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Labor’s Hawke, Rudd and Evans invite ridicule by maligning Israel

By GREG SHERIDAN, Foreign Editor Melbourne

This article first appeared in The Weekend Australian, 25 February 2017

Kevin Rudd

Kevin Rudd at Parliament House in Canberra.

What a caterwauling coven of craven zeitgeist whisperers they are — Bob Hawke, Kevin Rudd and Gareth Evans — calling for Australia to formally recognise a Palestinian state, the three of them like the witches of Macbeth intoning sterile incantations; in this case not with the purpose of affecting reality but rather to signal once again their sublime and ineffable virtue. 

Using the visit of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to gain themselves attention, they indicate only the deterioration of Labor’s foreign affairs culture, though Bill Shorten and Penny Wong sensibly rejected their calls. 

Hawke and Rudd, particularly, are always keen to lavish themselves with praise and moral credentials they simply do not possess. Thus Hawke in his Australian Financial Review piece described himself as a well-known supporter of Israel. What a lame, many-of-my-best-friends-are-black sort of credential this is. Hawke hasn’t been a supporter of Israel in any meaningful sense for 30 years. 

His piece was full of weird basic errors of fact. He claims the Netanyahu government has approved thousands of new West Bank settlements. In fact it has approved just one. Apart from that one settlement, the individual homes and apartments it has authorised do not even keep pace with natural increase within the settlement blocs and do not extend their territory, which in total accounts for 3 to 4 per cent of the West Bank area. 

Rudd was even more fatuous and hypocritical, claiming Netanyahu had repeatedly torpedoed peace — without giving a syllable’s attention to times the Palestinian leadership has rejected full-blown peace offers along the lines of a state in the West Bank and Gaza and compensating land swaps from Israel. Then there was Gareth Evans, the poor man’s Rudd, claiming the Arabs could provide for Israel’s security. What planet does this man live on? Most Arab states cannot provide for their own security, much less anyone else’s. 

Let’s pause for a second to consider the moral courage of these Antipodean Metternichs, putting the Middle East to rights. 

In a passage of fatuousness, unsurpassed in its banality and dishonesty, Hawke compared the Palestinians to the Jews in the Soviet Union and the blacks in South Africa and said they, too, had a right to be fully free. 

Is this an act of moral courage on Hawke’s part? Presumably a moral giant like Hawke thinks the Tibetans, like the Jews in the Soviet Union and the blacks in South Africa, also have a right to be fully free. Has he risked his lucrative Chinese business interests by courageously standing up for the Tibetans over these many years since he left the prime ministership? Does he draw attention to the plight of the Uighurs in Xinjiang, one of the few places in the world where people are actively persecuted for being Muslim? Does he speak out for free trade unions in China? To do that would have constituted real moral courage. Do you remember Hawke doing any of that? 

Or take Rudd. I have always admired his ability as a foreign policy practitioner, but his greatest weakness in foreign policy has always been lack of a moral compass, evident in his willingness to say whatever he thinks his audience wants to hear and always to stay exactly in the middle of conventional wisdom. Like Evans, his chief skill, is simply to give a high-gloss, bureaucratic distillation of conventional wisdom. 

Sometimes conventional wisdom is wrong. And sometimes this trait of Rudd’s leads him into laughable contradictions. In 2010, when he was foreign minister, I saw him in Israel just after he had been to Egypt, where, to the applause of local journalists and politicians, he called, out of the blue, for Israel to give up its (undeclared) nuclear weapons. In Israel, where he was also seeking applause, he did not mention its nuclear weapons in his main speech nor in private discussions with Netanyahu. 

How do I know this? He told me. Having a drink with Rudd in the King David Hotel one night, I asked him about Jewish settlements in the West Bank. They only comprise 3 per cent of West Bank territory, he said — a figure I later quoted with attribution to him — and in the event of real movement towards a peace settlement they could be readily negotiated between Israel and the Palestinians. 

In his recent attention grab, Rudd characteristically praised himself as a lifelong opponent of anti-Semitism. Rudd does indeed oppose anti-Semitism when he is speaking to rich Jewish audiences, but when has Rudd ever said a disobliging thing to an Arab audience about Arab anti-Semitism? 

In his post-politics phase Rudd has sought a career for himself in the UN system, where the Arab voting bloc is powerful and important. Now, imagine if Rudd did the elementary research to familiarise himself with the extensive pro-violence, pro-terrorist, anti-Israel incitement material in Palestinian Authority schools and media. Imagine if he went a step further to examine the rank, classical anti-Semitism found in much Arab media and popular culture generally. Imagine if he then made a tough, uncompromising speech to an Arab audience rejecting and condemning this anti-Semitism. 

Like Hawke defending the Tibetans, that would be an act of real moral courage. It wouldn’t do Rudd’s UN career prospects any good. What exactly have Hawke, Rudd and Evans put on the line in order to join the unanimous chorus of independent minds condemning Netanyahu? Or is it that they have enjoyed, no doubt unconsciously, the pleasures of the bully and the coward through history, kicking the boy in the playground everyone else is kicking? 

But the obvious moral odiousness of the Hawke, Rudd and Evans position would be forgivable if it held any real analytical weight. Instead, their views seem to embody the seven enduring myths beloved of every ambitious undergraduate who has just internalised the politically correct catechism of approved heroes and villains of the Middle East. 

Myth one is that the Israeli-Palestinian dispute is the root cause of all the problems of the Middle East, if not the world. This myth is very widespread and extraordinarily hardy. It perfectly represents the conventional wisdom of the 1970s and 80s, when Hawke, Rudd and Evans came to foreign policy maturity. It is, of course, utterly ridiculous. 

Consider the Middle East today. The chief axis of conflict is the Sunni-Shia divide. This goes back hundreds of years. Even Noam Chomsky and John Pilger, singing in operatic counterpoint, could not possibly attribute any of that to Israel. The second big cause of trouble in the Middle East is the failure of the various social and economic models tried in the Arab world. Surely our trio is not suggesting the economic development of, say, Egypt or Yemen or Libya is remotely a consequence of, or even significantly influenced by, anything Israel has or has not done? 

Finally there is the development of extremist, jihadist violence and ideology. A leading theoretical inspiration for this school of thought was Sayyid Qutb, whose hatred of America, especially its sexual decadence, developed during a stay there in the late 40s. Surely we’re not pretending that’s Israel’s fault, too. 

In the Middle East, something like 400,000 Syrians have been killed in the past five years, mainly by other Syrians. Iraq’s bitter civil war continues. Yemen is a humanitarian disaster as its version of the Shia-Sunni conflict unfolds. Libya is a tribal chaos awash with weapons. Egypt’s tough-minded military government is in a bitter struggle against an Islamic State-affiliated group in the Sinai desert. None of this has anything to do with Israel and all of it is much more urgent, in some cases catastrophic, than anything to do with Israel. Yet the three Olympians of our political past can focus only on kicking the Jewish state. 

Myth two is that Israel won’t negotiate and won’t compromise. This is inconsistent with simple facts. On three occasions, twice under Ehud Barak and once under Ehud Olmert, Israel offered the Palestinians virtually everything that could be offered in an independent state. Israel was prepared to take enormous risks with its own security. This is all documented in countless American books. On each occasion, the Palestinian leaders walked away. One reason, surely, is that the Palestinian who first agrees to a comprehensive peace deal with Israel that involves the end of claims and full acceptance of Israel will be assassinated by extremists in his own camp. 

During freezes in settlement construction, even for natural increase within existing settlement boundaries, which the Israelis undertook when Barack Obama was president, the Palestinian Authority refused to negotiate except for one fairly ludicrous session. Netanyahu has always said he will negotiate without preconditions: that doesn’t mean he’ll do whatever death-defying stunt Israel’s critics dream up. 

Myth three is that a deal is just around the corner because the people whose views Hawke, Rudd and Evans so faithfully parrot have decided what it comprises. The former Israeli defence minister and Netanyahu critic Moshe Yallon dealt with this delusional thinking eloquently in a recent Foreign Affairs essay. A peace agreement is not a matter of negotiating a few kilometres here or there. Rather it is about a deep change of political culture among the Palestinians which accepts Israel’s legitimacy and is determined to make peace. 

Shorten and Wong deserve the highest praise for rejecting the facile formulas of the three amigos, though of course Malcolm Turnbull is much stronger in his support of Israel and the Coalition is much freer than Labor on this issue. 

It’s hard to see how common sense, realism and a genuine moral compass will survive the next federal Labor conference. But Kim Beazley gave it more of a chance at week’s end when he emphasised the hard decisions the Palestinian leadership must take for any chance of a peace settlement. 

Which brings us to myth four: that the Palestinians, having achieved victim status, have no obligations on them and bear no responsibility for the current difficulties. See Beazley above. 

Myth five is that the Jewish settlements are much bigger than they really are and have a much bigger impact than they really do. Settlements account for 3-4 per cent of the West Bank territory. If even East Jerusalem is regarded as “settlement”, then the Wailing Wall is illegal and so is the Jewish quarter of the old city of Jerusalem. That is a ridiculous position, entirely divorced from reality. 

Myth six is that Israel is uniquely evil in the world. This too requires a complete suspension of normal faculties to sustain. Israel is, as Turnbull says, the unique beacon of liberal democracy in the Middle East. Israel certainly makes mistakes, including moral mistakes. But consider its security situation. On its southern border, in the Sinai, it faces an Islamic State-affiliated terror campaign. On its Gaza border it faces Hamas — just Google its charter for a tour of operatic anti-Semitism in full voice — and Islamic Jihad. On its northern border with Syria it faces both Islamic State and al-Qa’ida affiliates. On its border with Lebanon it faces Hezbollah, which Australian law defines as a terrorist organisation, and has tens of thousands of missiles trained on Israel. 

And nearby, in Iran, it faces a neighbour racing towards nuclear weapons capability, which has often declared its intention to wipe Israel off the map. In the face of all this, Israel behaves as well as any Western nation would. 

Myth seven, characteristically appealing to the failed class of international relations know-it-alls, is that international pressure can bring — impose — a solution even where one of the local parties is determined against it. Thus the foolishness of the proposed unilateral recognition of Palestine. There is no evidence in history this has ever worked. The local parties have to work out an agreement. By constantly vindicating Palestinian rejectionism, the likes of Hawke, Rudd and Evans make a solution less likely — though in truth they don’t have much effect at all. 

Australia is not a first-division player in the Middle East, but we are a significant middle power and, beyond the US, perhaps Israel’s clearest supporter. This has generally been a bipartisan position that springs from the depth of wisdom and good sense in Australian politics and in the Australian people. The states we typically stand near — the US, Britain, Canada, The Netherlands — have not recognised a Palestinian state because no such state exists and the empty symbolism of such gestures achieves nothing. Hawke, Rudd and Evans bring themselves nothing but shame. 


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