THE latest webinar for the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council featured Australia’s longest serving foreign minister, Alexander Downer. He began by expressing his surprise at Australia’s lockdown strategy on COVID-19 and concern about the long term economic fallout from the massive debts many governments are accruing.
He solely blamed China for the deterioration in relations with Australia, saying Australia had rightly resisted Chinese interference, and sought to determine the origins of COVID-19, and China had tried to make an example of us. However, he said, this had backfired on China, as other countries had rallied to support Australia, and China’s overall behaviour negatively impacted its international standing.
He lauded the ANZUS Treaty and its many benefits for Australia including militarily and enhancing our international status, but expressed concern that increasing internal division and identity politics have weakened the US internationally. He was, he said astonished by the way the USA had “cut and run” from Afghanistan, instead of trying to leave it with a power-sharing agreement and stability, describing it as a victory for jihadists everywhere.
This, he said, would concern US allies, and raise real questions for Israel, including what the Biden Administration is trying to achieve in negotiating on the nuclear deal with Iran’s new, hardline president.
He wondered if in return for “a guarantee from a regime like that” that it would “never go down the nuclear path,” the US would say, “let’s abandon all of our sanctions and allow billions and billions of dollars to be accessible to a regime which is trying to project its power throughout the Middle East in a very hostile sort of a way, hostile of course to Israel but hostile also to the Sunni Arab states …which have traditionally been allies of ours.”
He added that Donald Trump was right to abandon the agreement because only Iran benefitted, as it “just gave them huge access to resources and to continue to pursue the policies that they were pursuing. They didn’t pull back on their support for Hamas or Hezbollah or their activities in Iraq or support for…the Houthis in Yemen and other activities over and above that.”
However, he thinks Israel can still rely on the US “in extremis” and doubts a return to the deal will be possible. Trump, he said, was right to focus on the Abraham Accords instead.
He believes the US can still be relied on to defend Taiwan and maintain the balance of power in the Indo-Pacific region, but that Australia should also seek to consolidate relations in Southeast Asia, and should urge the US to try to get the leaders of all key democracies to sign up to a democratic charter, to show that liberal democracies are prepared to protect their values and a rules-based international order.
He believes the Palestinians should negotiate with Israel without preconditions, while Australia “should be absolutely black and white in its condemnation of trying to change and achieve a settlement in the Middle East based on violence.” While “Israel is a liberal democracy and it is therefore a country which has great legitimacy,” the Palestinians “have real problems of democratic legitimacy.” He added that Israel was established by the United Nations and therefore its “existence is part of the international rule of law and it is entitled to defend itself.”
He would strongly oppose Australia recognising a Palestinian state now, saying doing so would just play ourselves out of any role in seeking Middle East peace.
Finally, asked whether Australia should list the entirety of Hamas and Hezbollah as terrorist groups, he replied, “They are terrorist groups, so of course.” He added that the West will be revisited with terrorism after the Taliban victory, so we should “toughen up” on these issues.