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New Zealand's UN Security Council debut: Peace in the Middle East

New Zealand's UN Security Council debut: Peace in the Middle East

One of Australia's last acts on the UN Security Council was to vote against a resolution being brought by the Palestinian Authority.

Benjamin Netanyahu, Prime Minister of Israel and John Key, Prime Minister of New Zealand, 2009

Washington regarded this piece of paper as so one-sided against Israel that it would have wielded its veto had the necessary nine members said yes. But partly because of Australia's no, as well as Nigeria's last minute abstention, things did not need to get to that stage. 

New Zealand has begun its own two-year term (2015-2016) on the Council with a different view.

Foreign Minister Murray McCully indicated that Wellington would have either agreed or abstained on that vote, and this trans-Tasman gap has deepened with New Zealand's recent contribution to an open debate at the Council on the Middle East. Jim McLay, New Zealand's representative and a former National Party deputy prime minister, told the Council that it simply had to take the lead in encouraging movement towards a two-state solution. To not do so would mean 'an abdication of its responsibilities.' [fold]

Wellington is also sending a message to Washington: we appreciate Secretary of State John Kerry's efforts to find peace, but they're not enough on their own.

The Obama Administration believes it is not for the Council to set artificial timetables for the completion of negotiations (assuming their resumption). But New Zealand is now saying that a schedule may be just the sort of pressure that might help. McLay also indicated that New Zealand would be available to contribute to an observer mission to step in between Israel and a Palestinian state, in the way that New Zealand contributed in the Sinai after Israel and Egypt made peace.

So at the very least, the New Zealand view is an optimistic and anticipatory one.

The New Zealand Government's explanation will be that McClay's statement reflects a long-standing 'balanced, constructive, and even-handed approach to the Arab-Israeli conflict.' In indicating the sort of final status commitment that it would like to see in a 'suitably balanced' UNSC Resolution, McLay's statement includes the widely heard call for a return to 'pre-1967 borders'.

Mr Netanyahu, now in the middle of a tense election campaign, has said that requiring Israel to agree to this step would bring 'radical Islamic elements to the suburbs of Tel Aviv and to the heart of Jerusalem.' However, New Zealand's statement sees 'agreed land swaps' as part of this territorial arrangement. This may leave open the possibility that some Jewish settlements on the West Bank would remain, despite Wellington's insistence that settlement activity is 'illegal' and 'must stop.' And McLay's language on another big issue — the need for 'a solution on the status of Jerusalem' – is suitably vague, although almost any agreement here seems hopelessly difficult. 

The New Zealand statement also makes it clear that Israel's right to security is not up for negotiation. And it refers to the role that Palestinian actions played in prompting the IDF's recent military response in Gaza, and to the provocation caused by 'increased radicalization within some Palestinian communities.' This comment certainly caught the attention of one group in New Zealand which breathlessly responded that the Government 'should step away from the hypocrisy of abandoning the defenceless Palestinian people.'

But however New Zealand might have tried, its stand in New York offers more for the Palestinian than the Israeli cause, not least because of the fundamental disagreement between the two sides on whether the UN is a suitable venue for progress. The Netanyahu Government clearly thinks it is not.

Israel's Ambassador in Wellington has already taken issue with New Zealand's appeal to its Council partners, insisting that the only course is for the Palestinian side to return to negotiations. But as we all know, these haven't been going anywhere much lately even when they have been occurring. And New Zealand clearly believes both sides are to blame for the stalemate.

New Zealand's foray marks an early attempt to deliver on the promise McCully himself made in New York on the eve of the ballot in which Spain and Turkey were also competing for a Security Council seat. In a speech which almost read as if all of the problems in the Middle East were down to the Israel-Palestine impasse, he insisted that as a small-state member, New Zealand would stand up and demand a lot more from the Council. Yet even for a small portion of his demands to be met, perpetual and united pressure from all of the other non-permanent members, and more, will be needed. 

Wellington is signaling that is has brought an independent foreign policy to Manhattan. Independent, that is, from some of its traditional partners. There is certainly no ANZUS position on this issue, and McLay was quick to challenge some rather odd speculation back home that New Zealand would be beholden for the next two years to the US.

But some of New Zealand's traditional partners, including Canberra, may ask whether more pressure on Israel from the Security Council will just make things worse.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user nznationalparty.

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