Australian Foreign Minister raises recognising Palestinian state

9:52 am on 11 April 2024
Penny Wong

Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong. Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

By Brett Worthington, ABC political correspondent

Analysis - Australian's Foreign Minister Penny Wong said the quiet thing out loud and in doing so tore open one of the most sensitive decades-old debates.

It's not as if what she said was a secret, or something new. If anything she repeated a long-held Labor policy but just the mere recognition of it publicly at this moment prompted swift rebukes, in some cases even before the foreign minister delivered her speech.

Speaking at the Australian National University on Tuesday evening and reading from a prepared speech, Wong said her government was contemplating recognising Palestinian statehood.

Here were deliberate comments. This wasn't a minister freestyling, it was a pre-planned Australian government statement.

In many ways, it's a statement of the obvious. Labor has a long-held policy of a two-state solution in the Middle East. Inherent in that policy is that there would be two states.

The natural extension of that policy means that a Labor government would at some point recognise a stand-alone Palestinian state.

But as is so often the case with foreign policy, it's not so much what Wong said that has caused the outrage, but rather why is she saying it now?

The battle within Labor

The Australian Labor Party has for many decades had fierce internal debates about Palestinian recognition.

At its national conference in August last year, the party agreed to the following in its national platform:

"Labor supports an enduring and just two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, based on the right of Israel to live in peace within secure borders internationally recognised and agreed by the parties, and reflecting the legitimate aspirations of the Palestinian people to also live in peace and security within their own state."

Don't for a single second think that putting something in the national platform means the internal debate is over.

If anything, it's been supercharged as the party agonises over how to deal with the deadly war that's been waging in the Middle East since October.

In the immediate aftermath of Hamas's terror attacks, Wong and Prime Minister Anthony Albanese supported Israel's right to defend itself.

As the months have dragged on, with the death count rising and many others on the brink of starvation, Labor has repeatedly called for humanitarian ceasefires.

Labor makes no secret about the fact that it doesn't see a future for Hamas in a future Palestinian state.

Let's be clear, Wong did not say Australia was about to recognise a Palestinian state. She's making it plain that Australia might be willing to offer recognition before a negotiated settlement but that it won't be while Hamas remains entrenched in Gaza, or Israelis remain held hostage.

"Hamas has no place in Gaza," Wong said in a round of Wednesday morning interviews.

What Wong is advancing isn't a theory for some, it's an existential question about their future, potentially the most sensitive topic she might canvas.

It's why it's little wonder that word clearly got out ahead of her speech, with embargoed lines criticising her comments issued even before she spoke.

Stepping out with allies

Past behaviours can never predict the future.

But they can offer indications of how a person or government might act.

Time and time again since 7 October, Albanese has sought the warm embrace of allies when offering his strongest comments about the Middle Eastern war.

In December, he joined with his Canadian and New Zealand counterparts in calling for a "sustainable ceasefire" in Gaza.

When it came to condemning Houthi rebel attacks on vessels in the Red Sea later that month, the government did so alongside the European Union and NATO defence alliance.

Albanese again joined with the Canadian and New Zealand leaders in February in expressing grave concerns over Israel's plan for a ground offensive in the Gazan city of Rafah.

Wong, in both her Tuesday speech and Wednesday interviews, hasn't pretended to have a solution for removing Hamas from Gaza, or what boundaries a future Palestinian state might have.

But she's repeatedly pointed to comments her British counterpart, David Cameron, made in February, in which he said his government would look at recognising a Palestinian state, including at the United Nations, a move that he said would make a two-state solution irreversible.

Who knows what conversations might be happening with other nations behind closed doors.

But Wong appears to be looking to the day after the war ends, when a substantial reconstruction of infrastructure and food security will be needed in Gaza.

"We are looking at … a pathway beyond the immediate conflict, that's what the discussion is amongst the international community. We have to work out how it is we break the endless cycle of violence," she said on Wednesday.

"What needs to happen immediately is Hamas needs to release hostages and we need to see an immediate humanitarian ceasefire so that we can have aid at scale into Gaza where we know we have a humanitarian catastrophe."

The Coalition was quick to criticise Wong's comments. Foreign affairs spokesman Simon Birmingham argued recognition would put statehood before security and be seen "as a win by the terrorists who initiated the current horrific conflict".

Why now?

All too often, government actions are viewed through a transactional prism, where decisions are made purely for domestic political gain.

Viewing things so simplistically removes any agency for decisions being taken because they might think it's the right thing to do.

Some have been quick to say Labor's comments are just designed at sandbagging seats at risk from the Greens.

You need only look to the Wentworth by-election in 2018, in which then prime minister Scott Morrison announced a sudden Middle East U-turn by announcing a plan to relocate Australia's embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. That decision was dubbed as a bid to win Jewish votes in the seat.

Voters, who so often deserve more credit than politicians give them, weren't buying it and elected a Teal independent for former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull's old seat.

Morrison, too, copped backlash from Indonesia, home to the world's largest Muslim population, and a free trade agreement with that country was suddenly in limbo.

It's a reminder that comments about Israel or a Palestinian state come with consequences.

What is also clear is Australia's relationship with Israel is straining, and has likely played a role in the timing of Wong's comments.

Albanese offered a tough rebuke of his Israeli counterpart after last week's air strike killed Australian Zomi Frankcom and her humanitarian colleagues. There, too, is growing pressure on the Israeli government from its closest international allies in the US.

While Albanese might find friends on the world stage, he certainly won't have them back home in those who sit opposite him in the parliament. The last 24 hours have only deepened what was already a bitter divide between the two major parties over the future of the Middle East.

- This story was first published by the ABC

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