Today, 29 January 2019, marks the 70th anniversary of an obscure and long-forgotten event in the history of Australia’s international relations: the day Australia recognised the State of Israel. The issue generated intense behind-the-scenes controversy, and ultimately open disagreement, between the then Labor government, led by Prime Minister Ben Chifley and Foreign Minister, “Doc” Evatt, and its sister Labour government in Britain.
Seventy years later, following the passing of a resolution at the recent ALP National Conference supporting recognition of a Palestinian State, it is worth recalling what the controversy was about and understanding why it still matters.
Recognising Israel ― 1949
In the late 1940s, support for the Zionist cause in Australia came primarily from the Labor side of politics, whereas the conservatives were the source of most of the opposition to it. Conservative views were shaped largely by traditional feelings of loyalty to Britain, which had ruled Palestine under a League of Nations mandate. Britain fought a bitter insurgency by Jewish forces for three years, sparked by its decision to bar entry into Palestine to tens of thousands of Jewish Holocaust survivors who were desperate to escape Europe and leave behind the traumas they had endured.
On 29 November 1947, the UN General Assembly voted to recommend the partition of the British Mandate of Palestine into a Jewish State and an Arab State, giving international endorsement to the principle of “two States for two peoples.” This was not an act of recognition, however; neither State yet existed. The British Mandate government continued to function.
On 15 May 1948, the new Jewish State of Israel came into being and was immediately confronted with a full-scale military invasion by the armed forces of five neighbouring Arab League states. It was a closely-fought war, with Israel staring defeat in the face at the time of the short-lived armistice in June 1948.
The United States extended de facto recognition to Israel within hours of its proclamation of independence. The USSR recognised Israel de jure on 17 May. Many other states followed suit. Britain, however, withheld recognition, and urged Australia and other Commonwealth countries to do likewise. The British government sought to avoid any action which might incur the hostility of the Arab nations and imperil Britain’s control of the Suez Canal and access to Middle East oil.
Evatt and officials in Australia’s Ministry of External Affairs expressed their disapproval of Britain’s prioritisation of its strategic interests over implementing the UN’s partition resolution. Nevertheless, a key argument that persuaded Australia to delay recognition of Israel was that, until the outcome of the Arab military invasion was decided, the capacity of Israel’s provisional government to control its territory remained in doubt.
A government exercising control over its territory is both a legal requirement of statehood under the Montevideo Convention on the Rights and Duties of States (1933) and a practical imperative. Although recognition of a putative new State is a political decision at the discretion of each of the world’s existing States, it would be futile and potentially embarrassing to recognise such a State if it is incapable of ruling over its own territory.
Israel’s military position against the invasion was not the only factor that bore on this question. The viability of Israel, as with any State, also depended on its government being the only source of coercive power within its territory. This too was put to the test early in the war. On 22 June 1948, David Ben-Gurion, as head of Israel’s provisional government, ordered the newly-formed Israel Defence Forces (IDF) to fire upon and disarm fighters belonging to a separate Jewish militia, the Irgun, who were unloading weapons for themselves from a ship off the beach in Tel Aviv, the Altalena. After a short, bitter fight, the Irgun was disbanded and its members were absorbed into the IDF.
By November 1948, as Israel repelled the Arab invasion, the Australian government was losing sympathy for Britain’s continuing requests that it not recognise Israel. On 19 November 1948, the Australian delegation at the UN stated:
By every practical test, whether in respect of its capacity for self-defence, its governmental organisation, its control of all forms of administration within specified areas … the fact that the Government of Israel is a reality must now be clearly recognised by everybody.
More than two months went by before Australia recognised Israel. Britain recognised Israel de facto on 13 May 1949 but delayed de jure recognition until 28 April 1950.
Recognising “Palestine” ― 2019
If Labor today were to apply the same criteria to recognition of a Palestinian state that it applied to recognition of Israel, “Palestine” would fail on all of them. In particular, due to the schism within the Palestinian national movement, there is no Palestinian entity that exercises “control of all forms of administration within specified areas” that comprise the territory claimed by the Palestinians ― namely, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
The internal divide between the secular nationalist movement among Palestinians, represented by the PLO and Palestinian Authority (PA) which controls parts of the West Bank, and the theocratic movement, represented by Hamas which controls the Gaza Strip, has resulted in internecine violence on many occasions. They are at odds over the most basic questions, not only concerning peace with Israel and other policy issues, but also on the essential nature of a future Palestinian State, and the basic rules by which it will be governed.
Hamas refuses to relinquish its arms to the PA and to place its operatives under the PA’s command. The PA is too weak to force Hamas to do so. The Palestinians have never had their “Altalena” moment.
So for reasons which are entirely internal to Palestinian society, there is no reasonable prospect for the foreseeable future of any government being formed which would exercise effective control over both the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and possess the capacity to give effect to any agreements signed by “Palestine” ― including any peace treaty that might be negotiated with Israel.
Recognising a Palestinian state in these circumstances would therefore not help to end the conflict with Israel, but would almost certainly inaugurate a new and bloodier phase of that conflict, at the likely cost of many more lives than the conflict has claimed thus far.
Peter Wertheim is co-CEO of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry.