The history of the Middle East contains a running commentary of conflict. The paradox of the centuries has been that while this region was one of the cradles of civilisation it has been host much longer to bitter and protracted battles among its own tribes and nations; victim of conquest and occupation by outside powers; a timeless backdrop of conflict between them and revolts against them. Few generations have know peace and too many of today’s generation sow and reap in this grim, familiar fashion.
Lebanon is being dismembered; Israel is deeply troubled; the Palestinian people remain dispossessed, permanent casualties of the regions most intractable dispute; Syria contrives regional successes but achieves uncertain influence; Iraq reportedly poisons the battlefield with chemical weapons and Iran reputedly litters it with the violently wrecked bodies of unarmed children pressed into service as human land mine decoys. These are deeply cultivated fields of human misery. The two super-powers have profound and varied interests there, but as often as not the course of events has been determined not by the super-powers but by their client states, for which narrow national interests are at all times uppermost.
In such conditions peace is an elusive quality. Yet the late President Sadat had the courage and vision to capture it and Prime Minister Begin the inspiration and the commitment to help him keep it. In the midst of such deadly regional conflict and distrust the peace concluded between Egypt and Israel in 1979 as a result of President Sadat’s bold initiative 16 months earlier is the sort of event which sustains faith in the cause of peace against he most hostile odds. Peace conquered 30 years of hostility and suspicion and the aftermath of four wars-1948, 1956, 1967, 1973.
Under the terms of the Peace Treaty, Israel’s complete withdrawal from the Sinai, which it had occupied since 1967, and the return of that territory to Egypt, was conditional on the deployment of United Nations forces to monitor the implementation of security arrangements agreed on in the Peace Treaty. But, sadly, the United Nations was unable to provide a peacekeeping force for the Sinai. Israel, Egypt and the United States of America then agreed to the creation of a multinational force and observer group, MFO, outside the UN framework. In November 1981 the previous Government agreed to the commitment to this Force of a contingent of 99 military personnel and eight helicopters for the Rotary Wing Aviation Unit based at El Gorah for a period of two years. That period has now expired.
The Australian Labor Party expressed major reservations about Australian participation in the MFO at the time it was initially mooted. The ALP’s general preference is that the commitment of Australian troops overseas in any multinational military force should be under United Nations sponsorship. The ALP was concerned that a multinational force sponsored by a major power-in this case the United States-might come to be perceived as an extension of the foreign policy of that power and the participants as no more than client states of the major power.
There was also some anxiousness at possible links between the MFO and the United States Rapid Deployment Force, particularly as some forces in the United States contingent to the MFO were drawn from an integral division of the Rapid Deployment Force. We were worried about the physical vulnerability of the MFO and feared that it might be sucked into the vortex of some sort of regional military conflict, with grave implications for international stability.
The ALP also had serious reservations about the fact that while there had been progress on the Egypt-Israel settlement tracks of the Camp David process, the Palestinian issue-central to any settlement of the Arab-Israel dispute-which the Camp David Agreement also addressed, was stuck in a dead end and Israel provocatively continued its settlement program on the West Bank. Many Arab countries resentfully concluded that the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty represented a ‘separate peace’. There was genuine apprehension that the security Israel gained on her southern border with Egypt according to the provisions of the peace settlement would enable her to redeploy her forces and take military action elsewhere with greater confidence. Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in June 1982 is sometimes invoked as justification of this view.
In all of the circumstances it was proper for a new government to assess rigorously the genuinely held anxieties I have mentioned against practical experience of the peace settlement in the Sinai. It was accordingly that the Prime Minister (Mr Hawke) directed that I should visit the Middle East earlier this year. In particular I was directed that I should assess the role and effectiveness of the Sinai MFO and Australia’s participation in it. As well as visiting the Australian contingent at El Gorah and talking with the then force Commander, General Bull-Hansen, I visited Egypt, Israel, Syria and Jordan where I held wide-ranging discussions. Regrettably, circumstances did not permit me to visit Lebanon as I had earlier intended.
I now set out my general conclusions about the MFO’s operation and our participation in it. First, I found that the MFO is performing its task effectively and has contributed to stability in an otherwise turbulent region. The peace between Egypt and Israel has by no means been flawless, and there are several outstanding border issues and currently a distinct lack of warmth in bilateral relations. Incontestably, however, both Egypt and Israel are committed to peace and have observed the Peace Treaty. The earlier fear of conflict which might draw in the MFO, has not materialised. There has not been a single breach of the ceasefire since the MFO began operations. Monitoring by the MFO of the Treaty arrangement in the various zones in the Sinai, I am assured, guarantees that neither party can launch a surprise attack on the other. Experience has shown that the MFO as a whole, and the Australian contingent in particular, has not been the subject of any direct threat.
Egypt has clearly gained advantage as a result of the Peace Treaty. It has regained its territory and has gained significant economic benefit. It has been able to reallocate some of its military expenditure to civilian development.
Significant elements of the armed forces are being used in development programs , for example, land reclamation, road and bridge building and housing construction. Efforts to achieve self-sufficiency in food production for the Army will eventually help to ease the demand for imports in Egypt and lessen the strain on Egypt’s balance of payments.
There is no doubt that the security established on Israel’s southern border has given it greater confidence and enabled it to redeploy its forces in other areas . I am convinced, however, that it was not the-or even a-pre-condition for Israel’s invasion of Lebanon. It is a dubious argument-one contrary to historical experience-that Israel would not have gone into Lebanon had there been no peace with Egypt. Israel has always had to maintain a state of readiness on all fronts and is still acknowledged as having this capability.
In 1967, Israel fought a war on three fronts, and likewise, the Israeli incursion into Lebanon in 1978 took place in the absence of the MFO. Israeli military authorities made clear to me their belief that, if it was necessary to fight a war on all fronts concurrently to defend Israel, Israel had the capability to do so and do so successfully. I believe that to be true.
It is clear that the opportunity for direct and early linkage between movement on the Egypt-Israel aspects of Camp David and on the Palestinian issue, if ever it did exist, has regrettably come and gone. It is, nevertheless, important to acknowledge that with the Egyptian-Israeli accord there has been a settlement of at least one aspect of a complex problem. For its part, Egypt has restored its relations with most of the Arabs in all but the formal sense and has been exploring possibilities for an initiative on the Palestinian issue exploring with France, Jordan and the Palestine Liberation Organisation Chairman Yasser Arafat. Egyptian leaders made the point to me that their peaceful relationship with Israel strengthened their position in this respect as it could open the way for negotiations on the Palestinian issue that would not otherwise be available to them.
Although the United States makes a large contribution to the MFO both in manpower and financial terms, the MFO Commander, General Bull-Hansen of Norway, said emphatically that United States participation in the Force was not geared to training for an eventual rapid deployment force. He said that sort of role would require the functioning, and in particular the training, of an integrated assault unit. The United States military forces in the Sinai MFO did not meet- were not designed to meet-such criteria, he assured me.
The Government remains firm in its support for the role of the United Nations in the maintenance of international peace and security including its peacekeeping function. It is a melancholy fact, however, that in some circumstances it may not be possible for a peacekeeping force to be formed under UN auspices. In these circumstances should the cause of peace be surrendered, as an article of faith, because an alternative, no matter how demonstrably acceptable to the principal parties and provenly workable, is doctrinally unacceptable? Egyptian leaders and the MFO Force Commander stressed the importance of maintaining the multinational character of the MFO, emphasising that Australia is regarded as an objective participant acceptable to both Egypt and Israel, and highly respected in the region. The governments of both Egypt and Israel expressed great satisfaction with Australia’s participation in the MFO and commended the performance of the Australian contingent. They and the MFO Secretary-General have formally asked us to renew our commitment.
As for the attitude of other Arab states, I should note that, since the establishment of the MFO, there have been no repercussions on our commercial or other relations arising from our participation. Nor were any adverse comments about our participation expressed to me in discussions in Amman and Damascus. I might add that in both capitals I initiated quite specific discussion on this matter and it was directly addressed by both sides to each discussion.
The Australian Government does not see its participation in any peacekeeping operation as being open-ended. Reviews are clearly necessary from time to time to ensure that our participation is in fact necessary. In the case of the MFO, the Government would hope that the development of a relationship of mutual trust and confidence would, in due course, enable Egypt and Israel to sustain the peace between them without its presence.
In the course of my discussions with the MFO, both with General Bull-Hansen in El Gorah and with the late Director-General Leamon R. Hunt in Rome last year, I investigated the posibility of the recruitment of other national forces to replace the Australian contingent. The advice I received was that it would take a minimum of 18 months to find, and conclude negotiations and related arrangements with, a suitable replacement. In these circumstances, the Government has agreed to a limited extension of the participation of the Australian contingent in the MFO for a maximum period of two years. The purpose of this extension is to maintain stability in the MFO’s area of responsibility while a replacement is found.
The precise timing of Australia’s withdrawal within the two-year period will be the subject of further negotiation with the MFO. The Government has informed the MFO and the Governments of Israel, Egypt and the United States of its decision.
I turn now to discuss briefly my impressions of the situation in the Middle East generally, focussing on three main areas of conflict-the Arab-Israel dispute, Lebanon and the Iran/Iraq war.
There was a hope that the example of the Camp David process in the Sinai of peaceful withdrawal from occupied territory though negotiation could be followed elsewhere, leading eventually to a comprehensive settlement of the Middle East dispute. As I mentioned earlier, there was also a hope that the other strand of the Camp David agreement-negotiations on Palestinian autonomy-would lead towards a comprehensive settlement of Israel’s legitimate security concerns and her territorial rights as well as a settlement of the legitimate claims of the Palestinian people.
Sadly, this was not happened and the chances of a settlement of the long- standing Arab-Israel dispute remain as elusive as ever. None of the peace proposals currently on the table are accepted by all sides as a basis for negotiation. President Reagan’s initiative of September 1982, which raised hopes of starting a negotiating process, foundered because of the breakdown of efforts by King Hussein and PLO leader Yasser Arafat to reach a joint negotiation position on it and the Israeli Government’s rejection of it.
For most of last year the issue of the future of the West Bank and Gaza and the rights of the Palestinian people was submerged beneath the welter of preoccupation with the blood-drenched quagmire in Lebanon. Earlier this year, optimism was aroused by Jordanian and Egyptian efforts, supported by previously hard-line Iraq, to form an alliance of moderate Arabs and to include PLO chief Yassar Arafat, which would work out a plan for movement towards a negotiated settlement with Israel. This was dampened by the apparent reluctance of Arafat to take any early initiatives and more recently by King Hussein’s expressed loss of confidence in the ability of the United States to act as a mediator to the Arab-Israel dispute because of what he declared to be its one-sided support for Israel. Thus prospects for any significant movement towards a settlement remain dim.
The continued refusal of the PLO and Arab states other than Egypt to recognise explicitly Israel’s right to exist is one major obstacle which continues to raise doubts in the minds of Israelis about the security of their country. Israel’s continued occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, and its refusal to recognise the rights of the Palestinian people is another obstacle, reinforcing Arab suspicions about Israel’s intentions on the West Bank. In particular, the ideological conviction of some influential members of the Israeli Government that the West Bank is an integral part of ‘Eretz Israel’-the biblical land of Israel-and the declared goal of increasing the Jewish population there from its present number of 25,000 to 30,000 to 100,000 in the next two to four years through its entitlement program has been discouraging for many influential Arab moderates. West Bank Palestinian leaders of a more pragmatic mould-for whom the settlement policy is an immediate and visual issue-have urged recognition of Israel and the opening of direct negotiations with Israel before the incorporation of the West Bank with Israel becomes so complete as to leave nothing to negotiate about. This view-which I heard put most convincing from several West Bank leaders during my visit-was expressed persuasively by Major Freij of Bethlehem on his recent visit to Australia.
As a country distant from the Middle East it would be inappropriate for Australia to issue prescriptions for a solution to the Middle East dispute. Nevertheless, there are principles which guide our policy towards this dispute. Fundamental is our recognition of the need to achieve a just, comprehensive and lasting settlement; our commitment to the security of Israel and its right to live within secure and recognised boundaries, and our recognition of the central importance of the Palestinian issue for any settlement. The Government believes that there are a number of elements involved in achieving a settlement. The Arabs should follow Egypt’s example and negotiate with Israel directly. They should extend formal recognition to the State of Israel. Israel, for its part, should withdraw from the occupied territories in accordance with UN Security Council resolutions 242 and 338, which Israel herself accepts. We must also recognise that the future of Israel cannot be considered without also considering the fate of the Palestinian people.
The Australian Government acknowledges the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination, including their right, if they so choose, to independence and the possibility of their own independent state. While the Government maintains its refusal to recognise the PLO so long as it maintains its denial of Israel’s right to exist, the Government also believes that, as the PLO represents a significant portion of the Palestinian people, it should be included in the process of seeking a comprehensive settlement. But its opportunity to engage productively in that process will be severely limited while it persists in denying Israel’s right to exist.
The Government calls on Israel to freeze its settlement program on the West Bank as it considers these settlements illegal and a significant obstacle to peace efforts. There is a tendency among Westerners, distant from the problem, to demand instant solutions. I am under no illusion that a solution to the Arab- Israel dispute can be attained quickly; there is no ‘quick fix’ in the Middle East. There are generations of fears and suspicions to be overcome. The only way progress has come in the past and will come in the future, is through a process of direct negotiations between the principal parties to the dispute and a willingness to compromise on all sides.
My final observation on the Arab-Israel dispute is the need to involve all relevant parties in the peace process. Syria has demonstrated on more than one occasion that it can act as a spoiler of arrangements that exclude it. Syria wants a clear role in any comprehensive settlement-after all, part of its territory is in question- and all will seek to ensure that no moves on the Palestinian issue which do not have its concurrence are successful. So far, Syria has argued that an Arab strategic balance with Israel is a necessary precondition for negotiations that may lead to a settlement. Syria is sometimes characterised as simply an agent of the Soviet Union. This is an inaccurate perception, despite the unprecedented degree of Soviet involvement in Syria’s defence program. Syria is a strong-willed state led by a Syrian nationalist who uses, much more than he allows himself to be used by, his state’s superpower patron. President Assad manages this relationship on this basis in spite of the critical importance of Soviet support with military equipment, training and specialist skills.
Over the last year, the Lebanon crisis has overshadowed events in the Middle East and has been a major focus of American foreign policy. For all parties involved, except Syria, Lebanon has proved to be a tragedy. Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982 was to be a quick and successful operation, designed to provide long term security for northern Israel, cauterize the PLO contagion in Lebanon and bolster a friendly government there. Few would believe that these aims have been achieved. The invasion has proved to be an engagement which has yielded no lasting dividend for Israel. Lebanon collapsed into continuing civil war, the Gemayel Government eventually deferred to Syria, not Israel, and Yasser Arafat remains the leader of the PLO.
For Israel with its army mired in southern Lebanon, the cost in human lives lost in conflict has been high. In comparative terms, Israel has lost lives at the front at five times the rate per annum at which United States troops were killed in action in Vietnam. The harrowing and troubling impact that experience makes on a society like that of Israel which deeply cares about its people takes little imagining. The United States unsuccessfully sought an honourable peace. Tragically, Lebanon has had no peace to offer. Confessional differences were inflamed as the country balkanised itself along age old lines of religious hostilities.
The best that one can forecast at this stage is that the prospects for a lasting settlement are uncertain. What one can say with certainty is that just as it would be a tragedy to witness Lebanon permanently partitioned according to confessional lines, the cause of national reconciliation will not be well served by demands for power sharing according to demographic claims based on outmoded and irrelevant facts. Syria emerged as a clear winner-at least in the short term -witnessing the abrogation of the Israel-Lebanon agreement, the withdrawal of the MNF, and a dominant role in Lebanon. However, Syria has yet to show it can produce a long term solution for the problem of Lebanon.
The Australian Government deplores the continuation of conflict and division within Lebanon. We continue to urge the withdrawal of foreign forces and the return of sanity and order. We call on the various militias to lay down their arms and enter into negotiations so that the independence, sovereignty and unity of Lebanon may be re-established.
There is a matter of equal concern in the Middle East; that is, the Iran-Iraq war. Australia has important commercial relationships with both Iran and Iraq. Iran displays remarkable resilience in spite of the strains of revolution and now of war. Iraq had undertaken conscientious efforts to modernise its society. Both are ground down and denied the opportunity of achieving many of their domestic goals, because of the burden of prolonged and bitter conflict between them.
The Iran-Iraq war drags on into its fourth year with little prospect of resolution or of a decisive victory by either party. Despite the efforts of international mediators, Iran has continued to insist on preconditions to negotiations which include not only the return of all territory it has lost, but also the trail of Saddam Hussein as a war criminal and payment of massive reparations. Iraq has agreed to resolve its differences with Iran peacefully, but rejects Iran’s preconditions. The debilitating economic effects of the war and a desire to generate increased international pressure on Iran to find a settlement have led Iraq to threaten to destroy Iranian export facilities and shipping carrying Iranian oil in the Gulf. In response, Iranian spokesmen have threatened to stop all oil exports from the Gulf if their infrastructure is substantially destroyed.
Iraq has the capacity to disrupt seriously, if not cut off altogether, Iran’s oil exports, almost all of which are shipped from Kharg Island. In the absence of signs of imminent military and economic collapse in Iraq it seems unlikely at present that it will run the considerable risk of military escalation that a concerted attack on Kharg Island would bring. Iran, for its part, seems unlikely to try to close the Straits of Hormuz unless Iraq stops all Iran’s oil exports first. Even then, the technical difficulty of closing the Straits and the certainty of a vigorous United States military response make it unlikely that Iran would sustain this action for any length of time.
The Government has examined the implications of a temporary closure of the Straits of Hormuz for Australia’s oil supply and concluded that our energy supplies would not be seriously affected if the Strait was closed for a short time. The Australian Government is appalled by the great loss of life and human suffering which have resulted from this prolonged conflict. We reiterate our calls to both parties to agree upon a ceasefire and to start negotiations to resolve their differences.
Intruding into this complex of regional problems and tensions which I have described is rivalry between the super-powers. For both the United States and the Soviet Union, the Middle East has long been a focus of attention. The United States is compelled by strategic interests including the Western reliance on Gulf oil as well as localised but influential domestic pressures to maintain a close interest in developments in the Middle East. Because of the geographical proximity of the region, the Soviet Union regards the Middle East as an area of security importance. It sees the region as fertile ground for fostering anti- Western regimes and movements. As a super-power, the Soviet Union also considers that it has a role to play in the resolution of major problems in the region.
Many regional states consider that the super-powers look at the region primarily in terms of East-West competition and have criticised this attitude. Both super-powers have clients in the region but as I mentioned earlier, in many situations they have proved unable to control those clients or to control events in the region generally. Hitherto the United States has been the major external power able to influence the course of events in the Middle East. Soviet attempts to gain influence in the region have met with particularly limited success.
The Arab-Israel dispute provides the Soviet Union with its main point of leverage, though it also exposes the limits of Soviet power and influence. Syria has indicated that it does not see any negotiations towards a peace process taking place without the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, and most Arab states now express support for Soviet participation. At present this does not appear to be a realistic proposition. Both Israel and the United States, major parties to any settlement, are opposed to Soviet involvement in negotiations, or to the convening of an international conference. If these circumstances were to change and the Soviet Union showed itself to be prepared to play a positive and constructive role in a settlement Australia could then see grounds for its involvement.
The picture I have painted of the Middle East is a grim one. But there is another side. The Middle East is also a region of tremendous vigour. Traditional Arab monarchies have launched themselves into the twentieth century; Middle Eastern societies have met the challenge of modernity and have prospered; states have joined together in pursuit of common goals-the Gulf Co-operation Council is perhaps the most outstanding example. Seemingly intractable differences have been overcome, as evidenced in the Egypt-Israel peace settlement.
A resolution of the conflicts I have described at present seems elusive. Solutions will not be found either easily or quickly. If they are to be produced , they will require moral courage, generosity of spirit and greatness of vision on all sides. Most of all they will require a willingness to talk and compromise . That represents a daunting list of qualities and conditions, difficult to mobilise in less hostile circumstances prevailing elsewhere-an extraordinarily difficult task in the circumstances that prevail in the Middle East.
Over the years, Australia’s interests in the region have developed. We have large and well-established communities of Middle East origin or connections in Australia. We have built strong commercial relationships with many Middle Eastern countries. Our involvement in various peacekeeping exercises in the region has raised our political profile.
On my recent visit I found that Australia is generally respected and regarded as an impartial and sympathetic observer of events. As a middle ranking power, fairly remote from the region, we do not overestimate the role we can play in bringing about solutions to these conflicts. Within these limits, however, we will do what we can to encourage progress. I present the following paper: