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Recognition of Palestine may be 'symbolic', but it is also critical

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison on December 15, 2018 in Sydney, Australia [Mick Tsikas-Pool/Getty Images]
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison on December 15, 2018 in Sydney, Australia [Mick Tsikas-Pool/Getty Images]

The recognition of Palestine as a State by the Australian Labor Party on 30 March is a welcome move, although it comes with many caveats. Pro-Palestine activists are justified in questioning the sincerity of the ALP's stance and whether it is genuinely prepared to adopt this position fully should the party form a government after the 2022 election.

The language of the amendment regarding the recognition of Palestine is quite indecisive. While it commits the ALP to recognise Palestine as a State, it also "expects that this issue will be an important priority for the next Labor government". That's right: "expects". This is not the same as confirming that the recognition of Palestine is resolved as policy should Labor take office.

Moreover, the matter has been an "important priority" for the ALP for years. In fact, similar language was adopted in the closing session of the party conference in December 2018. The delegates supported "the recognition and right of Israel and Palestine to exist as two states within secure and recognised borders" along with this important clause: the ALP "calls on the next Labor government to recognise Palestine as a State".

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Unfortunately for Labor, it lost the May 2019 election. The Liberal Party maintained its majority and again formed a government under the leadership of Scott Morrison.

Morrison was the Prime Minister of Australia when, in 2018, the ALP adopted what was clearly a policy shift on Palestine. In fact, it was Morrison's regressive position on Israel that supposedly compelled Labor to develop a seemingly progressive position regarding Palestine. Nine days after former US President Donald Trump defied international law by officially recognising Jerusalem as the capital of Israel — and subsequently relocated the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to the occupied city — Morrison flirted with the same idea in the hope, no doubt, of enlisting the support of the pro-Israel lobbies in Australia prior to the election.

However, the Australian prime minister did not go as far as Trump. He refrained from moving his country's embassy to Jerusalem, but developed instead an equally illegal position whereby he recognised West Jerusalem as Israel's capital and promised to move the embassy there "when practical, in support of, and after, final-status determination."

US embassy might be moved to Jerusalem – Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

Canberra, however, did take "practical" steps, including a decision to establish a defence and trade office in Jerusalem. The Australian government also started to look for a site for its future embassy.

Morrison's self-serving strategy remains a political embarrassment for Australia, as it drew the country closer to Trump's illegal, anti-Palestinian position. While the vast majority of UN member states maintained a unified position regarding the illegality of the Israeli occupation of Palestine and asserted that the status of Jerusalem can only be determined according to a negotiated agreement, the Australian government led by Morrison thought otherwise.

As Palestinians, Arabs, and other nations mobilised against Australia's new position, the ALP came under pressure to balance the Liberal Party's agenda. The latter was seen as blindly supportive of Israel's military occupation and apartheid.

Given that the ALP lost the election, its new policy on Palestine could not be evaluated in practice. Now, according to the party's latest policy conference conclusion, this same position has been reiterated, albeit with some room to manoeuvre which could allow Labor to reverse or delay that progressive position if and when it is in power.

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Nevertheless, the Labor position is an important step for Palestinians in their "legitimacy war" against the brutal Israeli occupation.

Former United Nations Special Rapporteur for Palestine Richard Falk is seen at the launch of his new book at an event hosted by MEMO in London, UK, on 20 March 2017 [Jehan AlFarra/Middle East Monitor]

Former United Nations Special Rapporteur for Palestine Richard Falk is seen at the launch of his new book at an event hosted by MEMO in London, UK, on 20 March 2017 [Jehan AlFarra/Middle East Monitor]

In a recent interview, international law expert Professor Richard Falk, the former UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories, explained the need to "distinguish symbolic politics from substantive politics." Falk pointed out that, "In the colonial wars that were fought after 1945, the side that won usually was the side that won what I call the legitimacy war, which is the 'symbolic battlefield', so to speak, and maintained the principled position that was in accord with the anti-colonial flow of history."

Practically speaking, this means that the side that is weaker militarily may lose numerous battles but could ultimately win the war. This was as true in the case of Vietnam in 1975 as it was in South Africa in 1994. It should also be true in the case of Palestine.

This is precisely why pro-Israel politicians, media pundits, and organisations are fuming in response to the ALP's recognition of Palestine as a State. Among the numerous angry responses, the most expressive, I believe, is the position of Michael Danby, a former member of the Australian House of Representatives for Labor. He was quoted by the Australian Jewish News website as saying that ALP leaders Anthony Albanese and Richard Marles have done more than adopt the pro-Palestinian position of former British Labour Party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, by also adopting "his Stalinist [sic] methods by suppressing debate on the foreign policy motions".

Israel and its supporters fully understand the significance of Falk's "legitimacy war". Indeed, the settler-colonial state's military superiority and complete dominance over occupied Palestinians may allow it to sustain its military occupation on the ground, but it does very little to advance its moral position, reputation, and legitimacy.

The fact that the ALP's position advocates a two-state solution — which is neither just nor practical — should not detract from the fact that the recognition of Palestine is still a stance that can be utilised in the Palestinian quest to legitimise the struggle while delegitimising Israel's apartheid regime.

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Falk's theory about "substantive" and "symbolic" politics applies here as well. While calling for a defunct two states "solution" is part of the substantive politics that is necessitated by international consensus, the symbolism of recognising Palestine is a crucial step in dismantling Israel's monopoly over the narrative and agenda adopted by Western political elites. It is, moreover, a total defeat of the efforts of pro-Israel lobbies the world over.

No politicians anywhere can possibly win the legitimacy war for the Palestinians, or any other oppressed nation for that matter. The Palestinians and their supporters have to impose their moral and legal superiority on the often self-serving politicians so that the symbolic politics may someday become substantive. The Australian Labor Party's recognition of Palestine is, for now, merely symbolic, but it is also critical. If utilised correctly — through pressure, advocacy and mobilisation — it could turn into something meaningful in the future. This is not the responsibility of the ALP, however, but of the Palestinians themselves.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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