‘Social democratic parties have a problem selling opportunity and hope, while conservatives easily sell fear and trepidation’. I am paraphrasing two comments delivered at a recent Australian Labor International dinner hosted by opposition foreign affairs spokeswoman, the remarkable Penny Wong, and current leader of the Israel Labor Party, and soon to be Chair of the Jewish Agency for Israel, the indefatigable Isaac Herzog.
Herzog had been in Australia in early July in coincidence with the Australian Labor Party’s national conference. Previously scheduled for late July, this pre-eminent policy forum had been deferred to December because the Government called a number of by-elections on the weekend of said scheduled Conference. Herzog’s tour went ahead in any event.
And rightly so. It is always a good time to maintain and rebuild anew the historic and numerous links between the Australian and Israeli Labor Parties.
While visiting Labor leaders, parliamentarians, party members, activists and supporters, Herzog came to address head-on a significant challenge; the push by some in Labor for unilateral recognition of a Palestinian state.
Herzog’s main argument against unilateral recognition is that such a move is detached from the realities on the ground and in the region, and would constitute bad policy, leading Labor away from having a constructive role. What follows is a distillation of the three speeches and conversations I heard the best prime minister Israel never had, deliver.
The shift in the Sunni world toward an accommodation with Israel is historic as it is profound. While based on a shared perception of threat from Iran, the contemporary view of Israel is also based on generational leadership change in the Sunni world, primarily in Saudi Arabia and Jordan. Both Prince Mohamed Bin Salman and King Abdullah, according to Herzog, are not trapped in the Arab-as-victim narrative, see an opportunity for change and are equally disillusioned with the Palestinian leadership’s inability to strike a deal with Israel.
Herzog also told us that, in his personal discussions with these, and other regional leaders, they told him full accommodation with Israel meant solving the Palestinian issue. While relations are enhanced at many levels of cooperation, and while there is a general despair with the current Palestinian leadership, Israel could not expect full normalcy without coming to grips with itself accommodating Palestinian aspirations.
Herzog also spoke of his many conversations with Palestinian President Abbas, who he described as now ailing and somewhat on the road to incoherence (evidenced by his strange, and sometimes anti-Semitic outbursts this year). The wider Palestinian leadership in this phase of Abbas’ ailing health are all jockeying for position and pursuing their own agendas, so the chances of working on Trump’s peace deal, let alone any breakthrough with Israel, is slim.
It does describe what the United States Ambassador to Israel, David Friedman has recently been reported to have remarked about the Palestinian leadership rejection of even discussing peace; a peace deal with the Palestinians is more likely looking like a bankruptcy arrangement.
Herzog was also very clear about the situation in Gaza. Hamas and the Palestinian Authority are at loggerheads, each side wanting to overthrow the other. With efforts to broker a peace deal between them, the Palestinian Authority Prime Minister went to Gaza at the Sunni world’s behest earlier this year, and, instead of resolving things, survived an assassination attempt.
Recent international thinking on Gaza concerns how to help the Gazan people without efforts being hijacked by Hamas, whose agenda is purely about terror toward Israel and overthrow of the PA. Herzog outlined conversations by Egypt, Israel, the Americans and the United Nations on building a new international port in Gaza.
The purpose behind the port was to relieve the material conditions of the Gazans through facilitating international trade, whilst creating customs and tariff revenues for the area. But it was clear to the international players that this could not be achieved with Hamas involvement. The latest thinking is to create the port in Cyprus through a bonded-store arrangement administered by the UN and injecting goods and funds directly to the Gazan people. Herzog explained that the UN was the only organisation currently capable of facilitating such a solution and that there was an almost unanimous view that Hamas had to be kept out of this if such a project were to succeed. While difficult, Herzog was optimistic a viable mechanism could be found.
The irony of it all was fantastic but would be completely lost on those who wished to ignore the real role Israel can play in lifting the peoples of the area out of penury.
Herzog displayed deep personal understanding of all the players and issues in the region, and it was his personal stories and insights that gave an immense depth and insight into what is really going on.
Of the speeches/conversations I witnessed during his brief visit, I only saw Herzog get emotional when it came to discussing the slaughterhouse that is Syria. That a madman can kill 700,000 of his own people and the world do nothing was a lesson not lost on people across the entire region. In this sense, Herzog was dismissive of Jeremy Corbyn and those like him whose perfunctory view of Western Asia is dominated by their blind attitudes toward Israel.
Calls for a unilateral recognition of a State of Palestine are thus detached from the realities Herzog outlines. Worse still, Herzog assured, declarations of unilateral recognition turn the ALP away from the friendship with the parties that can assist in finding a way forward, to a partisan detractor of no import nor influence. Israel itself, as the Syrian lesson reminds, certainly will not take actions as a consequence of its partisan detractors.
Seeking a Palestinian State is the right outcome, not on Australia’s terms, but only when Israel and the Palestinians work it out together. Promoting opportunity and hope, as both Herzog and Wong have said, is the true goal of Labor. Having intimate and effective relations with both Israel and the Palestinians is what the Australian Labor Party should maintain as policy as it those two states that must ultimately live side by side. And that is the reality on the ground that cannot and should not be ignored.
Adam Slonim is co-convenor of the Australia Israel Labor Dialogue, adjunct fellow of the Sir Zelman Cowen Research Centre at Victoria University, and Principal of the Blended Learning Group.
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