Coalition partners move in lock-step on policy for Middle East


Prime Minister Christopher Luxon addresses the 54th Parliament as Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters looks on (Facebook photo)

Venu Menon
Wellington, December 8,2023

In a major foreign policy pronouncement, Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Winston Peters has called for “urgent steps towards establishing a ceasefire” in the Israel-Hamas conflict raging in the Midde East.

But the statement, made by Peters in Parliament on Thursday, fell short of calling for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza, presently the theatre of hostilities in the region.

Motion in House

Peters moved that the House: “Express grave concern  at the ongoing violence in Israel and the occupied Palestinian Territories, unequivocally condemn the Hamas terrorist attack on 7 October 2023 and call for the release on all hostages, call on all parties involved in the conflict as well as countries with influence in the region take urgent steps towards establishing a ceasefire, recognising Israel’s right to defend itself in accordance with international law, and that all civilians be protected from armed conflict, affirm that a lasting solution to the conflict will only be achieved by peaceful means and that action to revive the Middle East Peace Process is critical.

“Note that the government will continue its efforts to help all New Zealanders impacted by the conflict.”

Key omissions

The motion stood out for its key omissions. Save for the reference to “occupied Palestinian Territories,” it essentially endorsed the status quo in the region, omitting to mention, at the first instance, the cornerstone two-state solution to resolve the conflict, which was added later by way of an Opposition Labour Party amendment.

The motion carried by the House made a ceasefire conditional upon the “release of all hostages” taken by Hamas, whose incursion into Israel on 7 October 2023, which claimed 1,200 lives, was termed a “terrorist attack.”

Israel’s retaliatory airstrikes in Gaza which, according to the Hamas-run health ministry, has killed over 15,000 civilians (half of them children) so far found no mention in Peter’s statement. Instead, it recognised Israel’s “right to defend itself,” albeit “in accordance with international law.”

The reference to international law is standard, yet noteworthy for its ambivalence. The Geneva Convention accords protection to non-combatants, such as civilians, as well as medical installations such as hospitals.

But that protection comes with a proviso. It does not apply in cases where a hospital serves as a façade for military operations. Israel invoked the proviso to justify its takeover of the Al-Shifa hospital in Gaza.

Peters’ statement  did not weigh up questions around the proportionality of Israel’s retaliation.

But especially significant was the call to “all parties involved in the conflict as well as all countries with influence in the region” to work towards establishing a ceasefire.

Clearly, Foreign Minister Peters reckons New Zealand has ruled itself out of the reckoning as a country that wields “influence in the region.”

Continuity

This is unsurprising, given that it reflects a continuation of the position adopted by the National-led coalition while it was in the throes of forming a government late last month. It was caught flat-footed after then caretaker Prime Minister Chris Hipkins called for a ceasefire in Gaza, a call made in his capacity as Labour Party Leader.

National had scrambled to formulate a response to Hipkins’ call for a ceasefire in Gaza, tasking the party’s then foreign affairs spokesperson Gerry Brownlee to come up with one.

Brownlee accused Hipkins of playing politics with the Israel-Hamas conflict, before revealing his party had approached the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT) for advice.

MFAT advised moving in lock-step with [Five Eyes partners] Australia and Canada.

Five Eyes

The Five Eyes is an intelligence sharing arrangement entered into by the US, UK, Australia, Canada and New Zealand.

“Of course, we want a ceasefire, but we need to recognise that New Zealand is not going to be one of the countries that can make an immediate difference,” Brownlee, currently the Speaker of the House, observed at the time.

Brownlee’s stand, which foreshadowed Peters’ statement made in Parliament as the Foreign Minister, marked the [then incoming] government’s official position on the conflict in the Middle East, as well as New Zealand’s foreign policy for that region.

Amendment to motion

On Thursday, all but one of the amendments proposed by the Opposition parties to Peters’ motion in Parliament were rejected.

That amendment, proposed by Labour MP Phil Twyford, filled the lacuna in Peters’ motion by adding to it the words: “and that process must seek a just and lasting peace that recognises the existence and self-determination of Israelis and Palestinians. We call for the establishment of a free and independent Palestinian state as part of a two-state solution, with both nations having secure and recognised borders where all citizens have equal rights and freedoms.”

Notably, the government rejected the inclusion of the term genocide to describe the civilian death toll from Israeli airstrikes on Gaza.

Labour’s Associate Foreign Affairs spokesperson Damien O’Connor pressed for the inclusion of the word in the government’s motion, but failed to drum up a consensus even within his own party.

Moving in tandem

However, ruling coalition partners National and NZ First appeared to be moving in lock-step on the terms of a ceasefire in Gaza, with Luxon echoing Peters’ position on the issue in comments preceding the debate.

But the government’s foreign policy position on the crisis playing out in the Middle East raises some awkward questions.

Not least among them is that MFAT’s advice to move in lock-step with Australia and Canada commits New Zealand to a binding consultative process with its Five Eyes partners that could imperil its neutrality.

New Zealand’s claim to an independent foreign policy may be called into question within and outside its Pacific Islands neighbourhood.

Venu Menon is an Indian Newslink reporter based in Wellington

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