It is a sad irony that this week’s historic visit to Australia by Benjamin Netanyahu, the first by a serving Israeli prime minister, comes at a time of unparalleled concern about the direction his government is taking Israel and, indeed, about Israel’s very future as a Jewish and democratic state. Australia’s Jewish community (including Plus61J) are strong supporters of Israel but communal leaders, and the Australian Government, should not sugarcoat these justified concerns by greeting Mr Netanyahu with diplomatic platitudes and nothing more. Both should seize this opportunity to speak truthfully and clearly.
They should state clearly to Mr Netanyahu that in their view, given the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a two-state solution is the only just solution available. Let’s dispense with delusion or deliberate obfuscation: a majority on both sides desires separation and there can be no other just or enduring resolution to this conflict than one that gives expression to the aspirations of both peoples to control their own destiny behind safe and recognised borders.
They should confront Mr Netanyahu about his government’s accelerated undermining of the two-state solution from the moment Donald Trump took office in the US. About the announcement of massive new construction in the West Bank, which includes locations far from the Green Line, and the encouragement of expanded settlement in East Jerusalem. About the recent law, passed by Israel’s Knesset, retroactively approving the expropriation of private Palestinian land, described as indefensible by no lesser figures than Israel’s own Attorney-General and Irwin Cotler. About his refusal to endorse a two-state solution during his recent meetings with the UK’s Theresa May and with US president Donald Trump. About his silence at Trump’s extraordinary remark at their joint press conference last week that he was ‘looking at two states, and one state, and I’d like the one that both parties like’. In the long-term, a one-state solution, favoured by extremes on right and left, is very likely to result in one of two equally unpalatable alternatives: either a Jewish state in which the Palestinians are permanently disenfranchised, or a state (whether democratic or otherwise) that’s no longer Jewish, bringing to an end the Zionist yearning ‘to be a free nation in our land’.
Netanyahu’s settlement stance shows him hostage to right-wingers in his coalition and is leaving Israel dangerously isolated internationally. There’s no more sobering example than former Australian prime minister Bob Hawke— an iconic figure in the Jewish community for his heartfelt support for Israel— last week calling on Australia to join 137 other states in recognising a state of Palestine, a call subsequently backed by Kevin Rudd and Gareth Evans. Opposition leader Bill Shorten has also announced his opposition to settlement expansion that obstructs a two-state solution, putting pressure on the decades-long bi-partisan consensus in Australia on Middle East policy.
Recognising a Palestinian state in advance of a final settlement negotiated by the parties may or may not be good strategy but communal leaders miss the point if they simply respond to Hawke’s intervention with ‘Et tu Bob?”. Neither Hawke nor his fellow Labor elders lay the blame for the stalled peace process solely at Israel’s feet. Only those with an animus against the Jewish state deny abject failures also on the part of the Palestinian leadership, including incitement they tolerate and encourage. But facts — the facts on the ground that settlements entail and the signals they send — arguably speak louder than words, even ugly ones, in prejudicing future Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and further destroying trust.
As Plus61J’s Shahar Burla argues, Mr Netanyahu should also be challenged about his government’s assault on Israeli civil society institutions and democratic pluralism: his ad hominem attacks on investigative journalists, his attempted crackdown on freedom of speech and human rights organisations.
Mr Netanyahu should also be asked directly why he has failed to implement the historic compromise agreement, made a year ago, for an egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall. In that respect, he evidently preferences the demands of the ultra-conservative religious parties in his coalition over the legitimate claims and concerns of huge numbers of non-Orthodox Jews in the Diaspora, and those in Israel itself.
Last but not least, Mr Netanyahu should be told that it is unacceptable for the leader of the modern Jewish state to appease what Deborah Lipstadt has described as soft Holocaust denial by the Trump administration and its refusal to acknowledge, let alone condemn, the resurgent antisemitism in its supporter base, a reticence further illustrated by Trump’s humiliation of a Jewish journalist at last week’s bizarre White House press conference. Yet asked about the Trump administration’s statement on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, which omitted any reference to Jewish victims, Netanyahu described concerns about it as ‘misplaced’. Such a response is not only bewildering, it is deeply painful, especially to Australian Jewry, home to a disproportionately large number of Holocaust survivors and their descendants.
At times like these, even the closest of families cannot, and ought not, avoid uncomfortable conversation.
This Plus61J Editorial may be republished if acknowledged thus: ‘Reprinted with permission from www.plus61j.net.au ’