Dr Peter Boyce
…in terms of media coverage, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been the most publicised dispute in history. That of course make it all the more remarkable that its historical roots have been so little understood…
…A former Australian ambassador to Israel, Peter Rodgers, offers a glum anecdote to highlight the bleak prospects for a peace settlement. In the early 1980s three national leaders were afforded the opportunity to ask God just one question. Margaret Thatcher asked, “Oh Lord, when will Britain achieve full employment?” “Not in your lifetime”, came the answer.
It was then the turn of Leonid Brehznev: “When will the world come to accept the Communist ideal?” “Not in your lifetime, my son”. Finally it was Menachem Begin’s turn: “When, oh Lord, will we achieve peace with the Palestinians?” And the response: “Not in my lifetime”. I can only hope that God is a little more optimistic than that!
The Scandal and Shame of a Stateless Palestine
MY TOPIC this morning almost inevitably leads one into both a minefield and a quagmire, so why am I so foolish as to take even one step in that direction? The reasons are multiple, but one of them is that I sense very deeply the elements of tragedy and injustice in what has become a very complex and seemingly intractable international conflict, one which contains several extraordinary, indeed unique characteristics, yet a conflict which has not been accompanied by as much in-depth reportage or analysis by the media as it deserves—for reasons which I will try to address. In other words, we seem to have been denied much opportunity to assess either hard-headed questions relating to how we define our national interest or profoundly moral questions relating to political and social justice.
I need to declare a personal bias at the outset. In some forty-five years of involvement in the teaching of or research about international relations within five Australian universities, I have always sought to avoid vigorous advocacy of a particular interpretation of events and to help students draw their own conclusions from as thorough a search through reliable documentation as possible. Today I hope you will forgive me a lapse from that tradition of neutrality.
So what is so distinctive about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or, on a wider front, the Israeli-Arab conflict? I can think of at least seven features, and I should identify these briefly, before attempting a short history of it.
(1) First, this is the longest running conflict in modern history, and certainly no unresolved issue has lain on the UN’s agenda for as long. And it should never be forgotten that the UN retains a solemn responsibility to help resolve the dispute, since Israel and Palestine are in a very real sense UN constructs.
(2) The religious dimension to this issue is quite unique. The struggle for recognition and security by Israel involves the interests and beliefs of the world’s three great monotheistic religions, the so-called Abrahamic faiths which intersect in Jerusalem, and the justification for Israel’s establishment or “reclamation” rests on an interpretation of sacred texts. I know of no other new state recognised by the international community on the basis of such claims. So discussion of the Arab-Israeli dispute embraces political theology.
(3) Jewish reading of Scripture appears to be the primary explanation of what I will call Israeli exceptionalism—a failure of successive Israeli governments and a majority of their electors to recognise Arabs within their boundaries, Muslim or Christian, as equal in their citizenship entitlements.
(4) Israel’s continued occupation of most of the land formerly assigned to the Palestinians would not have been possible without the material and political support of every United States administration since Truman’s, and it would not be inaccurate to suggest that the fortunes of Israel and Palestine have been driven largely by domestic political considerations in the United States.
(5) I see the West’s failure to extract from Israel a clear public commitment to withdraw to its pre-1967 boundaries, conditional of course upon guarantees of Arab-state recognition, as a core issue, perhaps the core issue, poisoning Arab opinion against the West, and against the U.S. in particular. I am inclined to accept the view expressed by the late Edward Said, probably Palestine’s most distinguished intellectual, who wrote : “I do not think it is an exaggeration to say that every significant political movement or current of ideas or debate in the Arab world since 1948 has in some way been dominated by the question of Palestine.”
(6) Many Western critics of Israeli policy or behaviour have been inhibited or intimidated by fears of being labelled anti-semitic, and critics of US policy as congenitally anti-American. Given that anti-semitism has been a powerful force in European history and that the Holocaust of World War II occurred in the prelude to Israel’s establishment, such inhibitions can be readily understood, but they do not assist in our laying bare some unpalatable truths.
(7) Finally, in terms of media coverage, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been the most publicised dispute in history. That of course make it all the more remarkable that its historical roots have been so little understood.
The Roots of Conflict
How did this unhappy tale unfold? It began with the formation of a Zionist movement in Europe during the last decade of the 19th century, led for some years by an Austrian, Dr Theodore Herzl. The primary aim of the Zionists was to secure a homeland for Jews, and for some but not all Zionists the hope was to reclaim sovereignty over biblical Palestine, a territory then still under Ottoman (ie Turkish) rule. For nearly 1000 years, from the reign of Solomon in 1000BC to the Roman occupation, a Jewish kingdom had survived along roughly similar boundaries to the Palestine which emerged after the Great War, following the allies’ defeat of Turkey—boundaries which enclose present-day Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories.
A Jewish minority had remained in Palestine after the harsh Roman suppression of the Jewish uprising in 70 AD, a suppression which included destruction of their most sacred site, the second temple, in Jerusalem, but many Jews fled to Europe or north Africa to become the nucleus of what came to be called the “diaspora”. We are familiar, or ought to be, with the record of Europe’s appalling treatment of its Jewish residents through at least eighteen centuries, contrasting with the generally peaceful co-existence of Jews and Moslems in Moorish Spain and north Africa after the spread of Islam there.
If Herzl was the principal coordinator of the Zionist movement in its infancy, it was a Russian-born Jewish academic teaching at the University of Manchester, a senior lecturer in chemistry no less, who persuaded the British government to commit itself to help establish a Jewish homeland in historic Palestine. Dr Chaim Weizman befriended members of David Lloyd George’s Liberal government, several of whom, including the prime minister himself, were quite sympathetic to the Zionist cause. Oddly enough, it was a Jewish member of Cabinet, Edwin Montagu, who opposed the idea of a Jewish homeland, and his argument was echoed twenty years later by the distinguished Jewish Australian who became this country’s first native-born governor general, Sir Isaac Isaacs. In a public campaign against the establishment of Israel, Isaacs insisted that Judaism was a faith, not a nationality. By then, however, the die had been cast.
And the critical first step had been a publicly released letter from the British foreign secretary, Arthur Balfour, to Lord Rothschild, in November 1917, which said this:
“His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by the Jews in any other country.”
Many Britons, on both sides of politics, would later regret Balfour’s commitment, but immediately after the Versailles peace settlement was agreed, with Britain entrusted with a League of Nations mandate to administer Palestine, Jewish immigrants established an embryonic government, the Jewish Agency, which acted as independently of the British as possible. Relations with London were never harmonious. There were regular disagreements as to how many immigrants should be allowed in and where they should be settled without displacing or dispossessing the traditional landowners, Palestinian Arabs and Christians. Palestine contained only 60,000 Jews in 1917 and nearly 650,000 Arabs, but thirty years later, on the eve of the proclamation of Israel, the Jewish population had risen to approximately 500,000. Through the 1920s and ‘30s British governments couldn’t make up their minds what the shape of an independent Jewish state should be, or even whether it was necessary to create a sovereign Jewish state, given that the Balfour declaration had referred only to a “homeland”. There was no consistency in the recommendations of successive Royal Commissions and other inquiries, and violence between Arabs and Jews increased steadily. Furthermore, during and after World War ll, in the twilight days of the British mandate, Jewish violence was turned against the British themselves, directed by two terrorist organizations, Irgun and the Stern Gang. By mid-1947 Jewish terrorists had so disillusioned British public opinion that Clement Attlee’s Labor government announced that it would surrender its League of Nations (now UN) mandate prematurely. Given the force and persuasiveness of Israeli and US denunciations of terrorism in the context of our current troubles, we should not be allowed to forget that the Jewish state itself was founded in guerrilla terrorism.
The newly established United Nations established an advisory commission on the future of Palestine, centred on the core question of whether it should endorse a partition, ie a two-state solution, or an integrated Jewish-Arab state. Jews wanted the former and most Palestinians the latter. The US espoused the cause of partition, while the British, at least initially, opposed it. The Soviet Union, in a rare display of unity with Washington, preferred partition, and in November 1947 the General Assembly endorsed a plan for the division of historic Palestine into two autonomous areas which were to be economically interdependent. Furthermore, there was to be a two-year transition period, during which a further 150,000 Jews would be admitted to the Jewish autonomous area. The partition plan awarded the Jewish territory 55% of the total land area, though at this time they owned less than 10% of the land and numbered just under one third of the population.
Arab nations expressed dismay at this UN plan, and several western governments, notably the British, warned of likely Arab military intervention it were to be implemented prematurely. But the promised British withdrawal fuelled Jewish Agency impatience to move swiftly and unilaterally. The day after the last British officials sailed from Haifa, on 14 May 1948, Israeli independence was proclaimed in Tel Aviv by David Ben Gurion, the new nation’s first prime minister. Against British pleadings, and even more significantly, against dire warnings from key members of the US administration (including Secretary of State George C. Marshall), President Truman announced his government’s immediate recognition of the state of Israel. Why? In large measure because the Zionist lobby in New York threatened to deny New York State to the Democrats in the forthcoming presidential and congressional elections, and New York State was critical to Truman’s re-election campaign.
A sequence of wars and failed mediation
Within twenty-four hours of the proclamation of independence six Arab armies comprising 40,000 men invaded Israel—from Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. (Jordan’s attack was only half-hearted, however, as King Abdullah had been wooed by the Israelis during previous months).The Israelis quickly demonstrated their military superiority and within months had repulsed the invaders, but the effect of this war on the Palestinians was devastating. The UN estimated that some 725,000 fled or were forcibly displaced—approximately half from Israel itself into Palestinian territory and the rest into neighbouring Arab countries, principally Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. Israel has claimed that no more than 600,000 became refugees and that many of these were urged to flee by Arab military or civilian authorities. What we do know from various Israeli sources, however, is that it was it was the intention of successive governments in Tel Aviv to reduce the Arab component of Israel’s population.
Within a year of this first war having broken out, armistice agreements had been brokered by UN mediators, the first of whom, Count Folk Bernadotte, was assassinated by the Stern Gang, on the orders of its triumvirate of leaders, which included Yitshak Shamir, a future prime minister. Incidentally, Shamir was not the only former terrorist who would become an Israeli prime minister.
Despite the armistice, no progress was made with the establishment of a Palestinian state. Jordan seized the West Bank of Palestinian territory in 1950 and administered it until the six-day war of 1967, while Egypt seized the Gaza Strip. I will move very rapidly through the next four Arab-Israeli wars, noting only their negative consequences for the peace process and their brutalising effects on the Israeli and Palestinian peoples. Israel’s invasion of Egypt in October 1956, as part of a secret Anglo-French plan to prevent nationalisation of the Suez Canal, yielded her recovery of the Gaza Strip and control of the entire Sinai Peninsula. The seven-day war in June 1967 was a brilliantly successful pre-emptive strike by Israel against Egypt and Syria, resulting in capture and retention of the entire West Bank, including Jerusalem, from Jordan, and the well watered and strategically located Golan Heights from Syria. Israel has retained de facto control of this territory to the present day, notwithstanding her recognition of limited Palestinian Authority governance over certain areas since the mid-1990s.
In 1973 the fourth Arab-Israeli war, known as Yom Kippur, was fought, this time on Arab initiative, but again the Israelis were victorious. By now it was universally recognised that Israel was a significant military power, with its government placed on a permanent war footing, while its external secret intelligence service, Mossad, was generally regarded as the world’s most ruthlessy efficient.
Although many Arab states continued to withhold diplomatic recognition of Israel, a few—Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon, were by now prepared to adopt a more pragmatic approach, encouraged by American mediation and blandishment in the competitive diplomacy of the Cold War. Washington and Moscow were bidding keenly for the right of patronage in the Middle East. The first significant breakthrough occurred under President Jimmy Carter’s brokerage at the first Camp David summit in 1978, when Egypt’s president, Anwar Sadat, reached a peace settlement with Israel, followed by diplomatic recognition. Jordan’s King Hussein would also soon reach a modus vivendi.
In 1982 Syria’s mounting influence on Lebanon prompted an Israeli invasion and occupation of southern Lebanon, the fifth Arab-Israeli war, and it was during that occupation that the massacre of many hundreds of Palestinian refugees, 2000 according to the Red Crescent, in two camps (Sabra and Shatila) near Beirut was sanctioned by the Israeli military, whose minister, Ariel Sharon, was later declared by the head of a judicial inquiry to have been indirectly culpable. The fury of Israeli assaults on the city of Beirut provoked President Reagan to issue what were by American standards grave warnings to the Israeli prime minister, Menachem Begin (himself another former terrorist), and an international peace keeping force was despatched to south Lebanon in the wake of Israel’s evacuation. The PLO leader was escorted to Tunis where he remained until 1993.
A series of mediation attempts to start peace negotiations occurred during the 1990s, principally that sponsored by the Norwegian foreign minister in Oslo, but by now externally directed and funded terrorist organizations had become very active, most notably Hezbollah, with many young Palestinian Moslems being attracted to the role of suicide bombers. Nevertheless, the first intifada (or people’s uprising) of December 1987 appears to have been spontaneous and locally inspired in the overcrowded and poverty-stricken Gaza Strip, though it was certainly exploited by Hamas, a home grown terrorist group established in 1988.
The Oslo Accords, signed in Washington in September 1993, did represent a genuine breakthrough in communication and concession by both Israelis and Palestinians, including a commitment by Prime Minister Rabin to comply with Security Council Resolution 242 (of 1967), requiring an evacuation of captured Palestinian territory, but the agreement was primarily a declaration of principles and was weak on timetable specifics. It was narrowly approved by the Israeli Knesset, but Rabin was assassinated by an Orthodox Jewish extremist shortly afterwards. Nevertheless, Israel accepted some devolution of authority to a Palestinian administration led by Yasser Arafat, who had by now formally disavowed terrorist methods and acknowledged Israel’s right to exist.
The late 1990s witnessed intensified suicide bombing attacks inside Israel, and Ariel Sharon’s provocative visit to the Al-Aqsa mosque in 2000 inspired the second intifada. Tragically, this episode followed closely upon a renewed series of peace negotiations at Camp David, under President Bill Clinton’s chairmanship. It has since been revealed, however, that no written record of undertakings by either party was compiled at these talks, and the Israeli prime minister, Ehud Barak, later reassured his countrymen that he had had no intention of making major concessions. Within the next five years the growth of Israeli settlements on the West Bank intensified and several Palestinian towns were subjected to disproportionately violent assaults by the military in retaliation for suicide bombings. The assault on Jenin in 2002, for example, was described by many western observers as a massacre. What is often overlooked is the toll which these assaults have taken on Palestinian urban infrastructure,–the destruction of government buildings and the records within them, for example. I do not need to say much about the most recent hostilities, but I cannot help thinking that a great opportunity for some advance in the peace process was lost by Israel’s refusal to offer even a cautious and tentative acceptance of the electoral victory by Hamas in 2006. It is true that the Hamas leadership has refused to promise recognition of the Israeli state, but there were certainly signs of willingness (initially at least) to try to do business with the Israeli government.
Here I need to make some reference to the cumulative effects of repeated wars, enemy occupation and terrorism were having on both the Israeli and Palestinian populations. Many Israelis concede that there has been brutalisation of their own society over time (and how could it have been otherwise?), while the entrenched “victim mentality” among Palestinians has also been lamented. The proud proclamation of Israel’s independence in May 1948 committed the new state to uphold the principles of liberty, justice and peace, “as conceived by the Prophets of Israel”, and it promised equal rights to Israel’s Arab inhabitants. Alas, the Prophets must be turning in their ancient graves!
The Al-Qai’da-directed attacks on the United States of 11 September 2001 and the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 were to prove disastrous for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Why? Because the “war on terror” has blurred the necessary distinction between Islamist extremists fighting the West on a broad front and those Palestinian terrorists (and their supporters) whose cause is essentially the recovery of their homeland. The Israeli government has skilfully exploited this confusion.
For nearly sixty years Israel’s survival has depended heavily on American military, economic and political support, and the extent of that support has increased markedly over recent decades. The total value of aid to Israel represents the most massive transfer of assets ever recorded from one country to another, estimated at US $140 billion since the early 1970s, while Israel’s access to US military technology could not be given a monetary value. Political support has been most valuable in Washington’s repeated exercise of a veto in the Security Council whenever draft resolutions critical of Israel have been brought before it. To be sure, there have been countless outbreaks of shuttle diplomacy by successive secretaries of state or special presidential envoys in bids to secure yet another truce or yet another framework for peace negotiations, but these have never demanded of Israeli governments that they declare themselves willing to accept in-principle recognition of Palestine’s right to exist as a sovereign state within viable boundaries or even an in-principle agreement to terminate its settlement program on the West Bank. In these circumstances United States credibility as an honest broker is seriously dented.
But why has US support been so overwhelming, so persistent and so unqualified? Firstly, it must be acknowledged that both Democrat and Republican occupants of the White House have seen Israel as the centre-piece or fulcrum of their Middle East strategy—both before and since the war in Iraq and the response to Al-Qa’ida inspired or directed terrorism. But why the ongoing commitment when the message has been so loudly ringing around the chancelleries of Europe and Asia that this support has severely damaged America’s bona fides and that it fuels suspicion and resentment around the Arab world, including populations of moderate Moslems? A few pleas for recognition of the Israel-Palestine dispute as a root cause of Arab disenchantment are voiced in the US, but only a few.
Apart from the fact that American public opinion on foreign policy matters is not generally founded on a strong understanding of history and that even the foreign policy makers themselves are less likely than their European counterparts to approach issues with geographical area expertise or deep historical knowledge, there is one other key explanation of the American mindset and the captivity of various Presidents to it. The answer, I think, lies in a truly bizarre combination of powerful lobbying influences on Washington and on the formation of public opinion—the combination of Jewish Zionists and the swelling ranks of conservative, evangelical fundamentalists among the Christian majority. Not all of the 2% of Americans who are Jewish are fiercely committed to support of Israel at all costs, but the Israeli lobby finds expression in the information and communication sectors, as well as in the world of banking and finance. I see no conspiracy here, just a concentration of influence. But to discuss this concentration of influence and how it is expressed courts disaster in the United States. When a serious academic analysis of the Jewish lobby in the context of America’s security interests was published six months ago, all hell broke loose. Let me elaborate.
The analysis was a lengthy discussion paper by two of the world’s most respected international relations specialists, Stephen Walt, then head of the John Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, and John Mearsheimer, of the University of Chicago’s Political Science Department. Their work had been commissioned by the Atlantic Monthly, but that journal’s editors found the article too hot to handle, and it was eventually published in the London Review of Books. I have a copy of the notorious document and found it to be a measured, hard-headed discussion about the American national interest by two flag-bearers for what we in the trade call “the realist school” of international relations. But the reaction inside America? Harvard ordered the removal of its logo from the report, Walt announced that he was stepping down from directorship of the Kennedy School, and the two authors were subjected to a merciless barrage of denunciation and abuse from prominent members of the Jewish community. The paper’s most provocative conclusion was (and I quote):”the United States has been willing to set aside its own security and that of many of its allies in order to advance the interests of another state”. The paper challenges the assumption that the interests of the United States and Israel are identical, and while acknowledging that Israel has the right to exist, argues that Israel’s existence is not in jeopardy. The paper then documents in considerable detail the successful pressure brought to bear on successive American administrations in favour of Israel, including that of George W Bush, whose senior advisers have included several Zionists.
I will let President Jimmy Carter have the last word on the Jewish lobby. Carter has just published a book entitled Palestine: Peace, not Apartheid, and in a statement to the Los Angeles Times a few weeks back he said this:
“For the past thirty years I have witnessed and experienced the severe restraints on any free and balanced discussion of the facts. This reluctance to criticise policies of the Israeli government is due to the extraordinary lobbying efforts of the American-Israeli Political Action Committee and the absence of any significant contrary voices. It would be almost politically suicidal for members of Congress to espouse a balanced position between Israel and Palestine, to suggest that Israel comply with international law or to speak in defence of justice or human rights for Palestinians”.
But that is only one of the two major influences on the shaping of American policy on Israel and Palestine. In recent years Israel has won increasing support from a most unexpected quarter, conservative Protestant fundamentalists, many of whom would describe themselves as Christian Zionists. But lest you think that these Christian Zionists are pro-Jewish, let me explain that they are the ultimate anti-semites. For they endorse protection of the modern Jewish state only until Armageddon, which is just around the corner, and the sooner the better. At Armageddon, the final showdown, the Jews will be given the option of either converting to Christianity or being consumed in the flames. Needless to say, the Jewish Zionist lobby are not wildly attracted to this version of the Book of Revelation, but they are sensibly pragmatic and only too willing to accept Christian fundamentalist support for the time being. One might even say that they are “laughing all the way to the Bank”—the West Bank. But how could such preposterous claims be taken seriously in the White House, I hear your strangled cry. Well, the most vocal champions of this weird new phenomenon on the American religious landscape are in regular communication with the White House, some of them as honoured guests there. One thinks of Pat Robertson, Jerry Fawell, Gary Bauer and Franklin Graham for example. And when, during the recent Israeli assault on Lebanon in pursuit of Hezbollah, one fundamentalist leader loudly celebrated the heavy casualties incurred on the civilian population as a welcome next step towards the so-called “Rapture” which awaits some Christians at the end time, President Bush sent him a message of thanks.
So, how many American Christian fundamentalists belong to this vital component of the president’s constituency? Estimates vary, but serious researchers of the phenomenon seem agreed that conservative evangelical fundamentalists now number at least forty million, and that some twenty million of these could probably be classified as Zionists.
And let me add a sad footnote of paradox before moving on. Amid the terrible sufferings and injustices to which the Palestinians have been subjected, a minority group has been frequently overlooked, the Palestinian Christians, most of them descendants of Christian families which have inhabited the country since the time of Christ. Once numbering almost 100,000, their numbers are dwindling fast, as those with an education or financial support seek to emigrate. If this trend continues, the birthplace of Christianity will soon lack a Christian presence, and much of the blame for that can be laid at the feet of the nation which is commonly identified as the most Christian on earth.
Australian Policy and Opinion
I turn now to the question of Australian policy on (and interest in) the Israeli-Palestinian question. Where does Australia sit in this extraordinary scenario—as a loyal ally to the United States and as a middle power whose governments once seriously sought to adopt an even-handed approach to the Israel-Palestine dispute? Australia voted for the partition plan in November 1947. Indeed, the then Australian external affairs minister, H.V. Evatt, played a key role in its preparation and was president of the General Assembly when Israel proclaimed its independence. Australia did not endorse permanent occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip in the wake of Israel’s victories in 1967 and it regularly abstained on UN resolutions condemning Israel, with Prime Minister Hawke being more reluctant than Prime Minister Fraser to criticise Israel. Malcolm Fraser’s biographer, Philip Ayres, claimed recently that this former Liberal leader is the only Australian head of government ever to have criticised Israeli behaviour toward the Palestinians. He may be right.
Serious commentators have noticed a distinct shift in Australia’s policy towards Israel in the past two or three years, coinciding with the increased intimacy of our alliance with Washington on issues of Middle East intervention. Particularly evident was the refusal of either Prime Minister Howard or Foreign Minister Downer to offer even the slightest criticism of Israeli actions against the civilian population of Lebanon during that country’s invasion last year, while many western delegations to the UN must have been surprised by at least two key votes in the General Assembly when the United States, Israel and Australia were lined up against the entire world (except for a couple of Pacific island mini-states which were US dependencies). One of these votes was addressing the legality of the recently constructed wall through the West Bank, a construction deemed illegal by the International Court of Justice.
To the best of my knowledge there has been no announcement or explanation of the Australian government’s increasingly pro-Israeli policy position. One wonders why we should be identified so closely with the United States; whether it satisfies a sober and hard-headed definition of our national interest in security terms and whether it is a morally defensible position. My own view is that it satisfies neither of these criteria. The current position, then, is that we are officially identified, totally, with a policy of almost unqualified support of Israel and its illegal occupation of Palestinian territory, notwithstanding that this policy is determined in Washington by an administration headed by a president whose credibility around the western world is in rapid decline, and whose two most influential constituencies are Jewish Zionists and conservative fundamentalist Christians. I don’t believe there has ever been a crazier basis for the formulation of Australian foreign policy than this.
But don’t expect the media in this country, or for that matter the two major political parties, to discuss this odd situation too eagerly. Here too, although we face no equivalent of the large and powerful Jewish and Christian Zionist lobbies which constrain American policy, there certainly appears to be a taboo on open or penetrating public discussion in most of the major media outlets. Jewish organizations are quick off the mark if an editorial or television documentary questions Israeli actions, the most vocal and vigilant of which is AIJAC, the Australia Israel Jewish Affairs Council. A young Australian Jewish journalist, Antony Loewenstein, recently published a revealing account of the pro-Israeli lobby in Australia and has been pilloried by many of his co-religionists for this impertinence. I commend to you his book, entitled My Israel Question, published by Melbourne University Press.
The Prospects for Peace
The prospects for a peace settlement are bleak. The three key seemingly intractable issues to be resolved are the determination of borders, the fate of Palestinian refugees, and the status of Jerusalem. Let me address each of them briefly.
Successive Israeli governments have made it abundantly clear that they will not negotiate a restoration of the pre-1967 borders (even though Palestinian territory had already been reduced by 20% from what was authorised by the UN’s 1947 partition plan). Moreover, there are now more than 250,000 settlers on the West Bank, excluding new settlements in Jerusalem itself.
As for the refugees, of whom there are now some 5 million, the UN’s General Assembly has upheld their right of return on about 110 occasions, but a full-scale return would now prove physically and economically impossible. To the best of my knowledge Israel is not prepared to offer compensation.
With regard to Jerusalem, the only solution which might be mutually acceptable (and once was) is an internationally protected zone around the whole city, or possibly an international boundary which separates the western sector from the eastern. Either way, it would be futile to expect either Israel or the Palestinians to relinquish their respective claims to Jerusalem as their national capital.
Given these stumbling blocks, it would almost certainly require a very strong initiative by the United States to break the impasse, and there has been no sign of any willingness to seriously direct Israel in the peace process. And this, notwithstanding the constant reminders to Washington from “friendly” European governments that a failure to give high priority to the peace process is intensifying disaffection with the West around the Arab world (and for that matter the more far flung Moslem world). One notes that the bipartisan task force which recently advised President Bush on his strategic options in the Middle East urged the US administration to address the Israeli-Palestinian issue as a matter of urgency, but these recommendations were rejected.
But we should not overlook the fertility factor as a potent Palestinian weapon. With Palestine’s population increasing at more than 3% per annum, Israel faces the prospect of having to govern an expanded state in which Jews are a minority.
I have not had time to address domestic Israeli and Palestinian factors which have frustrated the peace process—the difficulty faced by any Israeli government in accommodating minority parties of ultra-Orthodox Jews for example, or the problem of seemingly endemic corruption in the Palestinian Authority under Fatah party leadership. (One of the key reasons why Palestinian voters turned to Hamas in the 2006 elections was its commitment to root out corruption, but they were punished for their choice.)
A former Australian ambassador to Israel, Peter Rodgers, offers a glum anecdote to highlight the bleak prospects for a peace settlement. In the early 1980s three national leaders were afforded the opportunity to ask God just one question. Margaret Thatcher asked, “Oh Lord, when will Britain achieve full employment?” “Not in your lifetime”, came the answer.
It was then the turn of Leonid Brehznev: “When will the world come to accept the Communist ideal?” “Not in your lifetime, my son”. Finally it was Menachem Begin’s turn: “When, oh Lord, will we achieve peace with the Palestinians?” And the response: “Not in my lifetime”. I can only hope that God is a little more optimistic than that!
(Address to U3A, 10 January 2007)