Inside the territory of Palestine lives a resilient, primarily Muslim population of about four million, encircled by a hostile neighbour.
Some 21 hours’ flying time away is another resilient, highly atheist population of about four million, encircled by water.
Aside from their relative isolation, population sizes and reputation for fortitude, not much else unifies these two lands.
Palestine is one of the oldest inhabited territories in the world, while the far-flung archipelago of New Zealand is one of the youngest; Palestine is just over 6000 square kilometres, while New Zealand takes up more than 268,000 sq km.
So the Antipodean country seems a somewhat unlikely hero for the Palestinian people.
But the quirks of diplomacy mean the former British colony could offer a lifeline to the former British protectorate in its quest for statehood.
New Zealand has opened the start of their third term on the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) – their first in 21 years – with fighting words.
“New Zealand believes that failure of this U.N. Security Council to bring leadership to the [Israel-Palestine] issue, at this time, amounts to an abdication of its responsibilities,” the country’s U.N. Ambassador Jim McLay said on Jan. 15.
“Arguments that this Council doesn’t have a role, or that it can’t add value, can no longer be justified, particularly as other ways to find a solution haven’t succeeded.”
Experts tell Al Arabiya News that McLay’s remarks reflect New Zealand’s intention to be instrumental in the peace process and drive renewed efforts at a two-state solution.
In the final days of last year, the Security Council rejected a proposal by Jordan that would have fast-tracked a full Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and East Jerusalem by 2017.
However, the Palestinians fell one vote short of the necessary nine, which would have triggered a U.S. veto.
The United States and Australia rejected the proposal, while the UK, Lithuania, Nigeria, South Korea and Rwanda abstained.
Regardless, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas almost immediately insisted the resolution still had life because of a new term of 10 non-permanent Security Council members.
“We didn’t fail. The U.N. Security Council failed us. We’ll go again to the Security Council. Why not?” he said shortly after the failed vote.
Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki said he had “received assurances from the new members…that they would support the Palestinian demand to end the occupation,” U.S. Jewish news website Algemeiner Journal reported.
Reasons for hope
Why would New Zealand, to quote its parlance, give a ‘crikey dick’ about Palestinian self-determination?
There are several reasons, says Wellington’s Victoria University strategic studies professor Robert Ayson.
New Zealand likes to mark its identity through at-times politically unconventional stances. It was the first country to give women the vote in 1893, and has maintained a nuclear-free policy since 1984. New Zealand withstood political pressure and did not send troops to invade Iraq in 2003.
“Countries don’t take New Zealand lightly. We may not have a very big economy or defense force, but we carry a certain amount of moral authority,” said Ayson.
The country also has a proud history of activism, with violent anti-apartheid protests during a South African rugby tour in 1981, and anti-nuclear fervor in 1985 after two French spies bombed a Greenpeace ship in Auckland Harbour, killing a photographer.
The Palestinian issue is less about the will of the public, and more about New Zealand announcing its reemergence on the world stage, Ayson says.
“I don’t think it’s because there’s a massive groundswell. Israel-Palestine isn’t a big public issue. This is an issue New Zealand can [take up] without too many costs.”
Opposing Washington over Palestine comes with minimal political risk as other Western allies, such as France, are doing likewise, Ayson added.
He says McLay’s address signals that New Zealand is “coming good” on its promises to demand global action, particularly in relation to Palestine and Syria.
“I think this is a message to Washington from New Zealand that we think you need to allow the Security Council… a wider approach, not just U.S.-supported negotiations,” said Ayson.
In 2013, McLay directly referenced his country’s independent stance on Palestine as a reason it deserved to have a seat at what is often called the world’s most powerful table.
Breaking with the United States, the UK, Canada and Australia, “we were… the only one... to vote for the U.N. resolution recognizing Palestine as a U.N. non-member observer state” in 2012, the New Zealand Herald quoted McLay as saying.
However, some of the country’s long-standing supporters of the Palestinians feel that the government’s current position does not go far enough, and that it may just be lip service.
The New Zealand Palestinian Human Rights Committee (PHRC) has been agitating for change since 1982, organizing monthly rallies in Auckland and sending out a daily newsletter on the Palestinian cause.
PHRC newsletter editor Leslie Bravery says McLay was too “even-handed” in his Security Council address, equating losses suffered by Palestine to those suffered by Israel.
“New Zealand should step away from the hypocrisy of abandoning the defenseless Palestinian people to ‘negotiate’ their freedom and honestly recognize the immense imbalance of power here.”
Bravery laments the lack of interest in the general population: “The sad truth is that unlike Australia and the UK, the plight of Palestine is almost a non-issue. There’s hardly any reporting or discussion here on the subject. There’s no controversy, no heated debate.”
However, longstanding PHRC member Janfrie Wakim says public sympathy has grown since the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 2006.
“More and more young people are travelling. There’s increased immigration from Middle Eastern countries that adds to local knowledge and activism.
“The internet is bypassing traditional forms of information exchange. We have more international speakers, and the boycott of Israel really resonates... because of the anti-apartheid struggle.”
Bravery says New Zealand “could have an electrifying effect at the Security Council that would receive tremendous grassroots support from around the world.
“Public opinion would at last be heard at the forum most capable of defending human rights and the rule of international law.”