour In favour In favour

1997/52 In favour In favour In favour In favour

1996/51 In favour In favour In favour In favour

Coalition Government elected

1995/50 In favour In favour In favour In favour

Settlements—increasing divergence

In January 2014, Ms Bishop expanded on the Government’s views regarding Israeli settlement activity in an interview with The Times of Israel. When asked her views on whether Israeli settlements beyond the 1967 lines are illegal under international law, she replied ‘I would like to see which international law has declared them illegal’.

The Coalition further demonstrated its position on the legal basis for Israeli settlement activity when in December 2016 Australia condemned a landmark UN Security Council Resolution—the first Security Council resolution focused on Israeli settlements since 1980. This resolution reaffirmed that settlement activity in the Palestinian territories since 1967 ‘has no legal validity and constitutes a flagrant violation under international law and a major obstacle to the achievement of the two-State solution’. While Australia no longer has a seat or vote in the Security Council, in a rare statement condemning the result, Prime Minister Turnbull was reported as saying the resolution was ‘one sided’ and ‘not conducive to the successful conclusion of negotiations’. Furthermore, ABC News reported that Ms Bishop declined to comment on whether Israel’s controversial February 2016 retroactive settlements bill would lessen the prospects for a negotiated peace, though she called on both parties to avoid unilateral actions that diminish that prospect. In an op-ed piece coinciding with the visit to Australia in February 2017 by the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, Prime Minister Turnbull reinforced the Government’s stance, stating ‘my government will not support one-sided resolutions criticising Israel of the kind recently adopted by the UN Security Council’.

In contrast, Labor sees settlements as unhelpful to the peace process, and has regularly made public statements to that effect since 2013—this is also enshrined in its 2015 party platform. In 2014, Labor’s Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs, Tanya Plibersek, also emphasised Labor’s disagreement with the Government’s position on settlements and their legality (or lack thereof) and told the media ‘Clear Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade advice to Labor in government was that the settlements are not in line with international law’. In mid-February 2017, Shadow Foreign Minister Penny Wong reportedly confirmed Labor would continue to speak out against policies harmful to a two-state solution—this includes settlement activity. Labor also released a statement opposing the Israeli retroactive settlements bill, though it continued to stress the party’s preference was to resolve the situation through the two-state solution mechanism.

However, the central tenet of both parties’ policy—the two-state solution—is being increasingly questioned by both the international community and at home. President Trump’s 15 February statement that he will support ‘whatever solution the Israelis and Palestinians prefer’ is seen by many as a game-changer given the central role of the US in the peace process. So is there any room for or signs of movement in Coalition or Labor policy on the issue?

While Labor still emphasises its preference for a two-state solution, in the absence of progress there are firm indications the party will adapt its strategy, and look at state recognition for the Palestinians. The 2015 party platform states ‘if however there is no progress in the next round of the peace process a future Labor government will discuss joining like-minded nations who have already recognised Palestine and announce the conditions and timelines for the Australian

recognition of a Palestinian state’. In recent months, senior Labor figures (including former PM Bob Hawke, former foreign ministers Gareth Evans and Bob Carr) have spoken on this issue, arguing for a change of long-standing policy.

As for the Coalition, there are few indications as to what it may look to do in future. Following President Trump’s comments, the Prime Minister confirmed that the Coalition will continue to pursue the two-state solution. However, in comments to Sky News, Foreign Minister Bishop later suggested that if Israel and Palestine favoured another means of resolving the conflict, along the lines of President Trump’s suggestion, the world (and presumably the Coalition) should also support that.