The year 2017, like its predecessor, seems destined to be one of memorable anniversaries.
There are centenaries such as the Third Battle of Ypres on the Western Front, along with the Russian Revolution of November 1917 in which Vladimir Lenin and the Bolsheviks came to power.
But first there is the 50th anniversary of the Six-Day War.
The UN Security Council’s Resolution 2334, carried on December 23 with the US abstaining, is related to the Arab-Israeli War that ran between June 5 and June 10, 1967.
The resolution condemns “all measures aimed at altering the demographic composition, character and status of the Palestinian Territory occupied since 1967, including East Jerusalem”.
Australia appears to be the only Western democracy to indicate that it does not agree with the passing of the resolution. New Zealand was one of the sponsors of the motion.
In fact, there was no such entity as a “Palestinian Territory” in 1967. Following the creation of the State of Israel by the UN in 1948, the land between Israel and the Jordan River was controlled by Jordan. Jordan did not give independence to Palestinians before the Six-Day War. Large parts of the West Bank are administered by the Palestinian Authority.
Like many monumental events, the history of the Six-Day War is contested.
The conflict is well summarised, in a balanced way, by Eugene Rogan in The Arabs: A History. The Arab nations at the time did not recognise Israel’s right to exist, referring to the nation merely as the “Zionist entity”.
In 1967, Egypt’s leader Gamal Abdel Nasser decided to amass forces in the Sinai near the Israeli border. Subsequently Egypt closed the Strait of Tiran to oil tankers, plus all Israeli shipping, bound for Eilat. This was interpreted by Israel as an act of war and it moved against Egypt and its allies in a pre-emptive strike.
In a stunning military victory, Israel took the Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza Strip from Egypt plus the West Bank (including East Jerusalem) from Jordan along with the Golan Heights from Syria. In the early 1980s, Israel completely withdrew from the Sinai and in 2005 unilaterally moved out of the Gaza Strip.
Resolution 2334 effectively calls for the restoration of Israel’s boundaries as they were on June 4, 1967. This would require Israel to relinquish all of East Jerusalem, including the historic Jewish quarter of the Old City and the Western Wall, which is regarded by Jews as Judaism’s holiest place.
Moreover, as anyone familiar with the topology of the area well understands, it is far from clear that Israel is defendable on its 1967 borders. The Security Council Resolution 242, passed in 1967, envisaged that any peace settlement that led to a two-state solution, namely the State of Israel and a Palestinian state, would involve land swaps between the established nation and any newly established nation.
For years, the left-wing academics who dominate the social science departments in Australian universities have called for Australia to adopt an independent foreign policy. By this they mean that Australia should be independent of our traditional allies the US and Britain.
Right now, Australia has never been more independent in so far as foreign policy is concerned.
Malcolm Turnbull and Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop have indicated that Australia would not have supported Resolution 2334 if it had been on the Security Council. As Bishop put it, “In voting at the UN, the Coalition government has consistently not supported one-sided resolutions targeting Israel.”
Fair enough. But this puts Australia at odds not only with Britain (which supported the motion) but also the US.
Needless to say, such a stance has not won the Turnbull government much appreciation among the left intelligentsia. For example, on ABC’s News Breakfast program on Tuesday, Deakin University senior lecturer Scott Burchill criticised Australia for defying what he termed “the international consensus” on this issue.
Certainly the US’s Middle East policy will change when Donald Trump succeeds Barack Obama as president on January 20. However, it is likely that the Turnbull government’s approach would have been the same if Hillary Clinton had prevailed last November.
Australia’s position that Israelis have a right to live within secure borders goes all the way back to Ben Chifley’s Labor government, which was in office in 1948 when Israel came into existence. It has been the policy of prime ministers such as Robert Menzies, Malcolm Fraser, Bob Hawke, Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard and John Howard.
Former prime minister Tony Abbott created some attention when, in an article in The Spectator Australia, he was seen by some as supporting Trump’s commitment that the US will move its embassy from Tel Aviv (inside Israel’s 1967 borders) to Jerusalem.
Presumably the president-elect meant West Jerusalem (which is also within Israel’s 1967 borders).
In fact, Abbott’s position is more nuanced than has been reported. He wrote that a way “for Australia to demonstrate its unswerving support for Israel, as the Middle East’s only liberal, pluralist democracy, might be to join any move by the Trump administration to move its embassy to Jerusalem”. That’s all.
It’s possible, in this instance, Trump will do as he says. However, there is a long list of contemporary American leaders who have made such a commitment at various stages of their careers, including Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Hillary Clinton, and John McCain. Even Barack Obama acknowledged in 2008 that Jerusalem was the capital of Israel.
As Muslim commentator Maajid Nawaz, who opposes Israeli settlements in the West Bank, wrote recently: “Israel is not the biggest problem in the Middle East by a long shot.” There is Iran, Syria and Libya along with the religious civil war between Sunni and Shia Muslims and more besides.
Resolution 2334 is likely to prove counter-productive in so far as the creation of a two-state solution is concerned since it will inflame Palestinian hopes and Israeli resistance. The essential block to peace between Israel and the relatively new entity the Palestinian Authority remains as it was a half-century ago: namely, the reluctance of many Arabs to acknowledge Israel’s right to exist.