A few years ago I met a group of Arab journalists, whose visit to Australia was sponsored by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Discussion soon turned to the Middle East. In response to a question as to why Australia automatically followed US policy on Israel, I pointed out that this was not the case. Certainly Australia and the US both supported the right of Israel to exist within secure and defensible borders. But Australia’s position was determined independently.

At the time of the meeting, George W. Bush was in the White House and Kevin Rudd had recently succeeded John Howard as prime minister. There is a view – which finds strong expression among the left in Australia – that foreign policy has always been determined in Washington or London. This avoids the fact that political leaders, whether Coalition or Labor, have always decided foreign policy with regard to their perception of what is in the national interest.

Israel demonstrates the point. It came into being in 1948 – during the time of Ben Chifley’s Labor government. Bert Evatt was the minister for external affairs. As Daniel Mandel has documented in his book H.V. Evatt and the Establishment of Israel: The Undercover Zionist (Frank Cass, 2004), Evatt played an important role in the creation of the United Nations and the subsequent birth of Israel.

Evatt was a clever, but flawed, individual who, when Labor leader in the mid-1950s, was primarily responsible for the split in the ALP at that time. Yet, for most of his career, Evatt was the poster boy for the left. Moreover, he was never beholden to the views of our traditional allies – the US and Britain. When a minister, Evatt, with the support of his left-wing departmental secretary, John W. Burton, proclaimed the need for an independent foreign policy and was a strong advocate of the UN.

As I explained to the Arab media delegation, in 1948 Australia was as enthusiastic for the establishment of Israel as was President Harry Truman’s administration in the US, if not more so. Also, Australia took a quite different position from that of the British Labour government at the time. Unlike Evatt, the British foreign secretary, Ernest Bevin, adopted what Mandel has described as a resolute ”pro-Arab policy on Palestine”. In fact, Bevin was a borderline anti-Semite.

Last week, in an opinion piece in The Australian, Prime Minister Julia Gillard wrote: ”If a Palestinian statehood resolution is introduced to the General Assembly we will consider it carefully and will consult widely before making our decision on how we will vote. But no UN resolution will change present realities on the ground. That is why we believe direct negotiation is the only true path to peace.” Gillard’s stance is consistent with our foreign policy over the past six decades. Australia has supported Israel since 1948, independent of the views of the US and Britain.

US President Barack Obama has said the US is opposed to the application by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas that Palestine become a full member of the UN.

Gillard has yet to indicate if Australia would support the US in exercising its veto if the matter goes to the Security Council. However, her position that the Israel-Palestine conflict can only be resolved by direct negotiations is consistent with Obama’s stance. Julie Bishop, the opposition spokeswoman on foreign affairs, opposes Abbas’s application and supports the US position.

In his speech to the UN last Friday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reiterated his country’s commitment to a two-state solution to the continuing conflict, namely, the Jewish state of Israel (in which more than 1 million Arabs live as citizens of Israel and enjoy full democratic rights) and a future Palestinian state. It is not clear whether Jews would be permitted to live in such an entity.

Netanyahu spoke after Abbas’s address to the UN General Assembly. The Palestinian leader declared: ”I come before you today from the Holy Land, the land of Palestine, the land of divine messages, ascension of the Prophet Muhammad . . . and the birthplace of Jesus Christ . . .” That’s all very well, except that Abbas made no mention of the Jews who – like Muslims and Christians – have been living in the same place for centuries.

Abbas indicated on three occasions that he wanted the situation in the Holy Land to return to what it was before the establishment of Israel by the UN in 1948. He did not confine himself to calling for Israel to surrender all territory occupied as a consequence of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, in which Israel took pre-emptive military action in the face of attack.

As Fouad Ajami, a Middle East specialist at Stanford University, explained on Radio National Breakfast last Thursday, peace can only be achieved by negotiations between the parties directly involved. At the moment, this means Netanyahu and Abbas. Motions at the UN – vetoed or not – amount to mere symbolic politics.

Netanyahu is not going to preside over the possible destruction of the Jewish state on account of a UN motion. Peace in the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea remains a possibility. But Obama well understands it will only become a reality if both Israelis and Palestinians agree. This also happens to be Australia’s long-standing position.

Gerard Henderson is executive director of The Sydney Institute.