Israel has gotten used to fending off pressure from the United States and the European Union over the conflict with the Palestinians. But now it faces an unlikely country, New Zealand, which is set to join the chorus of those pushing for renewed negotiations and is strongly considering concrete steps to force a solution on Israel.
By all reckonings a minor player on the international stage, Wellington has been working on a draft for a United Nations Security Council resolution on the peace process. In January, New Zealand took up a seat on the council for the first time in 21 years, and it intends to make active use of its newly gained influence.
“They have thoughts about the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and might even have a Security Council resolution drawn up that they’re keeping in the drawer,” a Foreign Ministry official familiar with the issue told The Times of Israel this week.
A small and isolated nation that has no regional interests and not much historical baggage in the Middle East — as opposed to other players such as the US, Russia, Britain or France — Wellington is eager to offer an original contribution to solve the decades-old crisis.
“New Zealand thinks it can think outside the box,” the official said.
On Wednesday, Foreign Minister Murray McCully is arriving in the region to assess possibilities to advance the peace process. “This visit will ensure New Zealand is well-placed to engage on the Middle East peace process,” he declared last week.
He will meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, national security adviser Yossi Cohen, opposition leader Isaac Herzog and Vice Prime Minister Silvan Shalom, who is responsible for peace talks with Palestinians (if and when they resume). Unlike most other foreign dignitaries, McCully is not scheduled to meet Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely.
Rather, he asked for a meeting with Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, but since Ya’alon will be abroad, McCully will meet with Amos Gilad, who directs the Defense Ministry’s Political-Military Affairs Bureau.
McCully will also travel to the Palestinian Authority and to Cairo for meetings with the Egyptian government and Arab League officials.
In July, Wellington will take over the rotating presidency of the Security Council, which will further embolden it to seek a larger role on the world stage.
Given its remote location in the Pacific Ocean, New Zealand is dependent on foreign trade and thus places great emphasis on peace and the upkeep of international law, and, by extension, on the UN and other organs charged with maintaining global stability.
With its strong belief in the importance of international mechanisms, the island nation, which has fewer than five million inhabitants, clearly intends to make the most of its two years on the UN’s most important decision-making body.
“New Zealand’s term on the Security Council will place us at the heart of international decision-making for the next two years,” McCully said in January.
Wellington has been considered a close friend of Jerusalem, especially under the center-right government of Prime Minister John Key, who is Jewish. And yet, it is currently convinced that the peace process needs to be advanced, if necessary by forcing a solution on the parties.
Israel vehemently rejects using multilateral organs such as the UN to coerce it into any sort of action vis-à-vis the Palestinians, arguing that progress can only be achieved in direct bilateral negotiations.
The government in New Zealand apparently disagrees. “We acknowledge that, ultimately, a lasting two-state settlement is something that will have to be negotiated between the two principal parties. But the UN and its members have a role to play in promoting dialogue to encourage that negotiated settlement,” the New Zealand Foreign Ministry’s website states.
“New Zealand therefore supports UN resolutions that advance the two-state solution, uphold international law, including human rights and humanitarian law, or call for humanitarian assistance.”
However, Wellington is content to let Paris take the lead. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, who is scheduled to visit the region later this month, announced plans for a Security Council resolution that would call for the conclusion of peace talks within 18 months. If at the end of that time no agreement has been reached, France would unilaterally recognize a Palestinian state.
The last effort to have the Security Council resolution impose a timeline on the peace process was voted on in the council, in late December, but failed to garner the required nine yes votes. Even then, the US would likely have used its veto to block the motion.
If the new French draft doesn’t pass, New Zealand is likely to pick up the gauntlet and propose its own resolution, the Israeli Foreign Ministry official assessed.
During Foreign Minister McCully’s upcoming visit to the region — his fourth since he took office in 2008 — he will first and foremost aim to hear what the sides have to say. “It’s a listening tour,” the Israeli official said. “New Zealand currently is still in listening mode. They’re not coming here in a patronizing fashion.”
It is not too late for Jerusalem to try to convince Wellington that the UN route doesn’t help but rather hardens the Palestinians’ position and therefore makes peace more difficult to achieve, the official said. But given the country’s determination to make a splash on the international stage, it seems like mission impossible.
Relations between Wellington and Jerusalem have had their ups and down in recent years, including a row in 2004 over claims that two Mossad agents in New Zealand had been stealing passports, which led to diplomatic sanctions against Israel that were only lifted years later, after then-foreign minister Shalom, the current vice prime minister, apologized “for the involvement of Israeli citizens in such activities.”
Last year, Israel was angry about Wellington sending one man, Jonathan Curr, to serve as ambassador to both Israel and the Palestinian Authority and refused to accredit him. In February, New Zealand caved and appointed a different diplomat as envoy to the PA, paving the way for Curr to present his credentials to President Reuven Rivlin in late April.
At the event, held at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem, Rivlin told Curr that despite “differences of opinions, as friends, we can agree to disagree.”
Conscious of Wellington’s intentions at the UN, the president asked the incoming ambassador to tell his government that peace “will be possible only through direct negotiations and not through unilateral moves on the part of our neighbors the Palestinians.”
Curr, who is based in Turkey, spoke of the “very deep relationship between our two peoples,” and the great cooperation between the countries. “We don’t always see things exactly the same way in this region,” he added, “but our approach has always been to listen to our friends and learn and understand their concerns.”
It is a little know fact that New Zealand actually has some success to show in peacemaking: In 1997, it brokered a peace agreement with leaders from Papua New Guinea and Bougainville. Nearly 20 years later, in 2015, Wellington forges ahead into far more remote, and infinitely more complicated waters.