Dialogue a better way than slogans
It is hard to know which dark cranny should be explored first in response to Joseph Wakim’s attack on the visit to Israel by Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard (“Dangers of G’day visit to Israel” Canberra Times, June 17, 2009). Resemblances between Israel and Nazi Germany? Israel as an apartheid State? Local opinion polls twisted into global propaganda? Apart from the obvious ancient canards, one is left with the impression of a rant in pursuit of nothing.
Has existential hatred of the State of Israel reached the point that a sovereign democratic nation with strong diplomatic ties to our country should not be entitled to host a delegation of politicians, business persons, academics and artists? Gillard will also visit Ramallah and meet leaders of the Palestinian Authority during her stay, and despite the dismal record of failure of that leadership on behalf of its people, no one suggests that such a meeting is unwarranted. This brand of opprobrium is reserved for Israel alone.
Like so many uninterested in the substantive dispute between the Israelis and Palestinians, Wakim cannot resist the appeal of a tired anti-Zionist tirade that adds nothing but rancour to the debate. He claims that Australians largely sympathise with the Palestinian cause, but in truth most Australians, like all reasonable people, simply want realistic responses to an issue that has plagued the Middle East for decades. What do polemicists against every aspect of Israeli life expect to achieve for their efforts? Surely not the ear of a public frustrated by ideological opponents who appear more concerned to justify their position in the commentariat than allow for a rapprochement that may put them out of business.
In the last week we have seen the results of this type of mindset. A group of anti-Israel activists and academics urged all parliamentarians to oppose the Gillard visit and rejected “the oft-touted cliché that Israel is a democracy like Australia”. The test is simple enough - voters get to vote and every vote counts. Just as important are the institutions that marshal democracy. Trade unions, journalism, secular education, artistic expression, a thirst for knowledge and the means to fulfill it.
Let Gillard and her delegation look for themselves and judge for themselves Israel’s adherence to these fundamental principles. Israelis clearly prefer to meet their critics on the ground, face to face and in the full light of scrutiny, and if judged harshly are prepared to argue with visiting delegates as diplomacy properly requires. This is how progress is made, not through cheap allegations launched from half a world away.
At the same time we see the beginnings of dissent against theocratic Iran following the re-election of President Ahmadinejad. Whether voter fraud was rife or not, clearly the elections had at best the appearance of democracy, and even the so-called moderate Hossein Moussavi had similar views as the incumbent on nuclear weaponry and the legitimacy of Israel. Nevertheless the critics of Gillard’s delegation do not petition an end to Australia’s diplomatic efforts in Iran, nor the interruption of a substantial trade. Instead they attack the one country in the region that is manifestly democratic.
Wakim has a catalogue of allegations stated as facts, but nothing to say about the value of dialogue and discourse in a region that cries out for both. It seems that Israel is in fact to be punished for its success as an economic and cultural beacon in a region that rarely rewards such enterprise. Gillard has a clearer view. “I know from my previous visit the intensity and diversity of Israel's people, how their situation encourages innovation, commitment and lively democratic discussion of the issues facing the country and the world,” she said.
Gillard is aware that political, business and cultural delegations enhance not only co-operative enterprise, but also a familiarity that will allow her to candidly express the Government’s policies for a just Israeli-Palestinian resolution. Those who oppose this type of exchange keep solutions at bay and the Israeli-Palestinian dispute in an endless quagmire. Bigoted anti-Israel sloganeering has surely outlived its usefulness, unless the intention is to make Israel the mythic pariah that will forever excuse its enemies of any reasonableness.
It is easy enough to trade blow for blow in a bout that never ends and leaves no footprint, but much harder to search for solutions in the world of pragmatic policy making and negotiating outcomes. Gillard should be applauded for her willingness to seek a better way. Pity her critics prefer to see a world without change.
This opinion piece was originally published in the 19 June 2009 print edition of The Canberra Times.