Canberra is “rebalancing” its approach to Israel and the Palestinians, Foreign Minister Penny Wong said this week, declaring that “there is legitimacy and suffering on both sides” of the conflict.
In an interview with Jewish news site PLUS61J published on Tuesday, Wong, who took over as Australia’s chief diplomat following the Labor Party’s electoral victory this spring, explained her country’s decision to support a United Nations resolution criticizing Israeli settlement policy, resume funding Palestinians refugee agency UNRWA and walk back recognition of West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
When the new government took office in May, Jewish community leaders had expressed concerns that it might be less friendly to Israel than its predecessor, which had been headed by the conservative Liberal party and had recognized West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in 2018.
“I see this more as a sensible, pragmatic, centrist rebalancing of our voting position,” Wong said of the change in her country’s approach. Despite this change, she asserted that while settlements are “unhelpful,” Australia does not have a stated position on the legality of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, stating that “we understand there are different views on this issue.”
“The Government believes questions around territory are final status issues that need to be resolved in negotiations between the two parties. The most important thing is for the two parties to return to negotiations to reach a just and enduring peace,” Wong said, explaining that this position led her government to oppose a recent UN Special Political and Decolonization Committee motion to refer the issue to the International Court of Justice.
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“I think there are legitimate concerns about the conduct of all parties in this conflict but the resolution itself we regarded as one-sided, so we retained a ‘no’ vote,” she told PLUS61J.
Wong used similar language in explaining the recent Australian government decision to rescind recognition of West Jerusalem as the Israeli capital, stating that such a move “reaffirmed a longstanding bipartisan position that Jerusalem was a final status issue to be resolved at any peace negotiations.”
Mainstream Jewish organizations in Australia expressed surprise and anger at the decision, which was taken by the cabinet last month during the Jewish holiday of Simchat Torah.
Such a move, the Executive Council of Australian Jewry said, “panders to the most extreme elements of the Labor Party and will also serve as a disincentive for the Palestinians to return to negotiations.”
According to PLUS61J, Wong stated that she “regretted the way the matter was handled” even as she believed it was the right move.
Wong also complained that it was hard to have a dialogue between Australians regarding Israel and the Palestinians and that it is important to be able to view the conflict from the other side’s eyes in order to advance peace.
“One of my frustrations and sadnesses is that this issue is so vexed for so many people that we don’t even have a dialogue in Australia between supporters of both halves. I often think on the one hand we call for peace in the Middle East and negotiations within the parties, but we seem to not even be able to have reasonable [discussion] in the content and style here in Australia,” she said.
“My observation would be that in any process of seeking peace, at some point one has to move out of the binary – which is that one side has a monopoly on virtue and a monopoly on what is right, on truth – and recognize that there are different experiences, that there is legitimacy and suffering on both sides.”