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How Greens leader Richard Di Natale missed an opportunity to engage moderates on both sides of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict

By Philip Mendes - posted Thursday, 11 June 2015

The Australian Greens is the parliamentary political party which is most critical of Zionism and Israel. A number of current and former Greens politicians have made statements sharply critical of the Jewish state. Yet equally other leading Greens figures have defended Israel's right to exist in peace and security. The Party nationally supports two states, and has rejected proposals to support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. But overall, it would be fair to say that the party is not popular with most Australian Jews who regard the Greens as aligned far more with Palestinian than with Israeli concerns.

However, the newly elected Greens leader Senator Richard Di Natale recently saw an opportunity to convert his Jewish critics. In an interview with the Australian Jewish News (AJN), Di Natale not only confirmed the party's support for a two-state solution and opposition to the BDS movement, but also urged the Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas to recognize Israel as a Jewish state. Di Natale stated: "How can you have a two-state solution when you refuse to acknowledge the right of one state to exist? It's patently nonsense".

Di Natale's endorsement of two states was hardly contentious given that the Australian Greens have always supported the national rights of both Israelis and Palestinians. But in referring specifically to a Jewish state rather than the state of Israel, Di Natale inadvertently entered a linguistic minefield over the question of how Israel defines its national identity, that is whether it is a state of the Jewish nation or alternatively a state for all its citizens whether Jewish, Arab or otherwise.


There is arguably many shades to this debate. One is that the United Nations 1947 Partition Plan endorsed the creation of a Jewish national state of Israel and an Arab national state of Palestine. The state of Palestine was never established for a range of historical reasons, but the state of Israel has always defined itself as a Jewish state, and been regarded as such by most countries around the world.

But the Arab population of Green Line Israel now comprises about 20 per cent of the population or 1.7 million people, and is increasingly demanding national as well as civil and political rights within Israel. Their advocacy for a bi-national state also influences the perspectives of Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza. A third factor is the demand of the Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza Strip for an independent Arab state which would almost certainly exclude Jews. A fourth complicating factor is the demand of most Palestinian leaders including particularly the extremist BDS movement for a coerced return of 1948 Palestinian refugees and their millions of descendants to Green Line Israel, rather than to a proposed state of Palestine.

If this demand was ever implemented, the mass return would transform the demographic composition of Israel and almost certainly mean Israel would become an Arab state rather than there being both a Jewish and Arab state as envisaged in the 1947 motion.

It is this demographic threat which has arguably influenced the demand of the hawkish (and pro-West Bank settlements) Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu that the Palestinian Authority recognize Israel as a Jewish state (i.e. a state that will always have a Jewish majority) rather than just recognize the state of Israel as it currently exists (i.e. as a self-defined state of the Jewish nation).

Left-wing critics of Netanyahu argue that this demand is a red herring intended to block any progress towards Israeli-Palestinian peace via a negotiated two-state solution. They may well be right, but equally some on the Left acknowledge that the demand is not unreasonable given that Palestinian right of return rhetoric suggests an intention to ultimately create two Arab states, rather than two states for two peoples.

Equally, it is understandable that the Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas is reluctant to meet this demand given pressure both from Arabs within Israel who want to live in a bi-national rather than national Jewish state, and from BDS advocates and Hamas who reject recognition of any Jewish national rights in Israel/Palestine.


Given this contentious context, it is not surprising that pro-Palestinian advocates within the Australian Greens harshly attacked Di Natale's statement to the Jewish News.

But in doing so, they deliberately ignored the complexity and nuances of this debate, arguing nonsensically that "recognizing Israel's existence as a Jewish state denies the very existence of a significant Palestinian minority citizenship of Israel and would be an apartheid-style position". This is simply not true. It is possible to ensure equal citizenship for Arabs in Israel without recognizing them as a national minority. Equally, there is little if any factual resemblance between Israel and apartheid South Africa. South Africa was a racist state based on a small white minority oppressing a large black majority. In contrast, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not race-based, but rather a clash between two legitimate competing nationalisms.

Yet unfortunately Di Natale caved into these disingenuous critics. He could have said that he did not support the current policies of Bibi Netanyahu and his government, and that Israel should take all possible measures including the dismantling of most West Bank settlements to facilitate progress towards a two-state solution. He could have said that the Greens recognized without equivocation the national rights of both Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs. He could also have added that the Greens supported reforms within Israel to address manifestations of inequality and discrimination undermining the civil rights of the Arab population.

But instead, he reiterated the Greens support for two states whilst emphasizing that this did not mean "the establishment of a Jewish state as opposed to an Israeli state". This unfortunate statement seemed both ahistorical given Israel has identified as a Jewish state for 67 years, and politically problematic given two states means a Jewish state and an Arab state. Not surprisingly, a chorus of Jewish communal voices attacked Di Natale's rejection of a Jewish state meaning that any goodwill acquired from his earlier comments has almost certainly been lost.

If there is a lesson to be learnt here, it is the importance of engaging with moderates from both sides, rather than bowing to those who shout the loudest. Overall, the Greens should be aiming to develop a positive two states for two nations policy that engages with both progressive Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs and eschews strategies or rhetoric that exclusively blames either side for the ongoing conflict.

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About the Author

Associate Professor Philip Mendes is the Director of the Social Inclusion and Social Policy Research Unit in the Department of Social Work at Monash University and is the co-author with Nick Dyrenfurth of Boycotting Israel is Wrong (New South Press), and the author of a chapter on The Australian Greens and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict in the forthcoming Australia and Israel (Sussex Academic Press).

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