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Gerry Brownlee. (Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)
Gerry Brownlee. (Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

PoliticsJune 14, 2017

Brownlee says a lot of nothing, and in doing so all but renounces NZ’s position on Israeli settlements

Gerry Brownlee. (Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)
Gerry Brownlee. (Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

In an engrossing radio interview, the foreign minister goes full diplomat-speak over relations with Israel, and again refuses to stand by a six-month-old UN resolution sponsored by New Zealand, writes Toby Manhire.

“I’m an excellent student, a great learner,” said the new foreign minister, Gerry Brownlee, a month ago. He was relishing the opportunity – of course he was – to get some tutelage from officials at the Ministry for Foreign Affairs, after getting a slapdown from the prime minister over his public repudiation of UN Security Council Resolution 2334.

The resolution, co-sponsored by New Zealand and passed late in 2016, declared Israeli settlements in occupied Palestinian territories a “flagrant violation under international law and a major obstacle to the vision of two States living side-by-side in peace and security, within internationally recognised borders.”

It is hard to imagine Brownlee, a former defence minister and one of the most experienced politicians in Bill English’s cabinet, really needs any schooling on diplospeak, but he was doing his best on the radio this morning to prove he’d been swotting up on saying as little as possible.

Brownlee was on Morning Report to discuss news that diplomatic ties with Israel – broken off following the UN resolution – had been restored, after a conversation between English and his Israeli counterpart Binyamin Netanyahu and a follow-up letter from the NZ prime minister expressing regret over “the damage done to Israel-New Zealand relations as a result of New Zealand proposing Resolution 2334 at the Security Council.”


Susie Ferguson wanted to know what Brownlee’s stance was now on the resolution, whether New Zealand regretted sponsoring it.

Brownlee was having none of that. “The resolution is one that has been passed by the UN. It exists. What’s important is that the relationship between New Zealand and Israel is on a good footing…”

But does New Zealand regret sponsoring the resolution? “As I’ve said, and all I’m going to say is that we regret the fallout that came from that.”

Ferguson: “So is essentially that a way of saying you do still back the resolution’s intent but you still want to be friends with Israel?”

Gerry Brownlee, pictured during the visit to NZ by US secretary of state Rex Tillerson. Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images

There was no shaking Diplomat Brownlee. “It is a way of saying exactly what I’ve said… What is important, and I’m just going to keep on saying this no matter how many times you ask me or the ways you ask it, is that the relationship between two countries that have been friends for a long time is back on the right foot.”

A few moments later, Ferguson asked whether backing the resolution therefore was disrespectful.

“I’ve just told you that it didn’t matter how many way you asked me the question, I wouldn’t be deviating from my response…”

“It is, though, an interview, Mr Brownlee, which is where I get to ask questions and hopefully you get to answer.”

“No, it’s where you get to ask questions and I give you the answers that I’m able to give you. And that’s what I’ve been doing, consistently, despite the fact that you’re coming at what you would desire as an answer for different questions.”

There is no doubt, on the basis of the above, that Brownlee is well educated in the adage that a diplomat is someone who thinks twice before saying nothing. But sometimes saying nothing speaks volumes of its own.

Because while the prime minister stood by the resolution last month, while the deputy prime minister, Paula Bennett, has said that Brownlee is “very focused on actually supporting the resolution that we put forward”, the foreign minister today, remarkably, refused to do any of that.

Asked by Morning Report about New Zealand’s view on the legality of settlements on Palestinaian land, Brownlee replied: “What we’ve said is that the settlement issue is one that the parties that are in dispute need to sort out among themselves. And we will do what we can to assist in that process. But in the end, it’s something for them to determine.”

Brownlee is in effect renouncing the position of his predecessor, Murray McCully, who wrote in defence of the resolution in January that “continuing settlement growth at anything like the current rate will render the two state solution a purely academic concept. There will be nothing left to negotiate.”

The co-sponsored resolution was the climax and highlight of New Zealand’s two-year term on the Security Council. It was the best evidence available that New Zealand clings to the idea of an independent foreign policy. It addressed an important point of principle. It was done in the name of international law and in the cause of preserving hopes of a two-state solution, something clearly endangered by ongoing settlement building in Palestinian territory. It was an even-handed and firm, but hardly an extreme, resolution.

And now it’s been given, in effect, the heave-ho.

What happened? Had McCully, at the end of 2016 and the twilight of his ministerial career, gone rogue, acting without the proper support of Cabinet? Has Brownlee over-reached going the other way? Did New Zealand underestimate the blowback of sponsoring the resolution? Has it spiraled out of a failure to give enough diplomatic warning (as Bennett put it in the house, “we would have liked to have given Israel notice of the resolution, and our part in that, but did not”)? Has unexpected pressure been exerted by Israel or supporters in New Zealand?

Because it is the kind of shift in position you might expect from a new, incoming government, attempting to delicately reposition foreign policy from that of the government it had supplanted – however this, a personnel change or two notwithstanding, is precisely the same government. As David Capie, director of the Centre for Strategic Studies at Victoria University put it: “Brownlee not prepared to defend UNSC 2234 resolution supported by the government six months ago. Extraordinary u-turn.”

The mixed messages – or, to put it less tamely, shambolic internal contradictions on one of the most enduring and important disputes in international affairs – simply cannot hold.

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