It must have cut Malcolm Turnbull to the quick: he goes to all the effort of welcoming the Prime Minister of a country engaged in a brutal occupation and guilty of massive human rights violations, goes to the trouble of isolating Australia from the international mainstream and even close allies like New Zealand and the United Kingdom to endorse the policies of his visitor — and his guest humiliates him.

Turnbull yesterday made clear Australia’s support for a two-state solution to Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory. “We support an outcome which has two states where Israelis, the Israeli people, the Palestinian people live side by side as a result of direct negotiations between them — that is the fundamental point — and live together in peace and the security that they are entitled to expect,” he said.

[Facts on the ground: the open-air misery of Israeli occupation]

But Benjamin Netanyahu — or “Bibi” as Turnbull insists on calling him — was having none of it. He rejected a two-state solution. He preferred “not to deal with labels but with substance … if Israel is not there to ensure security, then that state very quickly will become another bastion of radical Islam … we have to ensure that Israel has the overriding security control of all the territories, all the territories. Other than that, I want the Palestinians to be able to govern themselves and to have all the freedoms to do so.”

This is not a two-state solution, but a formalised status quo, in which Israel controls most of the West Bank (currently called Area C), Palestinian control is limited to a minority of the West Bank composed of non-contiguous, Bantustan-like cites and townships, and Israel doesn’t have to deal with the problem that would arise if it annexed the West Bank, of having to allow Palestinians to vote or, to prevent that frightening outcome, confirm de jure what is the de facto situation now, that this is an apartheid state. That is, Israel gets all the privileges of annexation — in particular, control of Palestinian land and resources — without any of the “negatives” such as having to allow Palestinians political rights. 

[Netanyahu’s visit intensifies pressure on Shorten to back Palestine]

Meantime, the steady drip of settlements continues, occupying Palestinian land, appropriating Palestinian resources, strategically placed to surround Palestinian towns and isolate them.

To Netanyahu’s credit, unlike Turnbull, he was indeed dealing not in labels but in substance. “Two-state solution” is a mantra for Western countries that enables them to avoid addressing what Israel is doing on the ground via its settlement policy and military control of most of the West Bank. Netanyahu at least was prepared to be up front — no two-state solution, just the formalisation of Israel’s current occupation and settlement policies. Both Israelis and Palestinians understand this — that’s why, increasingly, so many say that the possibility of a genuine two-state solution is now zero. It remains the formal policy of the (corrupt, authoritarian) Palestinian Authority and Israeli peace activists insist it must be a call for Palestinians themselves to make, but the two-state solution is dead. Netanyahu is prepared to acknowledge it, while Turnbull prefers to cling to the mantra.

Notice also that when asked about the issue, Netanyahu immediately played the radical Islam card and did so again shortly afterward. This is a longstanding Israeli tactic — to try to distract from what is at its core a dispute about military occupation, colonisation and theft of another people’s resources by insisting it’s really about a clash of religions — indeed, of civilisations: Westernised, civilised Jews versus the radical Islamic militants. It’s a convenient fiction that ignores how tens of thousands of Palestinian Christians suffer every bit as much under Israeli occupation as Palestinian Muslims, in cities like Bethlehem.

The plight of Palestinian Christians of course don’t fit the clash-of-religions narrative — and makes a mockery of evangelical Christians’ reflexive support for Israel. It’s of a piece with a broader lack of curiosity in the West about ordinary Palestinians and what they endure at the hands of “the only democracy in the Middle East” (a democracy, that is, if you don’t count its attempts to force properly elected Arab MPs out of parliament or prevent their election or shoot them).

Yesterday was a low point in recent Australian public life. Not merely was a leader overseeing a brutal occupation and de facto apartheid welcomed as a dear friend, not merely did the Turnbull government confirm its isolation from the diplomatic mainstream, but our guest didn’t even have the decency to adhere to the comforting fiction of a “two-state solution” that is now dead.

* Bernard Keane travelled to Israel and Palestine in 2016 as a guest of the Australia Palestine Advocacy Network