TWO months ago, the Australian Parliament passed a resolution celebrating Israel’s first 60 years. Until recently, Australia had preserved a balance in Middle East policy that asserted Israel’s right to survival and security, but also the right of the Palestinian people to their own state. Under the previous government, in lock-step with the US, our policies veered to a more one-sided support for Israel. The vision of a Palestinian state seemed to slip from view.
US President George Bush claims that it is possible for Israel and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to negotiate the establishment of a Palestinian state before the end of this year. That ignores the realities of the current situation, which Bush has done a good deal to exacerbate.
It is a fact that Israel has persistently established more and more settlements on the West Bank and that it has ignored the US and the UN Security Council, which have continuously branded these settlements, together with settlements in East Jerusalem, as illegal. However, the US has not exerted real pressure to stop them and the process continues. Through most of my life I have believed that Israel was a beacon of hope. But somewhere Israel’s leadership lost its way.
Since the start of the war on terror, US policies have become increasingly unrealistic, branding people as terrorists to be beaten with guns.
In Bush’s world, discussion or negotiation with those who are labelled as terrorists is unthinkable, and indeed would be a betrayal of American values. Yet he should recall what earlier US presidents did in negotiating with leaders of the Soviet Union. Those presidents avoided nuclear war and won the Cold War. Britain achieved peace in Northern Ireland with similar policies.
Failure to talk with an opponent or with an enemy is perhaps the major mistake of the Bush Administration. A mistake that has made many parts of the world more dangerous. Hamas won a legitimate election in early 2006. Aid workers on the ground in Palestine knew that Hamas would win because Hamas helps local people while Fatah, corrupt and inefficient, did not. The West claimed to be surprised at Hamas’ victory. It betrayed its own principles by making it plain that democracy was only acceptable if it gave the kind of result that Israel and the US wanted.
It would have been possible to say to Hamas: a number of your policies must change but we welcome your participation in the democratic process and we are therefore prepared to talk and explore possible areas of agreement. This approach would have given Hamas an alternative to violence and the possibility of a different future.
When a joint Hamas-Fatah government was formed, it was short-lived. Both Israel and the US sought to undermine it and encouraged Abbas to pursue a policy that would diminish or destroy Hamas. In this regard, Israel and the US have played a major part in the continued divisions among the Palestinian people themselves.
I know there are those who would say that Hamas cannot be believed. No agreement would be sustainable because it wants the total destruction of Israel. However, those who hold such views commit themselves in effect to continued warfare. If this situation prevails, Israel will lose more and more friends and will place its own future in danger.
Terrorism must, of course, be condemned but if one measures the loss of life in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it is clear that the scales are heavily balanced against the Palestinians. The tactics used by Hamas are inefficient as a weapon of war, almost futile, but they have extracted a disproportionate response.
If there is to be any progress, in addition to talking to Hamas it is critical to heal the divisions between Hamas and Fatah. No arrangement between Israel and Abbas will be acceptable unless the divisions among Palestinian people are addressed. But Israeli and American policy is still focused on perpetuating those divisions, breeding more hatred and bitterness and making a secure future even more remote.
Former US president Jimmy Carter has recently held discussions in the Middle East with many of those with whom Bush will not speak. He has attracted a great deal of criticism from many quarters, including the Israeli lobby. However, his efforts are to be applauded because he recognises that talking to Hamas is essential for progress.
Hamas has supported a ceasefire. But this was rejected out of hand as a subterfuge for gaining time to reorganise and rearm. Hamas has said that if Abbas can negotiate a solution and if that is endorsed in a referendum by the Palestinians, it will support it, provided that there is reconciliation among Palestinians.
What then should be done? The principles endorsed by the Baker-Hamilton report in relation to Iraq must be adopted in regard to the Palestinian case as well. There must be talks leading to negotiations involving all the players including Hamas. Progress will not be quick, it could be months and possibly years, but a ceasefire, even initially for a limited period, would be a good start. The ending of the blockade of Gaza and the cessation of new settlements in the West Bank would be a prerequisite. In addition, the adjudication of boundaries of Israel and Palestine would be critical to a final settlement.
Against this modern-day tragedy, it is important for countries such as Australia to be even-handed. That is why I support the appeal for the Australian Parliament to pass a resolution recognising the hardships of the Palestinian people and committing Australia to work for a fair and peaceful resolution and the establishment of a viable independent state for Palestinians.