Israel/Palestine – the view from Australia (Reprise)

Earlier I posted a story on the competing interests jockeying for the Australian government’s attention following Palestine’s statehood application at the UN. This issue is a dense jungle of competing historic claims to land, conquest and persecution, made all the more complicated by the involvement of outside players and the gradual intertwining of Palestinian and Israeli land through the establishment of settlements and talk of “land swaps” and “rights of return”. The result is that the Israelis and Palestinians, through an unwillingness or inability by their leaders to establish the two state solution they both claim to want, are becoming ever more entwined in an embrace that, in the current climate of fear, suspicion and sporadic violence, threatens to destroy them both.

I don’t claim to know more than the next person about this issue. I’m just incredibly interested in it, having travelled through the region last year and made friends on both sides of the 1967 “Green Line”. What I found in researching the story presented on the previous post interested me and I felt I needed to talk about it here free of the restrictions of objectivity and all the tenets of good journalism.

In Australia there are small numbers of Jews and Palestinians, some of whom have started up lobbying groups to support their side and ‘increase awareness’ about their point of view. And they’re right to do so – that’s what democracy is all about.The beauty of a free society is that anyone can shout almost anything as loudly as they like, but that is also its curse. I had certain people, full of good intentions, regale me about how all you have to do is forget the concept of the West Bank and Gaza, create one secular state in all of historic Palestine and everything will be hunky dory. While I commend their optimism, that one holiday they took to Israel/Palestine in 1999 probably doesn’t qualify them to contribute to the debate and how Australia should approach it.

I spoke to Australian Jews, Israeli expats, Palestinian refugees and their children. Some have extraordinary stories, like Peter Slezak, who was born in Romania after his mother survived Auschwitz, while his father worked in slave labour for the Nazis in the Ukraine. Or Bishara Costandi, whose family was expelled from their home in Jaffa (Yafa in Arabic, Yafo in Hebrew), near Tel Aviv when he was a child to make way for Iraqi Jewish migrants, and eventually fled to Beirut, Lebanon. Dr Tzvi Fleischer lived in Israel for a few years and was a great example of the vibrant, multicultural society that Israel (proper) has become in its 60 years.

The trouble is time – they’re all getting pretty sick of each other by now. Israelis fear for their security with an independent Palestine left to its own devices next door, while Palestinians are tired of occupation and all the violations of human rights that comes with it. As the situation festers in its present form, ideas once denounced as ludicrous become enticing to some. The late Muammar Gaddafi called for a single secular state, called ‘Isratine’ in his Green Book and was laughed at. In my research I found plenty of people ready to talk about a one state solution, an idea Dr Fleischer from AIJAC objected to. The right of return is a big issue for refugees like Bishara Costandi, and governments of surrounding countries who’ve been dealt the burden of hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees, none more so than Lebanon.

The most dispiriting fact that emerged from the history behind Australia’s involvement and indeed events since I wrote the piece, is that Australia will always follow the United States on foreign policy. In 2004 Australia was one of only six countries that opposed a UN resolution condemning the ‘security barrier’ around and through the West Bank after the International Court of Justice deemed it illegal. Only the other day Australia was one of only fourteen countries that opposed Palestine’s admission to UNESCO. Indeed, as Peter Slezak and Moammar Mashni pointed out, the only reason Kevin Rudd seems to want to abstain from voting on the issue is to “curry favour” with Arab nations to get a seat on the UN Security Council. Both Julia Gillard and Julie Bishop have railed against the declaration of statehood without direct negotiations but it’s without any acknowledgment of the frustrations of the Palestinians and the failure of negotiations over the last couple of decades. It seems our policy toward the conflict is motivated only by pleasing the US, rather than the right for Israelis and Palestinians to live in peace.

"With love and kisses - nothing lasts forever" Graffiti on Palestinian side of the "security barrier" in Bethlehem.

America’s democracy is, for the moment, seemingly broken, undermined by the huge influence of corporate money and lobbies. Their influence is, while still immense, beginning to wane. Australia needs to stop tethering itself to US foreign policy (which has been on the wrong side of history as often as not) and assert itself a little more, be more imaginative when it comes to issues like the Israel/Palestine conflict. Julia Gillard’s speech to congress (cringeworthy viewing) earlier this year is a perfect example of our politicians’ slobbering devotion to following the US, to whatever end.

One interesting, and slightly humourous idea that came out of my research for this story was Peter Slezak’s speculation that the establishment of a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders may mean the Jewish settlers there would have to choose whether they want to stay on as Jewish citizens of Palestine, or move to Israel proper to remain citizens of Israel. Stranger things have happened…

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