Monday, December 10, 2012


 Australia's vote in the United Nations sends the wrong message


WHEN you take part in a UN vote, you should ask yourself one question - will your vote save lives - or cost them? Alexander Downer has been there.

A COUPLE of weeks ago we witnessed one of the more fascinating episodes in the long history of Australian foreign policy; the Labor Party apparatchiks overturned the wish of the Prime Minister to vote against a resolution in the UN General Assembly to upgrade the status of the Palestinian Territories.

Year in and year out as foreign minister I was confronted with questions of how to vote in the UN on the Israel/Palestinian issue. I told the department there was a simple rule to apply. Would the resolution make peace more or less likely? Would it save lives or cost lives?

A few years ago I had to decide how to vote on a resolution that would refer to the International Court of Justice the building by Israel of a security fence to keep out Palestinian suicide bombers.

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade told me we should abstain. If we voted against it we would be isolated, we wouldn't be in good company, our ambassador to the UN would be embarrassingly alone.

I told DFAT the answer was simple. The fence was saving lives. The court could only give an advisory opinion, not a definitive ruling. On that basis we should vote "no". On the day of the vote, our UN ambassador rang me and begged me to change my mind. He was especially worried we would be in a tiny minority.

I told him it was pathetic to abstain. We surely had an opinion. Australia is a strong country, not a weak follower of the weak-willed. And by the way, just because you are a minority doesn't mean you are wrong. Populism is often nonsense.

He was sad. We were one of six out of 192 to vote "no".

Kevin Rudd attacked me, saying we should have abstained. Well, he had his way when he played a part in rolling the Prime Minister on the latest Palestinian vote.

I have no doubt our mission in New York and officials in DFAT were delighted. Who knows what commitments were made as part of our campaign to get on the Security Council. After all, Iran voted for us, Israel's greatest foe. It seems improbable the issue of upgrading the status of Palestinians was not raised by the Iranians and Arab states.

Only nine countries voted no and they were "isolated". Well, among the nine were the US and Canada. They are pretty good company.

This does constitute a significant change in Australia's position on Middle East issues. Foreign Minister Bob Carr argued the resolution didn't confer statehood on the Palestinian territories. Well, it did. It elevated Palestine to the status of non-member observer state.

Then he argued on the ABC that: "To have voted no would have sent a message that Australia does not believe in . . . statehood for Palestinians".

But hang on! He'd already claimed the vote didn't confer statehood.

In any case, Australia has been a supporter of the two-state solution since 1948.

Just to add to the confusion, Senator Carr said our vote "sends a message that as Australia assesses its interests, it lies in that middle column where we won't be lonely".

I like Bob Carr and he's done some good things. But that has to be pretty much the weakest comment an Australian foreign minister has ever made.

Australia was a strong, proud and significant country which has argued - often robustly, as is our style - for what is right. Right is not necessarily popular, as we all know.

This is a new benchmark; our foreign policy objective is to be in the middle and not be lonely.

The vote to upgrade the Palestinians in the UN has been a solid victory for the Palestinians. And it has come at a delicate time.

This issue isn't about some nonsense about "good company" and being in the "middle". It's about a fine judgment of how best to achieve peace in the Middle East. Peace to me is a lot more important than being in "the middle".

There are two ways to look at this issue, so make up your own mind. But remember, this resolution was either helpful or unhelpful.

For those who think it will help the peace process, giving the Palestinians more status helps to put pressure on the Israelis. It will make them more willing to make concessions to the Palestinians on issues like land for peace, settlements, the return of refugees and so on.

The Israeli Government and, above all, the Israeli public will realise they have to start giving ground in a variety of ways. They will be less likely to respond to rocket attacks on Israeli cities and villages, for example. After all, after the recent military exchange between the Israelis and Hamas, this resolution has come at an interesting time.

Now, it's clear Julia Gillard thinks this is nonsense and Bob Carr is more interested in middle road diplomacy. No one in the Labor Party or the Government has made this argument.

The alternative perspective is the Israelis will just be further isolated and become less, not more, flexible. The argument goes that Israel has already agreed to a two-state solution and did so as long ago as 1948. Israel is ready to agree to talks to achieve this. The Palestinians, for their part, will only agree to talks on certain conditions.

What is more, Israel was shocked by the recent Hamas rocket attacks on Israel's major cities. This was a new environment for Israel. It's hardly a time to be rewarding the Palestinians diplomatically.

Israel is becoming increasingly isolated. While the Arabs have vast land areas and 300 million people and Iran 70 million, Israel is only about four times the size of Kangaroo Island. It is surrounded by hostile powers. It has no strategic depth.

Now the world is becoming more hostile to Israel just as it faces the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran.

The more nervous Israel is about its security and especially its neighbours, the less likely it is to do deals with them.

Never underestimate the dangers of isolating people. It's hardly a formula for peace.

Well, so far all the signs are the resolution in the UN has hardened, not softened Israel's resolve. And the Israelis judge that they have lost a friend; Australia is about the middle, not serious, diplomacy.

Alexander Downer was foreign affairs minister in the Howard government from 1996 to 2007


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