But he brought up a series of issues relating to the Oslo peace process between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organisation, and international perceptions of Australia. He said with growing commercial interests across the Middle East, in Israel and Arab nations, Australia had to be careful.
“Australia should not be seen as unduly supportive of either side in the dispute,” he said. “There is, in fact, some risk that we are perceived as overly supportive of Israel. Whatever the rights and wrongs of this, a number of factors have combined in some Arab minds to suggest that we are too uncritical of Israeli policies.”
Mr Downer said both the United States and European Union had been critical of Israel’s then move to incorporate outlying Jewish settlements in Jerusalem, which pre-empted peace negotiations.
“We will not be thanked by the United States and others if we are seen as reducing the pressure on Israel by being less forthright where the Israelis are being recalcitrant,” he said.
An ongoing complaint from Arab nations has been Australia’s support for Israel in the United Nations.
Mr Downer said Australia’s UN voting pattern was a legitimate concern for Arab nations.
“While we have some concerns about the process involved and the substance of some resolutions, we have become isolated in poor company in our voting on UN Middle East resolutions,” he said.
But Mr Downer’s original recommendations were modified after intervention from the Prime Minister’s Department, which noted that it had not been consulted on the submission from Foreign Affairs.
The most substantial change was a proposal from Mr Downer that Australia consider future UN resolutions on their substance and vote “in a balanced way in the best possible company”. The link to balance and company was dropped, the PM was to be consulted on all votes and Australia’s voting intentions would take into account its “strong opposition to terrorism”.
We have become isolated in poor company in our voting on UN Middle East resolutions.
Alexander Downer in a 1998 cabinet submission
The debate took place more than two years before the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States and four years before Australia’s involvement in the invasion of Iraq.
In co-ordination notes, the Defence Department noted Australia had significant national interests across the Middle East including “security of oil supplies”, potential export markets and “support of the alliance with the United States as a potential member of any US-led coalition formed to respond to a Gulf contingency”.
Shane is a senior economics correspondent for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.