Ceasefire politics

datePosted on 15:24, January 7th, 2009 by Pablo

The Minister of Foreign Affairs has finally come around and called for a ceasefire in Gaza. One wonders why he did not do so at the outbreak of hostilities three weeks ago. After all, a principled position against armed conflict would have advised for an early rather than late demand for a cessation of both the Hamas rocket attacks and the Israeli air campaign in response. Be that as it may, the belated call for a ceasefire puts NZ in line with the UN position as well as that of the Labour Party (which called for a ceasefire over a week ago), and was driven by the targeting by IDF armour of UN facilities where Hamas fighters sought shelter. Since the NZ is a vocal supporter of UN humanitarian missions, such attacks were bound to cause alarm within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, especially since the IDF has a track record of targeting UN sites when they are occupied by enemy combatants (remember the IDF bombing of the UN observer post in Southern Lebanon in 2006, which resulted in the deaths of foreign peacekeepers). In addition, local opposition to the incursion into Gaza made the issue politically problematic for National so long as it held to its neutral stance (and silence) on the conflict. Since most of the fire is directed by the IDF against Hamas, a call for a ceasefire on both sides is effectively a call for Israel to halt (at least) its ground operations. That brings National belatedly in line with Labour on the issue.

All of this indicates that there might have been a struggle between the career foreign affairs bureaucracy and their new political masters on how to respond, something only resolved when UN facilities came under fire (which made it diplomatically untenable for National to continue with its “neutral” stance). Sometimes fence-sitting on sharp matters of diplomatic policy can turn into a painful political lesson at home and abroad, so the call for a ceasefire by Minister McCully is as much about the National government saving face in both arenas as it is about its real view of the conflict. Looks like the learning curve is going to be steep…

3 Responses to “Ceasefire politics”

  1. Anita on January 7th, 2009 at 17:09

    All of this indicates that there might have been a struggle between the career foreign affairs bureaucracy and their new political masters on how to respond

    Do you mean that MFAT wanted to come out more staunchly and earlier against fighting, but National didn’t?

    And, if so, why would National not have wanted to say something? I would have thought there were plenty of ways of publicly responding to the bombing/invasion without sounding like you were supporting Hamas.

  2. Pablo on January 7th, 2009 at 17:23

    Anita: Obviously I have no certain information about how MFAT reacted or whether there was a disconnect between McCully and the professional foreign affairs staff. But I will note that NZ’s traditional (principled) position is to call for ceasefires early when the origins of conflict are in dispute and civilians are in danger. That was Labour’s stance in this instance. But National appears to have demurred on making the call until the US did (which it did today at the UN Security Council), whereupon the UN was able to pass a resolution in the Security Council doing the same (since the US was opposed to any such resolution until today). One can speculate as to the reasons why NZ changed its stance coincident with the US change of position, but it has the cover of the UN resolution as its justification. To my mind this is more about political posturing than adhering to NZ’s customary approach to asymmetric conflicts such as this one.

  3. Lew on January 7th, 2009 at 18:50

    Pablo: National appears to have demurred on making the call until the US did

    The same sort of `reflexively pro-US’ policy upon which you remarked in your previous post on the matter.

    L

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