Resolving the Unresolvable: Nigel Parsons Discusses New Zealand's Position towards Israel/Palestine

By Parsons, Nigel | New Zealand International Review, November-December 2009 | Go to article overview
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Resolving the Unresolvable: Nigel Parsons Discusses New Zealand's Position towards Israel/Palestine

Parsons, Nigel, New Zealand International Review

New Zealand's position towards Israel/Palestine has been fairly consistent since the UN General Assembly vote on partition in 1947; New Zealand voted in favour of Resolution 181 (in defiance of ties to Great Britain, which, mindful of imperial interests in the wider Arab world, abstained), and New Zealand today supports a two-state solution. New Zealand does not recognise Israel's annexation of east Jerusalem and contests the legality of settlements. The change of government coalition leader from Labour to National has not changed the technical details of New Zealand policy; given the new government's intention to build on ties with the United States, this seems likely to continue to be the case. Indeed, President Obama's approach towards Israel/Palestine seems, if anything, to align rather well with New Zealand's UN-based position, as inherited by the National-led government from its predecessor.

However, there is a discernable shift in the tone of policy under National. New Zealand's relations with Israel are warming rapidly. One indication is the imminent re-opening of the Israeli embassy in Wellington, closed since 2002. Another emerged during the Israeli assault on Gaza earlier this year: as Palestinian (mostly civilian) casualties rose during Operation Cast Lead, Foreign minister Murray McCully briefly became the focal point of some public criticism and a well-organised demonstration in downtown Wellington on account of his perceived reluctance to condemn Israeli actions. McCully's reticence contrasted with the recent past practice under Labour, and was underscored by a rather more decisive response from the Labour Party led by former foreign minister Phil Goff, now in opposition.


Taking New Zealand's steady support for a two-state solution as my benchmark, I will examine four features of New Zealand policy towards Israel/Palestine:

* the technical substance of New Zealand's position;

* the motive forces informing that position;

* the warming of New Zealand-Israel relations; and

* the prospects for pro-Palestinian advocacy in New Zealand.

Official position

The key words that frame New Zealand's position towards the Israel/Palestine issue are 'even-handed and constructive'. (1) This was so under Labour and it remains so under National. The broad strokes of this position amount to support for 'Israel's right to exist within secure and recognised borders' as well as the Palestinian 'right to self-determination and to a viable and territorially contiguous state'.

On three headline issues of the Palestinian nationalist agenda, New Zealand's position is more-or-less in accord with that of the PLO.

* JERUSALEM. According to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, 'New Zealand does not recognise Israel's annexation of Jerusalem in 1980, nor does it recognise that city as the capital of Israel'. The official line remains in accord with UN General Assembly Resolution 181 and the proposed internationalisation of the city. But New Zealand also acknowledges subsequent Israel--PLO agreements, and considers that 'the city's final status can only be resolved in the context of negotiations between the parties'. In practice, New Zealand seems likely to support the administrative division of the city into the capital of Israel and an independent Palestine.

* SETTLEMENTS. On this point, the government is very clear: "New Zealand considers that Israel has no mandate in international law to build permanent settlements in occupied territory.' Moreover, settlements are expressly condemned as 'an obstacle to peace'.

* STATEHOOD. Notwithstanding the PLO's 1988 declaration of Palestinian independence, MFAT notes that (presumably in the context of the Oslo process) the Palestinian leadership has not yet formally declared statehood, but that if it did, 'New Zealand would examine whether it satisfied the conditions which must be fulfilled before a state can be said to exist in international law, and respond accordingly'.

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Resolving the Unresolvable: Nigel Parsons Discusses New Zealand's Position towards Israel/Palestine


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