Our foreign policy is trade, as Robert Muldoon observed back in 1980 – give or take the accidents of history that may have created a few allegiances for us along the way. For any small trading nation, trading opportunities need to be at the forefront of its diplomatic planning and – presumably -our role in the recent UN resolution on Palestine was driven by the possible trade opportunities in the Middle East that our public stance on Israeli settlements in the Occupied Territories might now put within our grasp. Evidently, these trade openings are seen as outweighing (a) the predictable fury of the Israelis, and (b) landing ourselves on the enemies list of the incoming Trump administration.
The UN resolution has been one of the most high profile achievements of our diplomacy on the world stage for many years. True, the resolution is a largely symbolic one – no sanctions will be imposed on Israel for non- compliance, and a freeze on settlements would be only the first step in talks towards the highly theoretical ‘two state’ solution that Israeli premier Benjamin Netanyahu has never wanted, or been able (given the extremist nature of his governing coalition) to pursue, even if he had desired it. To all intents, the ‘two state’ solution has been a dead duck for years – but it gets hauled out and propped up again whenever the UN periodically concerns itself with the equally fabled ‘peace process.’
The symbolism of being seen to support the Palestinians – even if such symbolic gestures change little or nothing on the ground – is an important theme of Middle East politics. Being seen to be onside with the suffering Palestinians ( however ineffectually) is a badge of credibility for the regimes concerned even when – in the case of Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan – this involves active and ongoing collusion with Israel.
From the time that New Zealand arrived on the Security Council two years ago, the twin concerns of Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully – with an eye on those Middle East markets that have been a gleam in his eye since the Saudi sheep deal was launched – have been (a) a Security Council initiative on the war in Syria and (b) a resolution of some sort on the Israel/Palestine question. Besides the immediate trade advantages to be won in the Gulf, with Iran and with the Saudis, the Middle East is also a far safer zone than the Pacific for New Zealand to try and pursue a foreign policy that’s relatively independent of either China or the US.
For most of 2016, it had looked as if Egypt would be the designated messenger for the Security Council attempts to get the US to abstain, and not veto the Palestine resolution. (The White House had long since run out of patience with Netanyahu, whatever sympathies it might have had initially with his domestic lack of legroom) Wordings were constantly changed to make the UN draft resolution one that the Obama administration would not feel politically impelled to veto.
The Palestinians, with strong international backing, seek all of the West Bank and east Jerusalem, territories captured by Israel in 1967, as part of an independent state. They say continued Israeli settlement undermines that goal, since already some 600,000 Israelis live in these areas.
Israel is livid that the resolution does not appear to recognize its claim to any part of the occupied areas, including Jewish holy sites in Jerusalem’s Old City, though the resolution leaves the door open to agreed land swaps.
To encourage Egypt during 2016, Secretary of State John Kerry shielded Egyptian leader Abdel Fateh al-Sisi from criticism of the harsh repression of dissent within Egypt, but ultimately to no avail. Reportedly, the Israelis convinced Egypt not to follow through, and New Zealand thereafter assumed a more prominent role. According to the Israeli media, the recent Kerry visit to New Zealand finessed the details of the wording. The Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz has reported on the angry phone call from Netanyahu to McCully on the eve of the UN vote.
Interestingly, when McCully and Netanyahu had spoken in Israel only a month earlier, Ha’aretz has aso reported, New Zealand had been promoting a much less confrontational version of the eventual UN resolution :
It was a much softer and more moderate version than the motion that passed last Friday. New Zealand’s resolution did talk about freezing construction in the settlements, but also about freezing Palestinian steps in the UN and the International Criminal Court in The Hague, and called for direct negotiations without preconditions.
As the Germans and French have since confirmed, the UN resolution (and the subsequent Kerry speech defending it) do not differ in any significant way from the positions long taken by Europe on the impediment that continued Israeli settlements pose to the peace process. In fact on January 15, France will convene peace talks between 70 countries on the future of the Middle East peace process. The Kerry speech is a determinedly even-handed summary of the Israel-Palestine conflict and is worth reading.
Despite the fierce Israeli response, Kerry’s speech had included this passage about the extent of ongoing US support for Israel :
In the midst of our own financial crisis and budget deficits, we repeatedly increased funding to support Israel. In fact, more than one-half of our entire global Foreign Military Financing goes to Israel. And this fall, we concluded an historic $38 billion memorandum of understanding that exceeds any military assistance package the United States has provided to any country, at any time, and that will invest in cutting-edge missile defense and sustain Israel’s qualitative military edge for years to come. That’s the measure of our support.
But also this passage :
Let’s be clear: Settlement expansion has nothing to do with Israel’s security. Many settlements actually increase the security burden on the Israeli Defense Forces. And leaders of the settler movement are motivated by ideological imperatives that entirely ignore legitimate Palestinian aspirations.
Among the most troubling illustrations of this point has been the proliferation of settler outposts that are illegal under Israel’s own laws. They’re often located on private Palestinian land and strategically placed in locations that make two states impossible. There are over 100 of these outposts. And since 2011, nearly one-third of them have been or are being legalized, despite pledges by past Israeli governments to dismantle many of them.
Now leaders of the settler movement have advanced unprecedented new legislation that would legalize most of those outposts. For the first time, it would apply Israeli domestic law to the West Bank rather than military law, which is a major step towards the process of annexation.
Trump is simply not interested in those kind of equivocations.
Meanwhile, in Syria
The fierce Israeli/Trump responses to Kerry and the UN resolution have tended to overshadow the other major story that has been unfolding in parallel.
In Syria, a limited ceasefire and framework for further negotiation has been hammered out. According to Reuters, this deal will significantly reduce the powers of Bashir al-Assad and effectively carve up the country into spheres of influence for Turkey, Iran and Russia, with the US being totally frozen out of the process. The Kurds (who have been fighting the forces of Islamic fundamentalism in order to carve out an enclave in northern Syria for themselves) would also be major losers if this arrangement comes to pass. So far, only a couple of rebel groups have joined the ceasefire, and the main “terrorist” groups (ie, IS and the former al-Nusra Front) have been specifically excluded from it.
How different this outcome is from what the West had intended to happen. Five years ago, the Syria conflict was supposed to peel off the Assad regime, replace it with a weak “moderate” administration dependent on the West, and thereby isolate Iran entirely. Instead, Assad has been successfully propped up by Iran, by Hizbollah and by Russia – and Donald Trump appears to be intent on ripping up the US/Iran agreement that constituted Plan B for the Obama administration, once Assad’s survival had become inevitable.
In 2017, it will be interesting to see how President Trump’s can juggle his love affair with Russia, his demonising of Iran and the imminent sellout of the Kurds in the wider cause of currying favour with Turkey. Not to mention how in neighbouring Iraq, demonizing Iran and selling out the Kurds can possibly co-exist with (a) the American desires to continue to prop up a Shia regime in Baghdad that is essentially Iran’s puppet and (b) with the West’s continued reliance on the Kurds as a significant fighting force in the ‘liberation’ of Mosul and Raqqa. Its going to be hard to fit such complexities into a 140-character tweet. _
Finally, back to the UN resolution. McCully is due to step down as Foreign Minister at the end of April. Clearly, he has been given a bit more time by PM Bill English to complete this UN process – changing him on the eve of the UN vote would have been very awkward – and in the interim, McCully may even be able to reap some of those trade rewards in the Middle East (that fabled FTA with Saudi Arabia?) that would finally vindicate McCully personally over the Saudi sheep fiasco, and would ring down the curtain on his political career in triumph.
Sometimes….doing what’s good for trade can happily co-incide with Doing What’s Right, even if that latter bit is very much in the eye of the beholder. The Trans Pacific Partnership – for instance – was a diplomatic manoeuvre (and the centre-piece of Obama’s ‘tilt to the Pacific’ intended to isolate and contain China) that was being disguised as a trade pact. For New Zealand, this recent UN resolution was the reverse : a trade gambit disguised as a diplomatic manoeuvre. The added diplomatic advantage being that, this time, we’re not being drawn into a ploy meant to isolate China.
And how it used to be…
Here’s a tune from the old days of the 1950s when US and Israeli foreign policy used to play in complete unison like…well, just like those twins of the grand piano, Ferrante and Teicher.