(First published in the Manawatu Standard and Nelson Mail, February 8.)
Is there any more intractable issue in international affairs than that of Israel and Palestine? Offhand, I can’t think of any.
It’s tricky for a whole lot of reasons. One is that the competing claims of the two sides, Israel and the Palestinians, both have weight.
The Jews, having suffered centuries in exile, mostly in countries where they experienced relentless discrimination and persecution, have a right to a homeland where they can feel safe and secure. But the Palestinians feel aggrieved because to provide that Jewish homeland, they were displaced from land that they regarded as theirs.
Another complicating factor is that both sides are capable of behaving badly – sometimes very badly.
Palestine shelters terrorist groups that are dedicated to the destruction of Israel (the Middle East’s only democracy, and one where Arabs enjoy rights of citizenship that would never be granted to Jews in Arab states, even assuming any Jew would be crazy enough to want to live in one).
These fanatics think nothing of killing innocent civilians. In their eyes no Jew can be innocent. The very fact of being Jewish is a crime that warrants their extermination.
Groups such as Hamas are indifferent even to the suffering of their own people, cynically exploiting children and other civilians as human shields.
Using schools, hospitals and even mosques as sites from which to launch rockets at Israeli territory is a grotesque win-win strategy from their point of view. They know the Israelis will hesitate to strike back for fear of killing civilians – and if they do retaliate, that’s fine with the terrorists too, since the resulting damage will be televised by gullible Western media as evidence of Israeli savagery.
When it suits them, the Palestinians make noises about negotiating a settlement. But whenever a deal looks within reach, they pull back or impose new conditions that they know will be intolerable to the Jews. It was said of the late Yasser Arafat, head of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, that he never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity.
For their part, the Israelis don’t always make it easy to support the Jewish cause.
They have occasionally been guilty of gratuitously brutal reprisals. The 1982 Shatila and Sabra massacres, when Israeli forces turned a blind eye to the slaughter of civilians in Lebanese refugee camps thought to harbour terrorists, remains a terrible stain on the country’s reputation. The man held responsible for the killings, Ariel Sharon, later became Israeli prime minister.
Aggressive territorial expansion by Jewish hardliners is another factor that troubles people who might otherwise support the Israeli cause. The widely held religious conviction that the Jews are God’s Chosen People is no help either. It encourages Jewish zealots to believe they have divine endorsement in whatever they do.
The Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, is not a likeable man. He gives the impression of being arrogant and belligerent.
But Netanyahu is strong, like Sharon, and the Israelis have a history of supporting leaders who uncompromisingly defend their country’s right to exist. You can hardly blame them, when their tiny country – less than half the size of Canterbury – is surrounded by 22 hostile Arab states, many of which would cheerfully see Israel obliterated.
This is the backdrop against which New Zealand strangely co-sponsored a recent United Nations resolution condemning as illegal Israeli settlements in territory occupied by Israel since the 1967 Six-Day War (a war started, and quickly lost, by the Arabs).
I say “strangely” because the Israel-Palestine question is one on which New Zealand has previously taken a prudently cautious approach. This is in line with our international reputation as an honest broker that seeks honourable and sustainable solutions to problems rather than taking sides or adopting provocative stances.
Our support for the UN resolution was a dramatic departure from this practice. It came as a bombshell just two days before Christmas. You have to wonder: what’s changed?
The picture is made more opaque by the involvement of our slippery Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully, a man who could make a stroll to the corner dairy for a bottle of milk look suspicious.
McCully claimed New Zealand’s support for the resolution was all about promoting the so-called two-state solution, under which Israel and Palestine would peacefully co-exist. But the unavoidable suspicion is that we were doing a favour for the White House.
Barack Obama had a notoriously testy relationship with Netanyahu and may have wanted to score a last diplomatic blow against him before his term expired. To have moved directly against Israel, however, would have risked a damaging domestic political backlash within the US.
Was New Zealand, then, leaned on to do Obama’s dirty work, with the US playing its part by refusing to exercise its usual veto against the resolution? In the absence of any convincing alternative explanation, it seems plausible.
Even if we accept McCully’s assurance that our intentions were honourable, why should New Zealand so suddenly take an active and provocative stance on such a volatile issue? After all, it’s not as if there’s any shortage of countries willing to pillory and marginalise Israel.
The backing of a respected, neutral democracy like New Zealand gave the resolution a force that it would not otherwise have had. The Jew-haters will have taken great heart from our support and could well use it to justify further acts of terrorism.