In a rare public contradiction of a senior Cabinet Minister, the Prime Minister, Bill English, yesterday said Foreign Minister Gerry Brownlee had been “trying to find the right language” when he described New Zealand’s Security Council resolution on Israel as “premature”.
However English said Brownlee’s comments had not changed the Government’s position.
“That is, to do what he is doing which is to rebuild the relationship with Israel because we think it is important to have representation in each other’s countries and a positive relationship,” said Mr English.
English said Brownlee was getting familiar with the language the Government had been using about the relationship.
“In this world of diplomacy, each word matters,” he said.
“To be fair, he was interviewed on this issue on about Day One or Day Two of his tenure.
Asked if he had spoken to Brownlee about the matter, English said they had had a discussion about the relationship with Israel.
This whole affair is hardly likely to help.
Prior to Brownlee writing a letter to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last week suggesting that the two countries look at ways of reviving the relationship, things were frozen where they were after Israel withdrew its Ambassador from Wellington just before Christmas in protest at New Zealand’s role sponsoring the UN resolution.
At the heart of Israeli anger is Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention relating to the protection of civilians during war signed in 1949 which prohibits occupying powers from transferring parts of their own civilian population into the territory they occupy.”
The controversial resolution, sponsored by New Zealand argues that because Israel has done that, by establishing settlements in the occupied territories, those settlements are illegal.
And that means Israel is liable to prosecution at the International Court of Criminal Justice as a consequence.
That’s the principle issue at stake in this controversy.
Last month former Foreign Minister, Murray McCully, told POLITIK he had “many in-depth discussions” with then-US Secretary of State, John Kerry on the Middle East peace process.
They agreed that the settlements were a major problem because they imperilled a two-state solution.
Instead, they believed that Israel was moving to a one state solution which would see the country become a type of apartheid state with what McCully has described as a lesser standard of citizenship for Palestinians.
Obama’s Permanent UN Ambassador, Samantha Powell, put Kerry’s argument to the Security Council during the debate on the Israel resolution.
“The United States’ long-standing position is that Israeli settlement activity in territories occupied in 1967 undermines Israel’s security, harms the viability of a negotiated two-state outcome, and erodes prospects for peace and stability in the region,” she said.
All this background is important because what it shows is that the December resolution was a direct rebuke to Israel in that it was consistent with previous resolutions including one, ironically, on which the Reagan administration had abstained in 1987.
However, when Brownlee was asked about the December 2016 resolution on Radio New Zealand’s Morning Report last Thursday, he said the resolution was “premature” because it was proposing an outcome that was not a possibility.
But no resolution which opposed the settlements would be acceptable to Israel.
And it is the view of the west (although possibly no longer the Trump administration) that a two-state solution is needed to bring peace to the Middle East.
New Zealand did not act alone.
Foreign Affairs Secretary Brooke Barrington pointed out to Parliament’s Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Committee in February that every member of the Security Council (except the US who abstained) voted for the resolution.
It is Brownlee’s use of the word “premature” and the context within which he placed it that caused English yesterday to state New Zealand’s position as bluntly as he did yesterday.
“We’re not describing it (the resolution) as premature,” he said.
“Our role in the resolution was that it expressed Government policy.
“The resolution was expressing long-standing Government policy – in fact, a long-standing commonly held international view.
“We understand that Israel was upset about the resolution and our role in it, but we are keen to look ahead to have a positive relationship with Israel.”
However, English’s reaffirmation of the resolution may disappoint the pro-Israel lobby in New Zealand.
The pro-Israel website, Shalom Kiwi, has endorsed Brownlee’s use of the world “premature” to describe the resolution, and argues that the resolution has been condemned.
“Despite the attempts of Murray McCully and Prime Minister Bill English to explain the resolution as being ‘longstanding policy’ the site says.
(Britain, Spain, France and Japan voted for the resolution – Australia has said it would not have and the US now also opposes it.)
For Brownlee, all this will be a chastening possibly humiliating and unwelcome reminder that, as English says, in foreign affairs, every word matters.