When the current Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison floated the idea that Australia might move its Israeli embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, it was widely suggested that this was an attempt to curry favour with the relatively large (12%) Jewish population in the electorate where a by-election was being held.
Following the government’s humiliating defeat in an electorate it had held for more than a century, the idea was expected to die. That possibility was reinforced by the widespread criticism that followed the prime minister’s announcement. That criticism was couched almost solely in terms of the damage such a move would do to Australia’s relationships with its near neighbours such as Indonesia.
Supporters of the Prime Minister also argued that moving the embassy to Jerusalem would enhance progress in the “two state solution” to the problem between Israel and the Palestinians.
More recently however, the Australian cabinet has approved the idea that the embassy should be moved, but not immediately. The delay was purportedly on cost grounds, financial cost that is, not reputational.
Almost completely missing from news bulletins and mainstream media analysis are the arguably far more important elements in the Tel Aviv – Jerusalem equation.
The first of these is the legal question. In considering that point, regard has to be had to Australia’s professed support for what it terms “the rules based international order.” That term, while widely used, is never clearly defined. In fact, as the experience of recent decades has conclusively shown, it means a western version of the international rules selectively employed to support an American centred hegemonic order.
The term “international law” is now avoided in political discourse, for the very good reason that the actions of the western powers do not sit well with adherence to international law.
The invasions, occupations, and attacks upon Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Yemen, among others this century alone make the point. In all of these illegal endeavours Australia has been a willing, indeed eager, participant. This is quite apart from Australia’s own violations of, for example, the Convention on Refugees and the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Australian politicians also regard themselves as immune from accountability for participating in illegal wars. Unlike the British and the Dutch for example, there has never been a public inquiry into the lies and illegalities at the base of the Iraq invasion in 2003.
The Australian government has never held a debate on its participation in the Syrian War, even defeating a Green Party motion in 2015 to even debate that decision to join yet another illegal war. What little has been said publically by the relevant Ministers about that war and the reasons for joining it are at best vague and more often untruthful.
It is this disregard for international law that is at the root of the decision to move the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. That decision needs to be put in the context of Australia’s record with regard to the Middle East, and more particularly, as it pertains to the status of Jerusalem and the Palestinian and Syrian territories.
From the inception of the Israeli State, the city of Jerusalem was accorded special status. In the Palestine Partition Resolution 181 of 1947, the United Nations General Assembly resolved that “the city of Jerusalem be established as a corpus separatum under a special international regime and shall be administered by the United Nations.”
That special status has been reaffirmed in every General Assembly or Security Council resolution on the matter from then until as recently as December 2018. It did not take long for Israel to disregard the special status of Jerusalem. A map showing Israeli and Palestinian territory at the time of partition, and a contemporary map show very different situations, as Israel has persistently encroached upon Palestinian territory to establish Jewish only settlements.
The 1948 war commenced this process in a significant way. The 1967 so-called Six Day War reinforced that process, with Israel capturing East Jerusalem from Jordan, the Golan Heights from Syria, and other parts of what was supposed to be the basis for a future Palestinian State.
Completely contrary to international law, Israel has continued to occupy the land it acquired through conquest. Judging by its actions and the statements of successive political leaders, up to and including the current Prime Minister Netanyahu, it has no intention of ever relinquishing its hold on the occupied territories.
In 1980 the Israeli parliament passed a law purporting to extend Israel’s law, jurisdiction and administration in the occupied Syrian Golan Heights. This was again in defiance of international law. UN Security Council Resolution 242 (1967) had unanimously confirmed that Israel should withdraw from territories it occupied in the Six Day War.
Following the passage of the Israeli law in 1980, the UN Security Council by 14:0 (with the United States abstaining) condemned Israel’s non-compliance with previous UNSC resolutions; condemned the attempt to change the status of Jerusalem as a violation of international law and therefore null and void; and demanded that the law be immediately rescinded.
While not specifically approving Israel’s blatant disregard for international law, and UN Security Council and General Assembly resolutions, neither did Australia go out of its way to be critical either.
Politicians in successive governments, either Labor or Liberal, have, with rare exceptions, refrained from criticism of Israel’s actions. If silence implies consent, then from 1947-2018 the overwhelming inference to be drawn is that Australia tacitly at the very least approved Israel’s actions.
In recent years that support has become more overt. In 2014 the government of the then Prime Minister Tony Abbott announced that it had decided to drop the word “occupied” when describing Israel’s settlements in East Jerusalem. The then Attorney General George Brandis said that the word “occupied” was “freighted with pejorative implications which is neither appropriate nor useful.”
To describe that claim as fatuous would be an understatement.
Australia’s tacit approval of Israel’s unlawful actions has now been made explicit. In a series of votes in late November and early December 2018, Australia was one of 6 countries to vote against a General Assembly resolution demanding an end to Israel’s occupation of the occupied territories; voted against a resolution demanding a peaceful settlement of the question of Palestine (along with only seven others); and abstained on a further resolution (along with 13 others) with 2 votes against (Israel and the United States) demanding an end to Israel’s illegal occupation of the Syrian Golan heights.
None of these votes, all of which were carried by overwhelming majorities, were featured in the Australian mainstream media.
The announced decision to move the Australian embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, where it would join only the United States and Guatemala, is therefore not a decision that should be seen in isolation. It simply reflects a long-standing tolerance of Israel’s persistent violation of international law.
As noted above, the Australian government also claims that shifting the embassy will facilitate the “peace process:” aimed at a two state solution. Apart from the United States and Israel, Australia must be the only country in the world to make such a claim.
The “two state solution” has been one of the great fallacies and enduring myths of the modern era. It is doubtful if it was ever more than a vain hope, and what little prospect there may have been in 1948 has been shattered by the repeated actions of successive Israeli governments that Australia supports.
A claim that moving the embassy will facilitate the peace process is on a par with Abbott and Brandis hoping to eliminate the word “occupied” from a discussion of Israeli actions in Palestine and the Syrian Golan Heights.
The conclusion must be that Australia has no serious interest in the resolution of the Israel/Palestine question. By its public statements and voting record in the United Nations there can now be no question that Australia is firmly in the Israeli camp.
Quite how that accords with the oft-repeated claim of a belief in the “rule of law” and support for the legitimate aspirations of an oppressed people is awaiting an explanation. Given the Australian mainstream media’s complicity in ignoring the reality of Israeli’s daily violation of the rights of the Palestinians, and equal complicity in concealing Australia’s actual voting record in the UN on Israel related questions, it may be a long wait.
Both of the major political parties are equally complicit in refusing to address any of these issues in Parliament. Quite why the politicians and the media take the stance they do is a separate question. A further separate question is why the government seems so determined to proceed in the face of expert advice and widespread opposition on a course of action so manifestly at odds with Australia’s national interest, its security, and its professed beliefs.
James O’Neill, an Australian-based Barrister at Law, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.