Michael Pascoe: Politics drives poor policy, and forsakes principle on Palestine

Australia halted funding to the UNRWA and only restored it on Friday.

Australia halted funding to the UNRWA and only restored it on Friday. Photo: TND/Getty

“Good policy makes good politics” was a Paul Keating maxim. The corollary is that politics without principle makes bad policy.

Since the atrocities committed by Hamas on October 7 and subsequently by Israel in Gaza, the Australian government’s response has been based on traversing the barbed wire fence of domestic political forces – the powerful established Israel lobby and sympathisers on one side, the growing pro-Palestinian lobby and sympathisers on the other – with a dash of maintaining solidarity with American foreign policy, as usual.

The result is nothing to be proud of, policy devoid of principle, not helping anyone.

Not that any Australian policy would make a difference to the Netanyahu-Hamas death spiral. We are irrelevant to the protagonists locked in their conflict.

Acting on principle rather than politics in the face of human tragedy should be for our own self-respect, how we hope our nation will be seen and not be embarrassed by it.

Time and again, betraying principle has a way of coming back to bite us.

Joining wars for political reasons, not principles, has killed Australians, made Australians killers and contributed to broader outrages.

Debt owed

When forsaking principles also includes denying a debt we have incurred, the betrayal is all the greater.

What I’m working up to here is the utter embarrassment of Australia withholding funding from UNRWA (the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees), prevaricating about restoring it, and finally being shamed on Friday in the wake of other nations’ actions to “unpause” promised aid.

(Yes, Australia’s Foreign Minister, Penny Wong, actually said Australia is “unpausing” our contribution to UNRWA. Next we’ll be circling back to reach out and touch base.)

The government deserves no credit for finally doing the right thing only when it had no other option.

Overlooked in the mimsy will-we-won’t-we over resuming aid is the debt Australia owes the Palestinian people. It should not be forgotten that Australia played a role in creating the millions of Palestinian refugees.
For three-quarters of a century it has been told as a proud role. As the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade records in its Israel country briefing:

“Australia was the first country to vote in favour of the 1947 UN partition resolution, which ultimately led to the creation of Israel as a nation state. Australia established diplomatic relations with Israel in 1949 and in the same year presided over the vote admitting Israel to the United Nations.”

We helped create losers

The corollary of that, voting to give away land that wasn’t ours to give, remaining second only to the United States in supporting Israel ever after, is that we helped create the losers as well as the winners and have responsibilities to act with principles in our dealings with both.

In January, when Israel alleged a dozen UNRWA staff were involved in the October 7 terrorism, there was a knee-jerk reaction by some countries, including Australia, to cease funding the organisation trying to keep people alive in Gaza.

It was a knee-jerk reaction. Israel did not have to proffer any proof to have Australia fall in line and, like Hamas, its credibility is shot anyway as propaganda rules in war.

One could quibble about the level of detail Israel claims to have on Hamas members and exactly who committed what crimes on October 7 given how the Israeli Defence Force was caught completely by surprise, but it would be a surprise if a handful of UNRWA employees were not also Hamas militants.

In the same way it would be a surprise if some IDF troops were not indiscriminately killing Palestinian civilians – men, women, boys, girls – when they get the opportunity. If nothing else, I tender in evidence the Israeli soldiers shooting shirtless men waving white flags who just so happened to turn out to be Israeli hostages.

Farce of prevarication

The farce of Australia’s prevarication needs to be seen in context of the Gaza disaster.

UNRWA employs some 13,000 people in Gaza where the unemployment rate was 46 per cent before the war. Given Israel’s policy of Gaza “de-development”,  of course a percentage of the people who managed to score a job with UNRWA would be connected with Hamas – it was what passed for government in Gaza.

And of that percentage, inevitably a smaller percentage would be militants. Given the oppression and dispossession of Palestinians, that is hardly surprising.

Take a similar number of, say, Australian police, a small minority would be likely to have far-right views, some racist. That means no disrespect to our police – it’s a common problem with military and para-military forces as uniforms and guns attract them.

A tiny minority of our people in uniform turn out to be killers, but we don’t disarm all police and disband the force.

Even if Israel is correct in its allegation about a minority of UNRWA’s 13,000 Gaza employees, our funding of UNRWA is not funding for Hamas – it’s feeding starving people, people who are being starved and killed and maimed by a government Australia continues to support and dares not censure.

The world’s leading humanitarian organisations have criticised the withholding of funding. Some Western countries – among them Norway, Ireland and Spain –be  acted on principle and maintained and increased funding. The EU itself resumed funding at the start of this month. Sweden and Canada followed suit.

Finally, when there was nowhere left to hide its indecision, when there was no other option, Australia has joined them.

All about domestic politics

The tragedy for us is that this little saga has nothing to do with whether some Australian dollars might find their way into a Hamas member’s pocket – it’s because of domestic politics.

The same fear of being wedged by the Coalition that drove the Labor leadership to adopt AUKUS overnight on the strength of a verbal briefing had the government scared of doing what it knew was right on UNRWA.
Peter Dutton was politicising a decision on UNRWA funding from the start.

Opposition home affairs spokesman James Paterson visiting Israel this week was keeping the game going, demanding the impossible that funding could only be restored when Australia “is confident that there is no risk of any of that funding finding its way to Hamas”.

And now the opposition foreign affairs spokesman, Simon Birmingham, has said the Coalition’s quiet bit out loud, declaring the government shouldn’t be restoring funding before all investigations are complete and should stay in step with the United States.

“If UNRWA funding from Australia was to be restored, it should be done only in concert with a key partner like the United States, who have the weight and influence to ensure conditions are applied and verification processes in place,” the senator said.

Coalition’s lickspittle world

That’s it. In the Coalition’s lickspittle world, Australia should only do what the United States does. Forget the rest of the world and certainly don’t think for ourselves, just wait until Washington decides for us. However disappointing Labor’s performance has been, you can rely on Birmingham/Dutton/Paterson to be worse.

It suits the Coalition to be seen as the closest party to Israel. The Trumpification of the LNP proceeds apace. This is purely Australian domestic politics – a principle-free zone that leads to bad policy.

Anyway, the longer we’ve waited to resume funding, the fewer UNRWA staff there are to pay.

At least 165 UNRWA team members have been killed on duty and more than 400 people have been killed while sheltering under the UN flag.

But none of that matters here. It’s only what domestic wedging can be attempted or risked or avoided.

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