May 10, 2010
Australia missed a chance to defend international law and human rights by voting this week to support Israel’s application for membership to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). The OECD was founded in 1960 by states practising democracy and free market principles to discuss and advance mutual interests; Australia joined in 1970. OECD ministers meet in Paris today to decide finally on Israel’s long-pending bid for membership.
Australia should have opposed Israel’s accession to the OECD on both technical and political grounds. On the technical side, Israel has failed to curb corruption in its arms industry, and has turned a blind eye to violations of intellectual property rights by its pharmaceuticals companies. In the economic data Israel has provided the OECD in its application for membership, it has also counted its Jewish settlers — nearly 500,000 persons — in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, although these persons reside outside of Israel’s borders. The settlers are heavily subsidised by the Israeli government, and their inclusion, therefore, imparts a misleading image of prosperity.
Meanwhile, the 2.3 million Palestinian residents of the West Bank and the 1.6 million residents of the Gaza Strip are not so included. The Gaza Strip, of course, has been subject to a withering economic blockade since 2006, and freedom of movement of people and goods within the West Bank has also been severely curtailed. A majority of Palestinians have been reduced to penury as a result, and children in the Gaza Strip have begun to show signs of stunting and malnutrition.
A Tel Aviv district court recently forced the Israeli government to divulge details of its criteria for deciding what goods would be permitted to trickle into the Gaza Strip. Some of the revealed documents showed that an Israeli government agency had been charged with calculating the minimum daily caloric intake for Gaza Strip Palestinians, stratified by age and gender. This recalls the macabre threat issued in a published interview by Dov Weisglass, former adviser to Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon, that the Palestinian population would not be starved, but just “put on a diet”. Calibrating the level of trade in this fashion hardly seems the pinnacle of free market principles. The Israeli government has since denied that the calculations were ever followed, but its actions to the contrary speak volumes.
Australia should have also questioned Israel’s commitment to secular democracy. Religious courts in Israel decide all matters of family law, and religious parties play prominent roles in national politics, including in the current ruling coalition. Orthodox rabbis are empowered under Israeli law to make vital decisions about who constitutes a “Jew” or not for purposes of citizenship, inheritance, and the like. Civil marriage is not permitted under Israeli law. If a Palestinian citizen of Israel falls in love with an Israeli Jew, therefore, they must be married outside the state of Israel. These practices violate the fundamental democratic precept of the separation of church and state.
Israel also discriminates against its 1.2 million Palestinian citizens, whom it demeaningly labels “Israeli Arabs”. The Israeli legal system lacks a firmly-rooted equality principle, and attempts to legislate one in the Knesset have been firmly rejected. While Palestinian citizens of Israel can and do vote and run for office in Israel, government policies ensure that they remain politically marginalised. No Arab political party has ever been invited to join a ruling coalition, and in Israel’s 62-year-old history only one Palestinian has ever been a minister — of sports and culture. Leaders of the Palestinian community who have campaigned for equal rights have been arrested and hounded into exile.
Australia has its own painful history of wrongs committed against its Aboriginal population. The Rudd government took an admirable first step in 2008 in apologising for the “stolen generations”. Australia would have been a better ally to Israel to delay or deny it accession to the OECD. Israel must first cease its abuses of the rights of Palestinians under its rule, and start down the difficult path of reconciliation based on equal rights for all. When it has done so its accession to the OECD will be richly deserved.
George Bisharat is a professor of law at Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco, and writes frequently on law and politics in the Middle East.