Economic Policy

Why is Penny Wong pushing Palestinian statehood when Hamas still holds Israeli hostages?

April 13, 2024

Saturday 13 April 2024
Paul Kelly
The Australian

Penny Wong has taken the next step in the realignment of Australia towards the Palestinian cause in a deepening of Labor’s pressuring of Israel and the Netanyahu government.

The shift in Australia’s outlook will accentuate domestic division in this country and provoke more conflict between Labor and the Coalition. Wong is a serious foreign minister and her realignment speech at the ANU National Security College on Tuesday is a measured but serious step towards a new Labor diplomatic stance on the region. It reflects pro-Palestinian sentiment in the Labor rank and file, building for years, now at a new zenith given the Gaza war and the political need for the Albanese government to assuage its base.

In essence, Wong is floating the idea of early diplomatic recognition of a Palestinian state as a device to build momentum for the two-state solution – not at the end of the two-state process as envisaged by the Oslo Accords. In diplomatic terms this is a major change.

Wong says it is being debated and assessed by the international community and quotes British Foreign Secretary David Cameron, encouraging this rethink. She obviously sees Australia as a participant, or even playing an active diplomatic role, in moves to speed up such Palestinian recognition.

On display here is Wong using this diplomatic cover to articulate what is now in Labor’s heart, head and politics about the Gaza war – the shift to a pro-Palestinian position and a downgrading of the long and once trusting relationship the ALP used to share with a democratic Israel bounded by common values. Yes, Israel has changed – but so has Labor.

Wong’s speech reflects growing international alarm about Benjamin Netanyahu’s war tactics but also the politics of the left in Australia given growing hostility towards Israel within the Labor Party.

But the politics of the left on this issue is not the politics of the Australian mainstream, where deep reservations are held about the Palestinian cause, its ties with Hamas, its “from the river to the sea” call for the elimination of the Israeli state – added to the fact Netanyahu is unlikely to be in office at the next Australian election.

Peter Dutton, in his Tom Hughes Oration on Wednesday night – one of his most important speeches as Opposition Leader – attacked Labor’s turn against Israel and Wong’s latest push for Palestinian state recognition, not just in foreign policy terms but as a shift away from longstanding Australian values.

Dutton is running on values. Israel is just a trigger for the bigger narrative. Dutton’s speech outlined a full values-based assault on Labor. He accused Labor of a “moral fog” that made anti-Semitism permissible, a refusal to hold perpetrators accountable, tolerating the non-enforcement of laws, allowing the social contract to be damaged by people who have come to this country and “want Australia to change for them”, permitting a flawed world view to be promoted in our educational institutions, along with the anti-Semitism of the Greens that makes them “the most dangerous political party in our country”.

Dutton says the public now feel “something is rotten in the state of Australia”. At this point, Labor needs to beware it is not caught in a replay of the voice episode.

Wong’s speech was political but deceptive. It doesn’t change anything on the ground. It is largely symbolic but a significant positional signal from Australia – this is where Wong wants Australia to go. There is no change in Australian policy – not yet – but a foreign minister doesn’t float the idea unless they are serious. Wong’s arguments, however, are extremely contentious.

She is deferring to Palestinian sentiments by offering the prospect of a change of Australian policy without actually changing the policy, without explicitly defining the conditions needed for recognition and without saying how the necessary conditions could ever be realised. Her speech typifies much of the debate about Israel and the Palestinians in Western democracies – it is about political gesture, diplomatic posturing and domestic electoral calculation.

To the extent Australia and other Western nations change policy by voting in the UN or by diplomatic action to support Palestinian statehood without any progress towards a settlement – or even while military conflict is still being waged – they deny reality. There is no trust between the parties; they are at war.

Outsiders cannot impose a two-state solution on unwilling parties. Wong talks up the importance of a two-state solution when it has never been more fiercely opposed in both Israel and the Palestinian leadership. Why? Yes, she sees the international community is moving. But Wong, it seems, is using the need to revive the two-state solution as the justification for seeking earlier recognition of a Palestinian state, thereby appealing to deep-seated ALP policy and sentiment.

Opposition foreign affairs spokesman Simon Birmingham says Wong’s statement puts “statehood before security” and will reward “the terrorists who initiated the current horrific conflict”. He says: “Labor is threatening to break decades of bipartisan Australian foreign policy that recognition of a Palestinian state should only occur as part of a negotiated solution which gives Israel and a future Palestinian state security within internationally recognised borders.”

Wong’s considered speech – a major diplomatic concession to the Palestinian side – has ignited a firestorm. The Coalition won’t accept any change in Australia’s recognition policy. It says Palestinian state recognition comes only with the final settlement. The country now runs the risk of a partisan divide on an issue of pivotal symbolism for the Jewish, Muslim and wider Australian community.

Wong begins with the proposition that normalisation “cannot proceed without progress on Palestinian statehood”, indicating she thinks the Oslo Accords from the early 1990s are outdated in their final stage timing on Palestinian recognition. She asserts that Palestinian statehood will “strengthen the forces for peace and undermine extremism” and argues recognition “undermines Hamas, Iran and Iran’s other destructive proxies in the region”.

How real are these propositions? Might not such recognition strengthen Hamas? Might it not be seen as a vindication of its brutality? Could Hamas have imagined when planning its attack on Israel last October the upshot would be a push for early recognition of a Palestinian state?

After six months of war in Gaza, Hamas is still fighting and still undefeated in military or political terms. Its support in the West Bank seems to be far stronger than before. Every sign is that Israeli’s military retaliation has hardened Palestinian sentiment against Israeli’s right to exist. Is this the time to offer a diplomatic gift?

Birmingham says Wong’s claim that normalisation in the region cannot proceed without progress on Palestinian statehood is “demonstrably false” since the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco had normalised relations with Israel since the Abraham Accords in 2020.

The contradiction in Wong’s speech arises from her own apparent acceptance that early recognition of Palestinian statehood is untenable. She says there can be no role for Hamas in a future Palestinian state since it is a terrorist organisation. She says the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank needs to be reformed. She agrees any future Palestinian state “cannot be in a position to threaten Israel’s security”.

How is any of this to be achieved? Nobody knows. Birmingham rightly asks whether these are preconditions the government wants met before any recognition by Australia of Palestinian statehood. But if they are preconditions, then how on earth could such recognition even be contemplated? So what is the entire purpose of the speech? What is Wong’s motive?

Birmingham says Wong’s speech “presents more questions than answers”.

Dutton says: “Until Hamas is defeated, a two-state solution isn’t even conceivable because Hamas will always pose an existential threat to Israel.” He draws a “direct correlation” between Labor’s foreign policy towards Israel and its domestic failure to confront anti-Semitism.

Opposition home affairs spokesman James Paterson says Labor’s demand for a ceasefire means Hamas will survive the war. “It is impossible to reconcile these two propositions from the government,” Paterson says. “One, let’s get rid of Hamas, Hamas should go. But two, no one should do anything to remove them. It’s utterly absurd.”

Wong rejects criticism that recognition is rewarding an enemy. That is because “Israel’s own security depends upon a two-state solution”. Yes, that is a long-run strategic truth. But having Australia lecture Israel when it is at war with Hamas about what is needed for Israel’s long-run future is a presentational and self-serving display really designed to serve Labor’s interests.

The entire saga highlights the extent to which the debate is about diplomatic gesture. It is, however, deeply tied to domestic politics. Over six months the Albanese government has shifted towards a critical, even hostile, attitude towards Israel.

It took a different stand to the US on re-funding the main Palestinian aid agency, the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, despite its ties to Hamas. It had a highly political reaction to the tragic killing by the Israeli military of Australian aid worker Zomi Frankcom. While Anthony Albanese and US President Joe Biden had a fierce and justified reaction, Labor in an expression of no-confidence in Israel appointed a former senior military leader, Mark Binskin, to examine the adequacy and integrity of Israel’s investigation of the incident.

No other nation did this. It was a manifest sign of lack of trust – and proving to the public that Albanese was taking decisive action. At the same time Albanese and Wong intensified their pressure on Netanyahu for a ceasefire, aligning with the demands of a frustrated Biden, who says Netanyahu’s tactics are a “mistake”.

It is obvious the US wants Netanyahu gone. It is not obvious, however, that Australia and the US are on the same page in this war. Any notion the US will favour early recognition of Palestinian statehood seems fanciful.

While the Albanese government’s public pressure is almost entirely on Israel to end the conflict, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has spoken in dramatically different terms – about the need to pressure Hamas, something almost entirely absent from Australia’s rhetoric, short of the compulsory footnotes.

Last week in Washington at a media conference with Cameron, Blinken said: “We have an offer that’s on the table now to Hamas that is very serious and should be accepted. Hamas could move forward with this immediately and get a ceasefire that would benefit people throughout Gaza as well as, of course, get the hostages home. I think the that fact that it continues to not say yes is a reflection of what it really thinks about the people of Gaza, which is not much at all.

“It’s also extraordinary the extent to which Hamas has been almost erased from this story. As we both said going back almost to day one, none of what we’ve seen in Gaza would have happened had Hamas given up the hostages right away, put down its weapons, stopped hiding behind civilians and surrendered.

“The ball is in Hamas’s court. The world is watching to see what it does. It remains astounding to me that the world is almost deafeningly silent when it comes to Hamas.”

He wasn’t talking about the Albanese government – but the description fits like a glove. The same applies to the Australian media. Listening to Labor you would assume the responsibility to end the war lies entirely with Israel. Hamas is almost never mentioned.

As Blinken said, the war would end tomorrow if Hamas surrendered the hostages and surrendered itself.

Wong keeps saying the need is to “accept higher standards” from democracies such as Israel. That’s true. But that it doesn’t constitute an excuse to virtually erase Hamas from any sustained, public pressure and condemnation from the Australian government, a necessary step to show a balance assessment of this war.

Albanese has refused to buy into the issue. He says there is no change in Australian policy – and that’s correct. Under repeated questioning, he says there is mounting support for a two-state solution, this is being discussed between heads of government, and “that is precisely what Penny Wong has envisaged”. Presumably, he feels Wong has done the job. He doesn’t need to reinforce it.

Dutton will become a target of progressive anger and ridicule for his remarks and his unwise reference to the Port Arthur shooting. But many people will agree with much of what Dutton says. He is working towards a broadbased campaign against Labor based on its abandonment of cultural values prized by many Australians. The reaction of senior Liberals this week showed they were convinced Wong had exposed the internal tensions within Labor – trying to appease its own side while keeping a credible diplomatic position.

While a two-state solution remains the only viable long-run solution, its prospects of realisation seem more remote than ever. Labor and the Coalition are united on the two-state solution; that is not the issue. The issue is Wong’s push about earlier recognition of Palestinian statehood when Hamas still holds Israeli hostages and sees political advantage in extending the war thus far.

The model of Hamas and Hezbollah is that “violence works, negotiations don’t” – but this model reinforces Palestinian destructive instincts towards Israel and helps to drive Israel into the extremism of Netanyahu with disastrous consequences.

If you want realism on the Middle East, listen to former US president Bill Clinton, who worked tirelessly but failed to secure the peace breakthrough before he left the White House.

In 2016 Clinton said: “I killed myself to give the Palestinians a state. I had a deal they turned down that would have given them all of Gaza. Hamas is really smart. When they decide to rocket Israel, they insinuate themselves in the hospitals, in the schools, in the highly populous areas. They said they try to put the Israelis in a position of either not defending themselves or killing innocents. They’re good at it. They’re smart.”

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