National downplays New Zealand’s role in brokering ceasefire in Gaza


Demonstrators in Wellington call for a ceasefire in Gaza (Facebook Photo)

Venu Menon
Wellington, November 21,2023

New Zealand is ceding the initiative for a ceasefire in Gaza to its Five Eyes partners Australia and Canada.

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

The development comes on the heels of caretaker Prime Minister Chris Hipkins’ call over the weekend for a ceasefire in Gaza, made in his capacity as Labour Party Leader, which has caught the incoming National Party, currently in the throes of forming a new government, flat-footed.

On Monday, National’s foreign affairs spokesman Gerry Brownlee accused Hipkins of playing politics with the Israel-Hamas conflict, before disclosing his party had sought advice from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT).

MFAT got back with a “lengthy document which had three options in it,” Brownlee said.

“We preferred Option 1, which was to move in lock-step with Australia and Canada,” he added.

“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 affirmed.

The back-and-forth between Labour and National came amid widespread protests across New Zealand cities calling for a ceasefire in Gaza, even as the Israel Defence Force (IDF) advanced on a second hospital in Gaza where it claimed the presence of Hamas tunnels.

Israel had previously overrun the al-Shifa hospital, the largest medical facility in Gaza, releasing footage it claimed showed hostages being brought in after Hamas’ deadly October 7 attack on Israel which claimed 1,400 lives.

There were believed to be around 240 hostages held by Hamas in the tunnels. Some have been released, while Israel claimed one captive was executed.

In Gaza, the Hamas-run health ministry has put the death toll from Israeli airstrikes at over 12,000, half of that being children.

New Zealand has designated Hamas as a terrorist organisation.

National’s Brownlee echoed the Western alliance’s position calling for the release of the hostages taken by Hamas. He said Hamas must “stop using the population of Gaza as some kind of human shield.”

“The saddest thing is that a lot of people are dying while all this is going on,” Brownlee noted.

Graffiti at the waterfront in Wellington (INL Photo)

Brownlee’s statement, triggered by outgoing PM Hipkins, marked what can be said to be the incoming government’s official position on the conflict raging in the Middle east.

MFAT’s three-point advice, chiselled down to a single point, indicates the contours of New Zealand’s foreign policy for that region.

But it is worth noting that by yoking itself to Australia and Canada, New Zealand has effectively forfeited its claim to an independent foreign policy, at least with reference to the Middle East.

Brownlee’s policy pronouncement on behalf of the incoming government, of moving in lock-step with Australia and Canada, commits it to a binding consultative process with its Five Eyes partners that could spill over to other foreign policy domains.

For instance, New Zealand is now vulnerable to pressure from its Five Eyes partners to join the AUKUS nuclear submarine deal, brokered by the US.

New Zealand may risk losing its neutrality by hitching its foreign policy, albeit selectively, to Australia and Canada.

Worse, if Brownlee’s stand on Gaza, which locks New Zealand in the tight embrace of Australia and Canada, guides the new government’s foreign policy vision, it would mean an erosion of New Zealand’s autonomy and influence in the eyes of the wider Pacific Islands region.

Venu Menon is an Indian Newslink reporter based in Wellington

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