International recognition of Palestine is symbolic but critical
The Australian Labor Party’s (ALP) recognition of Palestine as a state on March 30 was a welcome move, though it comes with many caveats. Pro-Palestinian activists are justified in questioning the sincerity of the party’s stance and whether it is genuinely prepared to adopt this position should it be in power following the 2022 elections.
The language of the amendment regarding the recognition of Palestine is quite indecisive. While it commits the ALP to recognizing Palestine as a state, it also “expects that this issue will be an important priority for the next Labor government.” This is not the same as confirming that the recognition of Palestine will be resolved 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 2018 Labor conference, which supported “the recognition and right of Israel and Palestine to exist as two states within secure and recognized borders,” while adding this important clause: The ALP “calls on the next Labor government to recognize Palestine as a state.” Unfortunately for Labor, it lost the May 2019 elections, with the Liberal-National Coalition maintaining its majority and again forming a government under the leadership of Scott Morrison.
Morrison was prime minister when the ALP adopted its policy shift on Palestine in 2018. In fact, it was his regressive position on Israel that supposedly compelled Labor to develop a seemingly progressive stance. Nine days after then-US President Donald Trump in 2017 defied international law by officially recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel — and subsequently relocated the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem — Morrison also flirted with the idea, hoping to enlist the support of the pro-Israel lobby ahead of the elections.
However, Morrison did not go as far as Trump, as he refrained from moving his country’s embassy to the occupied city. Instead, he developed a precarious — albeit still illegal — position, whereby he recognized West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and promised to move his country’s “embassy to West Jerusalem when practical, in support of, and after, final-status determination.” Canberra did still take “practical” steps, including establishing a defense and trade office in Jerusalem and starting 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 stance. While the vast majority of UN member states maintain a unified position regarding the illegality of the Israeli occupation of Palestine, asserting that the status of Jerusalem can only be determined based on a negotiated agreement, the Australian government thought otherwise.
As Palestinians, Arabs and other nations mobilized against Australian’s new position, the ALP came under pressure to balance out the government’s agenda, which was seen as blindly supportive of military occupation and apartheid. Since the ALP lost the 2019 elections, however, its policy on Palestine could not be evaluated. Now, according to its latest policy conference conclusion, this same position has been reiterated, although with some leeway that could potentially allow it to reverse or delay its move on recognizing Palestine once the party is in power.
Nonetheless, the Labor position is an important step for Palestinians in their legitimacy war against the Israeli occupation.
In a recent interview with the Palestine Chronicle, international law expert 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.” He said: “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 maintain the principled position that was in accord with the anti-colonial flow of history.” Practically, this meant that the militarily weaker side, despite losing numerous battles, often still ultimately won the war. This was true in the case of Vietnam in 1975 and South Africa in 1994. It should also be true in the case of Palestine.
This is why pro-Israeli politicians, media pundits and organizations are fuming in response to the ALP’s recognition of Palestine. Among the numerous angry responses, the most expressive was the position of former Australian House of Representatives member Michael Danby. He was quoted by the Australian Jewish News website as saying that ALP leader Anthony Albanese and his deputy Richard Marles had adopted ex-British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn’s “Stalinist methods by suppressing debate on the foreign policy motions.”
Israel and its supporters fully understand the significance of Falk’s “legitimacy war.” Indeed, while Israel’s military superiority and complete dominance over occupied Palestinians may allow it to sustain its military occupation on the ground, it does very little to advance its moral position, reputation and legitimacy.
The fact the ALP’s position advocates a two-state solution, which is neither just nor practical, should not detract from the fact that its recognition of Palestine is a stance that can be utilized in the Palestinians’ quest for the legitimization of their struggle and the delegitimization of Israel’s apartheid.
The Australian Labor Party’s position is an important step for Palestinians in their legitimacy war against the Israeli occupation.
Falk’s theory on substantive and symbolic politics applies here too. While calling for a defunct two-state solution is part of the substantive politics necessitated by international consensus, the symbolism of recognizing Palestine is a crucial step in dismantling Israel’s monopoly over the agendas of the West’s political elites. It is an outright defeat of the efforts of pro-Israeli lobbies.
Politicians everywhere cannot possibly win the legitimacy war for the Palestinians or any other oppressed nation. It is the responsibility of the Palestinians and their supporters to impose their moral agenda on often self-serving politicians so that their symbolic politics may someday become substantive. The ALP’s recognition of Palestine is, for now, mere symbolism. However, if utilized correctly, through pressure, advocacy and mobilization, it could turn into something meaningful in the future. This is not the responsibility of the ALP, but of the Palestinians themselves.
- Ramzy Baroud is a journalist and the editor of The Palestine Chronicle. He is the author of five books. His latest is “These Chains Will Be Broken: Palestinian Stories of Struggle and Defiance in Israeli Prisons” (Clarity Press). Twitter: @RamzyBaroud