Kevin Rudd shouldn't join chorus line of Israel bashers

By Greg Sheridan in The Australian

KEVIN Rudd is making a serious mistake and misjudgment about the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, which is reducing Australia's potential to play a constructive role, harming our relationship with Israel and damaging the Gillard government.

This mistake does not emerge from ill will or ignorance on Rudd's part but from a fundamental misjudgment about where the Israeli-Palestinian dispute has got to and how outsiders can help.

A few days ago Rudd issued a statement criticising Israel's approval of 1100 new housing units in Gilo, an area of Jerusalem. This statement was a mistake in its own terms, but it also reflects Rudd's basic strategic misjudgment. That judgment is that what the situation needs most of all is increased international pressure on Israel.

It is perfectly legitimate to make reasonable demands of Israel. But I have not seen, from the Australian government or from most Western commentators, commensurate demands on the Palestinian Authority. For the past two years it has been the PA, not the Israelis, that has refused direct negotiations. Shouldn't Rudd have called on the PA to engage in direct negotiations? Or how about some passing reference to continued anti-Jewish incitement among many Palestinian groups?

The Gillard and Rudd governments have been friends of Israel, but substantially less supportive than the Howard government. They are also substantially less supportive of Israel than is Opposition Leader Tony Abbott.

Abbott has told me he believes Australia should vote against the UN resolution in favour of granting the Palestinians full statehood outside negotiations with Israel. This resolution, which at present is held up in Security Council study, will reach the UN General Assembly in due course. Rudd is reported to incline towards abstaining, which would be a big step away from Israel by Canberra. Gillard is reported to lean towards voting no.

Rudd's statement on the housing units in Gilo is perplexing. When he was in Israel last December he did not mention the settlements in his meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, nor in his speeches. Yet Rudd's recent statement suggests settlements are a central issue. It accords with official US statements. But authoritative analysts such as Martin Indyk believe Barack Obama made a disastrous blunder by elevating settlements to a key place in his early diplomacy, a position he subsequently abandoned.

The dispiriting interpretation of the Australian government's latest statement is that it serves only to echo conventional wisdom, to keep us in the club of the like-minded UN types on this dispute, and to support our bid for a temporary UN Security Council seat.

The several steps the Gillard and Rudd governments have taken away from Israel, especially expelling an Israeli diplomat over the misuse of Australian passports, an action that neither the French nor Germans took in similar circumstances, and which was opposed by Abbott, have a sad consequence. They have diminished our credibility with the Israelis. Lots of nations have credibility with the Palestinians, very few with the Israelis. Australia has lost that distinctive chance for influence and become just another member of the international chorus line that always blames Israel.

The actual question of Israeli settlers in the West Bank is exceptionally complex. More than 300,000 Israelis live in the West Bank proper, while about 200,000 live in parts of Jerusalem that Israel did not control before 1967, that is East Jerusalem.

Every single peace plan of any consequence has envisaged a Palestinian state of almost all of the West Bank and Gaza, of course, some sort of sharing of Jerusalem, and land given to the Palestinians from Israel to compensate for land they lose to settlements.

Most Jewish settlements are adjacent to the 1967 lines or on the edge of Jerusalem. Some of them have a serious military consequence in providing Israel with a fraction more strategic depth and potential early warning of infiltration and attack.

The Washington Institute for Near East Policy has published the best demographic and cartographic study of the settlements. It concluded that Israel could retain 80 per cent of the 300,000 settlers in the West Bank by keeping less than 5 per cent of West Bank territory. The general formula for Jerusalem is that Jewish areas should be Israeli and Arab areas should be Palestinian. Under every imagined scenario, Gilo would remain part of Israel, which makes new Israeli housing there less than crucial.

I have spent a fair amount of time in the West Bank, talking to Palestinians, and a fair amount of time in the West Bank settlements, talking to Israeli settlers. The international stereotype of the settlers as religious extremists with a Bible in one hand and a rifle in the other is wildly inaccurate.

Let me be quite clear. There is an ugly and extreme element of the settler movement. There are some Israelis who want no compromise. There are movements to implant Israeli Jewish families in the most Arab East Jerusalem neighbourhoods along with accompanying security guards, to make territorial compromise involving those neighbourhoods as difficult as possible. But the extremists are a small minority of the settlers.

The situation is further complicated by Israel having annexed East Jerusalem. Most Israelis accept they will have to compromise on Jerusalem but the annexation makes it hard for them to say so.

Of course, all the territorial considerations in the world pale into insignificance compared with the threshold question: can the Palestinian leadership ever embrace and enforce a peace that involves an end of claims and conflict, and a credible guarantee that Israel will not be attacked from within a future Palestinian state?

Even within the settlements, most Israelis I have met accept an ultimate need for compromise. In Ma'ale Adumim, just east of Jerusalem, I met basically secular people happy to have cheaper housing so close to the city. In Gush Etzion, further south, my impression was people were a little more religious, fulfilled in part by living on biblical land, but attracted most of all by the almost kibbutz-style social solidarity of the settlement. In Ariel, much further to the north, the people I met, though very nice, were more nationalistic and a little more militant rhetorically.

The real weakness in Israel's public position is not having its territorial bottom line clear. The Israelis say they must keep the detail of this for negotiation. But the lack of final clarity opens them up to charges of expansionism and confuses their supporters at least as much as their opponents.

There is not much Australia can do to help in all of this. Joining the chorus line of Israel bashing, and diminishing our friendship with Jerusalem, is not at all helpful.

Further reading: The Anti-Semitic Labor Party