As in comedy, timing can be vital in politics too. To say outgoing Secretary of State John Kerry’s criticism of Israel is a bit late is putting it mildly. No matter how valid some of Kerry’s belated observations about Israel’s expansionist policies may be, they might have had rather more impact four or even eight years ago.
At the fag end of the Obama presidency, Kerry’s remarks look like peevish payback. They also give incoming president Donald Trump an opportunity to further ramp up the rhetoric in support of an ally that is usually immune from American criticism, no matter how illegal and even brutal its policies toward its neighbours may be at times.
To make such an observation as an individual is to invite a torrent of abuse from the legions of paid and freelance apologists for Israel. No doubt, too, there will be the standard accusations of anti-Semitism, ignorance of “the facts”, and bias. But we should be able to offer a reasoned critique of any country’s foreign policies without being accused of racism.
Sticking one’s head above this particular parapet invites this sort of thing, though.
More troubling and significant, however, is that successive American administrations are not simply wiling to turn a blind eye to flagrant violations of international law and humanitarian principles, at times, but that they provide the state of Israel with substantial foreign aid that makes the job a little easier.
It is no coincidence that the Obama administration has left it to the very last minute to voice its legitimate concerns about Israel’s settlement building on the West Bank. No administration takes on the highly effective, electorally significant Israel lobby lightly.
To achieve the much-discussed but never realised “two-state solution” between Israel and the Palestinians, both sides need to actually have somewhere to establish a state.
The expansion of Israeli settlements is another example of the current fashion among powerful, increasingly authoritarian states for changing the facts on the ground in ways that make negotiation pointless. The continuing expansion of new settlements on land that is claimed by Israel’s Palestinian neighbours will ultimately make the two-state solution impossible.
The incoming Trump administration will make it even more unlikely that Israel will change direction under its increasingly right-wing government. On the contrary, one of Trump’s more noteworthy appointments is David Friedman as ambassador to Israel. He is an avowed opponent of the two-state solution and supports greater expansion of the settlements on notionally Palestinian land.
Trump himself has tweeted that he will change American policy toward Israel, urging the latter to “stay strong” until he takes over in January. That Trump linked his criticism of Kerry’s speech to the “horrible” Iran deal is also significant, given Israel’s own concerns about Iran’s nuclear capabilities.
Nor is Israel likely to be constrained by the UN, despite Security Council resolution 2334, which says its settlements in the West Bank:
… had no legal validity, constituting a flagrant violation under international law and a major obstacle to the vision of two states living side-by-side in peace and security.
On the contrary, in the current international environment it is more likely that the UN will be more damaged recent events.
Trump is already threatening to change the UN, which he regards as biased and ineffective. There are many reasons to be critical of the UN and its ability to solve problems, but it is one of the most important multilateral venues in a world where such institutions are currently under siege.
At a time when national self-assertion is all the rage, any sort of constraint on the actions of the great powers is to be welcomed and supported – especially by the likes of Australia.
Fortunately for Australia’s foreign policy elites, we have vacated our seat on the Security Council. Otherwise, we would have had to choose between support for Israel and America.
Given Barack Obama is on the way out, my guess is Australia would have chosen to support Israel, with an eye to ingratiating itself with the incoming administration.
But while Australia’s actions are generally not difficult to predict, would they necessarily have been wise?
A well-intentioned friend might have offered a little frank and fearless advice to both Israel and the Trump administration. Yes, you can continue to beat up the Palestinians and no-one will stop you. But is this a sustainable policy in the long term?
Perhaps it is. Perhaps Australian policymakers are also wise to put pragmatism before principle. Clearly some people are impervious to normative suasion or even well-reasoned arguments about policy efficacy in any case.
It is difficult to see who will stand up for the weak and powerless at a time when national interests and self-aggrandisement are the dominant drivers of international politics. The consequences of such policies are likely to be – quite literally – brought home to us all.
Authors: Mark Beeson, Professor of International Politics, University of Western Australia