tip off

PM’s Palestine problem bad start to our UN stint

The Prime Minister needs to take advice from people who understand international relations. On Israel it looks like she has done the opposite, writes retired diplomat Bruce Haigh.

Julia Gillard, for whatever reason, has had a blind spot on Palestine for some years. The Israelis and the United States lobby hard, maybe the Prime Minister has been swayed by them; if so it has been done at cost to the facts.

Gaza is a Palestinian ghetto, run and controlled by Israel. The Palestine/Israel dispute is at the core of much of the work of the UN and the cause of continuing tension in the Middle East. Votes on the issue at the UN are closely watched by other states and often form the basis on which judgements are made about states. Australia needs to demonstrate independence of thought in foreign policy formation; not to do so will lead to a loss of leverage in international forums.

The unqualified US support for Israel places it at odds with the Arab world. Is that where Australia wants to be? To have voted against a forthcoming motion in the UN General Assembly to give Palestine UN observer status would have underscored what many at the UN already believe, that Australia is little more than the lap dog of the US. The Prime Minister’s sycophantic speech to the US Congress last year set that notion in place for many in the international community and nothing that she has done since, including agreeing to base US troops in Darwin, has removed the impression.

To have voted as the Prime Minister proposed would have led with the wrong foot in the move onto the Security Council. To garner the respect of other nations the Prime Minister must show maturity and courage and demonstrate a capacity for independent decision-making. She is a strong character, as demonstrated by her resilience to bullying by the opposition over aspects of her legal career 17 years ago. However in addressing offshore issues, including refugees and WikiLeaks, she has indicated limited understanding of the issues involved.

As Australia prepares to take up the two-year appointment to the Security Council, the Prime Minister needs to take advice from people who understand the labyrinthine, byzantine and duplicitous reality of international relations. Good advice might be sourced from people she does not like, but take it she must, if the disaster the Prime Minister was about to embark on over the Palestinian vote does not become a reality in some equally sensitive area of foreign policy. She cannot afford poor and ill-judged advice from hand-picked expert committees, who are not expert.

However, in the first instance the Prime Minister should listen to Foreign Minister Bob Carr, the man who led the cabinet charge for an abstention on Palestine. And he in turn must listen to his department, which has professional practitioners in the subtle and complex art of diplomacy. But they must listen and take this advice and not flick it aside at the urging of ministerial advisers, who too often prefer spin to substance for short term gain. The craft of creating foreign policy is about the long term.

… it is hard to understand why the Prime Minister would want to be shackled to a position on Israel that wins no points.”

An abstention on the right of Palestine to UN observer status is not ideal policy. It is cautious toe dipping. If we want to win friends and influence people Australia must take a principled stand on difficult issues. For a country the size of Australia, such a position will more likely develop into practical influence at the UN, and internationally.

To do that, and to properly advance Australian interests, particularly in key countries such as Indonesia, India and China, Carr needs to back an increase in resources for his department. Former top diplomat Richard Woolcott has said:

If there is a measure of international community opinion it has to be the United Nations, because it is the only global institution in which all sovereign states, great and small, are present. Despite its shortcomings and clear need for reform, the UN remains the best hope for a more stable, peaceful, and less damaged world. But in order for it to be effective, it must have the commitment of all countries and their leaders.”

For many years the US refused to pay its UN dues. It still owes the UN around a billion dollars. At the core of this is its disagreement over UN policy toward Israel.

It is said that US power, real and perceived, can overcome the cost to relationships that unqualified support for Israel brings, particularly in the Middle East. But 9/11 put paid to that argument. Why do they persist? Is it in response to the domestic Jewish lobby? It is difficult to understand the US on this issue. In spite of the rhetoric there are few Arab States who want to see Israel wiped off the map and in fact most, in one way or another, have dealings with Israel. Concern over Iran’s nuclear intentions has been a catalyst for this dialogue and involvement.

Given this background it is hard to understand why Gillard would want to be shackled to a position on Israel that wins no points. The US could live with an Australian policy that saw support for Palestine on issues such as the one in question.

Australia was last on the Security Council in 1986. For quite sustainable and proper reasons Australia had, since the mid 1970s, taken a firm stance against apartheid, to the point that it was regarded by many countries, particularly African countries, as having a great deal of credibility and authority on the issue. That was useful when it came to managing the very difficult situation we had got ourselves into over East Timor.

The movement of displaced persons may come before the Security Council during Australia’s term; Israel will certainly come again before the Council, as will Syria. Tensions in the China Sea could require authoritative diplomacy on the part of the Security Council and the eurozone and Greece might collapse. There are no shortage of issues and tensions which could test and tax the international community over the next two years.

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