If foreign policy is predicated on self-interest, then now’s the time for Australian political parties to set aside petty political point scoring and revert to a more mature approach to international affairs that we haven’t witnessed in 40 years or more.
In the 1970s, Australia carved a reputation as a middle-ranking power with influence beyond its natural place in global affairs.
Gough Whitlam boldly opened relations with China. Malcom Fraser championed the boycott of South Africa’s apartheid regime. Australia gained notice for independent thinking as it emerged from the shadows of its colonial past.
As a correspondent in the Middle East for more than two decades since the 1980s, I was struck by the perception by Arab leaders and diplomats of Australia as a friendly, independent and trustworthy nation, albeit one that sheltered beneath the American umbrella.
Australia’s reputation withstood the unwavering, uncritical support for Israel expressed by a stream of Australian dignitaries – including the prime minister Bob Hawke – and journalists accepting Israeli hospitality, Israeli briefings, Israeli-supervised whistle-stop excursions into Palestinian occupied territories.
That reputation evaporated overnight when the later prime minister John Howard and foreign minister Alexander Downer took the ill-omened, fateful decision to join the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.
It has never recovered.
Australia is now placed firmly in the “US acolyte” basket.
Now would be an opportunity not just to change that perception but to return to a time in which the nation was a more influential partner among middle-ranking powers with a voice at the high table of US policymaking.
It would require our political leaders to be much more grownup about international affairs rather than seeing every foreign policy decision as an opportunity for domestic point scoring.
Paradoxically, an opportunity has been opened by Israel’s embattled prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. He showed the way forward last month when he said it was time to “tell this truth to our American friends”.
“The [Israeli] prime minister needs to be capable of saying no to our friends, saying no when necessary and saying yes when possible,” he said on 18 January.
In doing so, Netanyahu made public what observers have known throughout his two terms as prime minister – a government led by him will never permit Palestinians to achieve their aspirations for a state.
Rarely, if ever, has Australia or the US said no to Israel.
Now is the right time.
Unless a way forward to Palestinian independence is opened, the region will remain a cauldron seething with tensions constantly threatening to erupt.
The consequences of broader conflict would be widespread.
Saying no to the Israeli government needs to start with a loud and unified international voice demanding a permanent Gaza ceasefire.
The slaughter of Palestinian civilians has reached barbaric proportions and must not be allowed to continue.
Hamas must return the hostages and the bodies of the 7 October victims.
Whether Netanyahu likes it or not, as the former Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin said, all conflicts end with peace talks, and that is an inevitability in this one.
Beyond the humanitarian impact of an end to hostilities lies the self-interest at the heart of all foreign policy – for the US, Australia, Europe and all other nations that benefit from global stability.
Behind the weasel words of diplomacy, it’s what the US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, is seeking because it’s what President Joe Biden needs on his domestic front as presidential elections loom.
A ceasefire would end the Houthi campaign disrupting international trade through the Suez Canal, restoring Egypt’s desperately needed shipping levies and reducing growing tensions on its border with Israel and the Gaza Strip.
An immediate end to hostilities would reduce Iran’s influence on the conflict, defuse the potential conflict with Hezbollah on Israel’s border with Lebanon, pave the way for Saudi Arabia, the region’s Arab powerhouse, to resume tenuous negotiations on recognition of Israel and, crucially, rekindle hope rather than despair among 5 million Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank.
Another “no” to Israel would be the demand to end illegal Jewish settlement in the occupied territories and remove the new ones that have sprung up in recent years. This would probably bring down the Netanyahu government as its extreme coalition members withdraw their support. The effect would benefit Israel by forcing a rethink of its pathway to security and likely produce a more pragmatic government.
So where can Australia fit into the global picture of an essentially regional conflict?
The nation placed itself ever more firmly in the American camp when it signed up to Aukus and to purchasing American nuclear-powered submarines. Whatever the rights or wrongs of those decisions, it moved the nation even further away from the community of middle powers and non-aligned nations whose voices are heard more clearly and have more impact when spoken together.
On the other hand, it should have given Australia a more influential voice at the American top table and now it should use it.
It is in Australia’s trade and diplomatic interests to restore its credit among the Arab nations’ 400 million people, with economies worth two and a half trillion dollars.
That “friendly, trustworthy” perception of Australia of the 70s and 80s gave the nation influence beyond its size and remoteness.
There is a rare opportunity for a bold, imaginative and thoughtful foreign policy initiative in Australia’s grasp if it has the courage to take it. It may be wishful thinking given the state of domestic politics and the recent tack record of stumbling, cack-handed efforts towards our Pacific neighbours. But it is there to grasp.
A loyal, 70-year-long friendship with Israel must count for something, if only reassurance of a good intent.
Tighter defence arrangements with the US must surely afford Australia greater attention in the US Congress and the White House – otherwise what purpose is there in the arrangements?
So here lies opportunity.
Arab nations are looking for a way out of a widening regional conflict, one that advances rather than destroys Palestinian aspirations which lie at the core of so much instability.
Europe is struggling for a unified approach in the face of Germany’s historically based reluctance to utter criticisms of Israel.
Britain’s foreign secretary, Lord Cameron, has already opened one door by hinting at the possibility of recognising a Palestinian state before any final negotiations resolve borders, Palestinian claims on East Jerusalem and whether such an entity should join the 15 states with no military at all or another half dozen without standing armies.
Other middle-ranking powers are unable to get their voices heard for lack of unified leadership.
Unlike the US which can still speak softly and carry a big stick if so inclined, Australia cannot wield that sort of power. But a firm, wise, independent and – above all – courageous voice would be just as powerful in leading a global coalition willing to say no to Israel.
Saying no, as Netanyahu has pointed out, is possible while remaining a firm and loyal friend, as Australia has been for seven decades.
Israel’s best interests – and its security – will be best served by a unified international coalition of nations seeking to achieve a balanced, equitable resolution to this latest eruption of violence.
As we have seen in the 76 years since the birth of Israel, prospects for a resolution to the conflicting aspirations of Jews and Palestinians have tended to emerge from violent confrontations only to be dashed.
Australia, the US and the rest of the global community should now salvage opportunity from catastrophe.