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Balance is the key in the Middle East

By Antoun Issa - posted Wednesday, 19 November 2008

Australia’s decision to vote against Israel at the UN General Assembly last weekend signals a possible reversion to a previous Middle East policy of hands-off neutrality.

For decades, Australia pursued a balanced approach to the complex region that ensured we kept our distance, while befriending all sides.

Despite the Hawke government’s decision to join a US-led coalition in the first Gulf War, Canberra has had little input, or interest in the Arab-Israeli conflict. It has often stood on the sidelines, expressing the odd one or two wishes for a peaceful resolution, and backing international efforts already heavily engaged in the conflict.


The Arab-Israeli conflict was a mine that Australia had little desire to dive into. It carefully trotted the sensitive line, avoiding offence to either its close friend in Israel or its business partners in the Arab/Islamic world.

Although Canberra stood silent on the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon that cost up to 20,000 lives, it opened its doors to a wave of Lebanese would-be migrants seeking escape from the conflict. Australia currently boasts large and significant Arab and Jewish communities, and has until recently done well to appease both sides by refraining from getting involved in the delicate Arab-Israeli conflict.

Consequently, Australia enjoyed a positive image in the Arab world, much akin to that of neutral Scandinavian countries. Arabs regarded Australia as a large, friendly, and peaceful Western country secluded far away from the troubles of their region.

No Arab in their right mind would consider Australia as a potential target, or a hostile enemy such as the United States or Great Britain. Many Arabs blame British colonialism and current US bias towards Israel for the state of horror in the Middle East. Despite both being key allies of Australia, Canberra escaped much of the heat.

This changed with a dramatic shift in Middle Eastern policy under the Howard government. By following Bush’s widely unpopular neocon strategy to transform the volatile oil-rich region, Howard placed 50 years of successful, balanced, Australian diplomacy in jeopardy. Despite contributing peanuts to the war effort, Howard’s public campaign against Islamism, and support for the hawks in Washington, inflamed many Arabs.

Howard led Australia into a cauldron of fire the country had long avoided. He went against the advice of the Europeans, America’s Arab allies, and much of the world by following Bush and Blair into Iraq. Arabs blame the Americans and their accomplices for the turmoil in Iraq today. Howard ostentatiously ensured the world knew he was Bush’s premier accomplice.


The buck didn’t stop with Iraq. Howard decided to anger the Arab world even further by joining the US as the only other Western country to fully support Israel at the UN General Assembly. He, along with Bush, gave a carte blanche allowing Israel to continue to run amuck in the region and further violate Palestinian human rights. Among the most inflammatory positions Howard took was his staunch support for Israel’s war on Lebanon in 2006 that killed 1,200 Lebanese civilians, outraging Lebanese Australians.

The former Prime Minister not only skipped the careful line of diplomacy Australia has treated the Middle East with, but swerved completely off the rails. He had effectively turned Australia from a distant, neutral voice in the background of the Arab-Israeli voice, into a forefront protagonist. Australia’s image in the Arab world was tarnished, and was now a target for extremists.

Howard’s Middle Eastern policies not only destroyed Australia’s warm image in the Arab world, but it polarised the country’s multi-cultural community. Howard’s blind Middle Eastern policies drove a sense of fear and paranoia towards Australia’s Islamic community. Calls for a ban on the hijab emanated from the Liberal Party, while Howard approved a plan to monitor Australia’s mosques. And, let’s not forget the saga of Mohammad Haneef, the Indian doctor that was falsely accused, detained, and deported on terrorism charges. Ultimately, the heat spilled onto the streets in US-style race riots on Sydney’s Cronulla beach in 2005.

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About the Author

Antoun Issa is an Australian-based freelance political writer, Global Voices Online author, and commentator on international affairs, with a specific interest in Middle Eastern issues.

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