In the course of a career in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, much of it spent handling Middle East matters, I rarely heard language as portentous as the statements on relations with Israel from Australian political leaders in the past couple of days.
Foreign Minister Stephen Smith said he had called in the ambassador of Israel to seek Israel’s co-operation in following up information that three Australian passports were used by suspects allegedly associated with the assassination of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, a senior ues figure in Dubai.
“I made it crystal clear to the ambassador that if the results of that investigation cause us to come to the conclusion that the abuse of Australian passports was in any way sponsored or condoned by Israeli officials, then Australia would not regard that as the act of a friend . . . In the course of that inquiry, we would expect the Israeli government . . . to fully co-operate . . . If we don’t receive that cooperation, then there is a distinct possibility that we would draw adverse conclusions.”
The message was even stronger in Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s version: “This is of the deepest concern to the Australian government . . . It is not just one of those little things that happens that you deal with today and it’s fixed tomorrow.”
This prompt response to the protection of Australian national interests is fully justified. But it is remarkable in that the present government, led by a prime minister happy to be described as a “Zionist”, has held back from the slightest criticism of Israel, in spite of the many excesses of its response to the rocketing from Gaza in early 2009 and in the face of the obvious disinterest in the Netanyahu government in ending settlement activity on occupied lands to advance a “two-state solution”.
What has gone wrong? Has Australia encouraged in Israel an assumption that it is not just a supporter of Israel but an uncritical one? The acting prime minister during the Gaza operation, Julia Gillard, quickly cranked out two mantras – “Hamas brought this on itself” and “Israel has a right to defend itself”. She neglected to add that the “right to defend itself” also requires it to act within international norms.
While most Western countries have been cautious in their dealings with Benjamin Netanyahu and his openly anti-Arab Foreign Minister, Australia appeared more enthused than ever. Instead of buttressing US President Barack Obama’s stand on settlement activity, for instance, Australia floated a series of vacuous but highly symbolic gestures towards Israel including parliamentary congratulations on the sixth decade of its existence (not normally a topic for parliamentary resolutions) and instituting a “leadership exchange” jamboree at deputy prime ministerial level that no other nation enjoys except the United States.
Most inexplicably of all, perhaps, Australia has been in the forefront of those countries that have chosen to blacken the UN fact-finding mission on the Gaza war, headed by Richard Goldstone. I knew Goldstone in South Africa as a judge in the Orange Free State. Even under apartheid, he had devised a notable process of law reform that helped unravel the race-based political system. His energy, imagination and sincerity were without bounds.
I flew down to Bloemfontein to tap some of that inspiration while I was waiting to present credentials to then president F. W. de Klerk. The day we spent talking was among the most heartening I spent in South Africa. In my view, he did more than anyone except Nelson Mandela to help South Africa map a law-based path to negotiations. None of this has been noted 15 years later in Australia’s bucketing of his immensely thorough and impartial work last year.
This is perhaps an indicator, too, of our downgrading of the status of UN resolutions that define how a peaceful outcome to the Palestinian issue must be realised.
The ALP has stripped all reference to those UN instruments from its policy platform- strange for a party that still claims an “internationalist” approach to world affairs. Stranger still for a country that aspires to a seat on the Security Council.
Likewise, the government has sadly completed the work of its predecessor in neglecting our links with the Arab world. Except for drop-by calls on the way to Iraq or Afghanistan or to attend international meetings, I am aware of no bilateral foreign ministerial visits to the Arab world.
Of course, nothing that Australia might have said would necessarily have dissuaded Mossad from its obsessive tradecraft, and several countries more measured in their approach to Israel had their passports abused. The episode has all the marks of another over-the-top operation, the objectives of which could never justify the fallout. As soon as a figure like Mahmoud al- Mabhouh is rubbed out, another 10 enter the system.
It is unlikely that Australia will get the co-operation it seeks. The dark fulminations will pass. Economic links are minimal and won’t be affected. The ambassador-designate might have to cool her heels a bit longer in Canberra and the scrutiny of anything the Israelis present as “evidence” might be intensified.
Given community pressures and an election coming up, the old pattern will resume-hopefully, however, with fewer oscillations between euphoria and rejection.
That requires a more hard-nosed emphasis on Australian interests, including those in the wider region, by a government and party that have been too smitten for their own (or Israel’s) good.