Throughout its nearly six years in Opposition, the Coalition has on many, many occasions criticised Labor Government policy and rhetoric on Israel-Palestine. Should there be a change of government on 7 September, what could actually change regarding the Middle East conflict? A couple of possibilities are highlighted below.
In November 2009 Shadow Foreign Minister Julie Bishop accused the Rudd Government of 'overturning Australia's longstanding bipartisan policy of refusing to support one-sided resolutions against Israel in the United Nations General Assembly'. The Labor Government, in its first years in office, did switch votes on a number of recurring General Assembly resolutions concerning the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. These included:
- The right of the Palestinian people to self-determination: Australia changed its vote from 'abstain' to 'in favour' in 2009.
- Israeli settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem, and the occupied Syrian Golan: Australia changed its vote from 'against' to 'in favour' in 2008.
- Applicability of the Geneva Convention to the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem, and the other occupied Arab territories: Australia changed its vote from 'against' to 'in favour' in 2008.
The voting pattern being 'overturned', however, was basically a Howard era one. In the early 2000s the Coalition Government changed the previous Keating Government voting pattern on these three resolutions. Should a Coalition Government be elected this year, a vote change on these particular resolutions would not be surprising.
What if another vote comes up concerning Palestinian admission to the UN? In November 2012, the General Assembly voted to accord Palestine 'Non-Member Observer State' status in the General Assembly. The Australian delegation abstained, with Foreign Minister Carr arguing that 'the vote at the United Nations is a message of hope to people without a state of their own, living on the West Bank but committed to a peaceful way of getting a state.'
The Coalition strongly opposed this move, stating that they 'would have provided bipartisan support for a No vote.' Judging by this and other statements, a Coalition Government would probably vote 'no' on any new resolution concerning Palestinian admission to the UN introduced prior to the Israelis and the Palestinians bilaterally negotiating a final status agreement.
The biggest unknown is, of course, the Security Council.
During Australia's last term on the Security Council (1985-86), the US vetoed around five resolutions on the Middle East conflict. The Australian delegation did not vote with the US in any of these cases, but used the abstention regularly. That was under a Labor government — would the Coalition do any different?
The election of the Rudd Government in November 2007 corresponded with a large and sustained increase in Australian aid to the Palestinians. The graph below shows the escalation of aid in the 2007-08 financial year (click the graph for larger image and source information). During the foreign policy debate at the Lowy Institute on 7 August, Foreign Minister Carr stated that 'aid to Palestine has been criticised (by the Coalition) — I've been quizzed in the Senate about it — and there's no doubt that that would be withdrawn.' While the Coalition has on occasion 'quizzed' the foreign minister about particular aspects of aid to the Palestinians — for example during a Senate Estimates hearing in May 2012 (pages 61-74) — they have not directly criticised the Government for the post-2007 increase in aid.
Julie Bishop has said that 'our view is that foreign aid should be spent in our region where we have the most influence, where we can do the most good. It should not be spread thinly across the globe'. But she has not made any direct reference to aid to the Palestinians.
The previous Coalition government did reduce aid to the Palestinians. Current-price aid allocations to the 'Palestinian territories' fell between 2005-06 and 2006-07, but this was under unique historical circumstances. Following Hamas' success in the January 2006 Palestinian legislative elections, then foreign Minister Alexander Downer argued that providing aid to the Palestinian Authority while Hamas made up part of it was basically illegal under Australian law. Australia proscribed the armed of wing of Hamas under the Charter of the United Nations Act in November 2003, making it illegal to 'give funds, financial assets or economic resources to sanctions designated persons or entities'.
And while the increase in aid to the Palestinians coincided with the election of a Labor Government (a doubling of aid to the Palestinians was announced less than a month after the ALP came to power) here too other forces were involved.
In mid-2007, Hamas took full (and violent) control of the Gaza Strip while Fatah retained control in the West Bank. The West Bank government obviously no longer included anyone from Hamas, while including as its prime minister an independent technocrat, Salam Fayyad. The Coalition was still in power in Australia at the time, and Downer stated his support for the Fatah-Fayyad team when he visited Ramallah in June 2007, promising $4 million in 'support to the (emergency) Palestinian Government'. The initial Labor era aid increase occurred as part of the Paris donor's conference, an initiative by US President George W Bush to raise money for the emergency Palestinian Government. At the time, a total of US$7.7 billion was pledged by 87 countries.
The point here is that a Coalition Government would likely have increased aid to the Palestinian Authority at the time as well. By how much, and whether they would have continued to increase aid in subsequent years, is difficult to say.
It is not clear how Bishop and Coalition plans to reorient Australia's aid program toward our region. It has been suggested that less aid would go to Latin America and that aid to sub-Saharan Africa would be 'consolidated', but there is no clear indication that cuts would come from aid to the Palestinians.
The most noticeable change in policy towards the Middle East conflict will be rhetorical. Labor and the Coalition clearly use different language when talking about Israel-Palestine.
A good example of this is the difference in rhetoric concerning Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
The Labor Government has censured Israeli settlement activity on a number of occasions. The strongest language used by the Labor Government in this regard was in 2013. Firstly, the joint Australia-UK AUKMIN 2013 Communique from January 2013 stated that 'we call on Israel to stop settlement activity. All settlements are illegal under international law and settlement activity undermines the prospects for peace.' Secondly, at Lakemba mosque on 8 August, Senator Carr said that 'we say, unequivocally, all settlements on Palestinian land are illegal under international law and should cease. That is the position, of Kevin Rudd, the position of the Federal Labor Government, and we don't make apologies for it.'
These are the first instances the Australian Government has directly referred to Israeli settlements as illegal since the 1990s.
It is difficult to find an example where the Coalition, while in opposition, has made any statement opposing Israeli settlement activity. Shadow Foreign Minister Bishop has not, it seems, criticised Israel following the announcement of any new settlement construction. And Julie Bishop has responded to Senator Carr's statement at Lakemba mosque, arguing that his comments were 'deeply concerning', that 'only the Coalition would restore and strengthen Australia's relationship with Israel', and that the Coalition recognises 'that Israel is under existential threat in a way that almost no other country in the world'. No position on Israeli settlements was given.
If the Coalition wins the election, expect to see a change of language, if little else.
Photo by Flickr user MarcinMonko.