The issue of Palestinian statehood is once again before the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). In September 2011, the Palestinian Authority submitted an application for full UN membership. Needing UNSC approval for such a bid, the application was eventually withdrawn or not fully pursued, under the public threat of a US veto. Now, with a new application possible, a look back at Australia’s voting record on this issue provides some hints as to how Australia might vote if an application for Palestinian United Nations membership is made before 31 December.
In 2012, the Palestinians sought to get around the US veto by applying instead for ‘non-member observer State’ status, an upgrade from their previous UN status as a ‘non-state entity’. Only needing approval from the UN General Assembly (UNGA), the Palestinians’ status was upgraded under Resolution 67/19 on 29 November 2012—138 states voted in favour of the resolution; nine countries voted against it and 41, including Australia, abstained.
Now, in 2014, a resolution drafted by the Palestinians (being brought before the UNSC by Jordan, a non-permanent member) reportedly calls for an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank within two years and the immediate recognition of ‘Palestine’ as a full member state. Attempting to counterweigh the ruckus this would cause, permanent Security Council members Britain and France, with the backing of Germany, have drafted a compromise resolution that would instead outline the principles of a final status agreement and set a two-year timetable to reach such an agreement.
The current Israeli Foreign Minister has labelled the continuation of a so-called unilateral statehood bid by Palestinian officials at the UN and elsewhere as ‘diplomatic terrorism’, while PLO representative Hanan Ashwari claims their efforts are a ‘last ditch effort to try to rescue [the] chances for peace and the two state solution’.
It is not clear how Australia—whose term on the Security Council expires on 31 December—would vote on such a resolution should it be forced to do so.
When the Gillard Labor Government abstained from voting on the November 2012 resolution to upgrade the Palestinians’ status at the UN, the Coalition Opposition criticised the move. Shadow Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said on a number of occasions that a Coalition Government would have voted ‘no’ on any such resolution.
Over the last decade or so, a partisan wedge has emerged concerning how Australia votes at the UN on resolutions relating to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. In 2005, then Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said in a speech to the Annual General Meeting of the United Israel Appeal of New South Wales:
Since my first days as Foreign Minister, I have been presented with UN resolution after resolution.
And I soon discovered that too many of these resolutions are aimed at condemning Israel.
You would think by looking at these resolutions that this small country — with a population roughly equivalent to that of New South Wales and a land mass one fortieth its size — is responsible for the worst human rights violations and much of the world's ills.
These UNGA resolutions single Israel out for blame in the most inflammatory and biased of language.
Subsequently, the Howard Government started to alter how it voted on a number of recurring resolutions concerning the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, indicating its support for Israel. Following Labor’s election victory in 2007, Labor’s voting pattern began to more closely resemble that of the Keating and early Howard years, supporting, for example, resolutions that referred to Israeli settlements in the West as ‘illegal’. Foreign Minister Smith gave the rationale behind Labor’s votes in late 2008:
…when it comes to General Assembly resolutions, the government adopts the following approach. Firstly, we treat these resolutions on a case-by-case basis and consider them on their merits. Secondly, we consider these resolutions firmly within the context of our very strong adherence to our support for a two-nation-state solution and our support of the peace process. If the resolutions are consistent with that approach then we support them.
Now, with the return of the Coalition to power, Australia’s votes are swinging around again. The table below highlights these shifts on a number of recurring UNGA resolutions. It is possible that before the year is out the Abbott Government will be compelled to vote in the Security Council on a landmark, and controversial, subject.