Despite Bill English's assertion that Gerry Brownlee has found the "right language" to discuss Israeli settlements and New Zealand's position on a controversial UN resolution, the foreign minister seems to still be following his own path
A month ago Bill English gave his Foreign Minister Gerry Brownlee what some saw as a gentle rebuke for his comments about New Zealand co-sponsoring a UN resolution condemning Israel's settlement in Palestinian territory.
It seems Brownlee is still looking for that language.
When Brownlee first became foreign minister, replacing Murray McCully, he seemed to walk back New Zealand's commitment to the very resolution we had co-sponsored at the United Nations. The resolution we co-sponsored with Venezuela, Malaysia and Senegal was controversial.
It was, in fact, a landark resolution; the first time in 30 years that the UN security council had condmened the Israeli settlements built in the occupied territory. America has previously used its veto powers to stop such votes being passed. But on his way out the door, Barack Obama changed tack. After years of political wrangling with Israel and personal hostility with Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the US chose to merely abstain, and let the vote go through.
Every other security council member voted in favour.
In broad terms, it was a response to a settler population the size of Christchurch building 125 settlements on Palestinian land over those decades. More directly, it was an attempt at a message to the growing strength of the pro-settler movement in Israel and a plea to hold fast to a two-state solution. In the short-term, however, that message wasn't heard. Just a month after the resolution passed, the Knesset passed its own new law – retrospectively declaring that many of those settlements are all now legal. International law says otherwise.
Although Israel's own Attorney-General had said he wouldn't defend the law in court because it was unconstitutional, the NYT reported, one right-wing lawmaker said, "From here we move on to expanding Israeli sovereignty and continuing to build and develop settlements across the land.”
New Zealand got caught up in that because Murray McCully decided to co-sponsor resolution 2334, seemingly without consulting his cabinet colleagues. (Sound familiar, Saudi sheep followers?). It was entirely consistent with McCully's commitment (often mocked) that New Zealand would play an active role in the Middle East peace process during our time on the Security Council. It also would never have happened without US machinations; you can be sure we were doing Obama's bidding in this. But it enraged Netanyahu, who called it "an act of war" by New Zealand and promptly pulled his ambassador out of Wellington.
The cabinet, and indeed the National Party, were clearly blind-sided by McCully's manoeuvre. And it seems they weren't impressed. What's followed though has become something of a diplomatic debacle.
McCully's successor Gerry Brownlee, in a remarkable resolution rebellion upon taking the job, called the resolution "premature" and wouldn't endorse it. Yep, the one we co-sponsored at the world's top council table.
"I'm not going to make a statement about whether we were right or wrong," he told RNZ.
It was left to English to explain away Brownlee's resolution revolution. He was still "trying to find the right language," English explained. A newbie mistake, he said. When asked if Brownlee had found the right language now, he gave a firm one word reply: "Yes".
Which raises questions about this exchange on The Nation yesterday:
Lisa Owen: "...is it okay for Israel to build settlements on Palestinian land – illegal settlements on Palestinian land – despite international condemnation? Are you okay with that?
Brownlee: Well, that's not the question that we're facing at the moment.
It's the question I'm asking you, Mr Brownlee.
I know it is. But the question that I'm addressing is our ability to speak with Israel in a very free and frank manner that you are able to do when you have solid diplomatic relations, which at the moment are suspended. I'm very, very confident that we'll be able to get back to a good position on that in the near future."
Once again given the opportunity to endorse the resolution New Zealand co-sponsored, Brownlee obfuscated. He simply would not say, as the resolution does, that it is not OK for Israel to build on Palestinian land. Instead, he made it clear his priority was to get back onside with Israel, going onto say that there will be an announcement "in the very near future", presumably that Israel's ambassador will be on a plane back.
But it leaves the government at odds with itself. Either Brownlee is still rebelling against his Prime Minister and English's instruction to find "the right language", or this is the right language and New Zealand's position is now not to support resolution 2334.
So which is it? Despite the obvious ructions within National and the fact it's becoming increasingly obvious the majority of cabinet does not actually support resolution 2334, English needs to take this in hand. This is, after all, the Prime Minister who on the very same day Brownlee was calling the resolution "premature", said he did not regret New Zealand's co-sponsrship.
Or has English decided to let Brownlee go rogue – and go luke-warm on that landmark resolution – for the sake of repairing relations with Israel?
It risks New Zealand being seen internationally to be at odds with itself and be something of a joke in the world's most serious territorial dispute. This needs to be cleared up.
Brownlee may not like it, but he has to realise he can't fudge his way through an issue of this magnitude. For New Zealand's sake, he has to find the right language, and fast.