By Andrew Clark
“No, it doesn’t change things,” Foreign Minister Bob Carr told the Weekend Financial Review after he led a revolt against Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s insistence that Australia vote against upgrading the status of Palestinians at the UN.
“Australia is, and always will be, a friend of Israel. They have their own democracy. They have a system that enables them to throw out prime ministers and ruling parties. They have the rule of law and their Supreme Court can overrule the government of the day on difficult issues.”
However, “good friends speak the truth to one another and, as a friend of Israel, we have a duty to highlight our concern about the settlement activity which is illegal under international law.”
Carr’s pro-Israel credentials date back to his formation of the Labor Friends of Israel group in 1977 which, along with one-time Labor prime minister Bob Hawke and prominent Liberals, maintained close relations with powerful members of the Jewish lobby such as businessmen Frank Lowy , Jack Liberman and the late Peter Abeles and lawyer Mark Leibler .
But at the end of the week it was Carr and Hawke, with former Labor foreign minister Gareth Evans , who played such an effective role in lobbying caucus against taking a stand at the UN opposed to an upgraded Palestinian status.
Carr et al were responding to recent events concerning the Middle East conflict. Locally, these events have made headlines. But they have also become partial editorial road-kill due to the opposition‘s headline-grabbing race to link Gillard to illegal actions in helping set up a union-connected slush fund in the early ‘90s.
The first, unreported, event was a large social gathering in Sydney, where a group of prominent Maronite-Catholic Australians of Lebanese origin heavily lobbied members of cabinet to vote in favour of a UN resolution upgrading the Palestinian authority to “non-member state” status. The loud, vehement nature of their pro-Palestinian advocacy represented, among other things, a crude wake-up call to Labor politicians that there was now a complex mix of lobbying pressures in Australia related to the Middle East conflict.
The UN vote in New York on Friday morning Australian time was carried by 138 votes to nine, with 41 countries, including Australia, abstaining. This new “non-member” status at the UN might make it easier for the Palestinians to pursue Israel in legal forums like the International Criminal Court.
Palestinians view the vote as a symbolic endorsement for their cause. A growing group of Palestine supporters in Australia, including Australian Muslims, would have regarded any Australian “no” vote as one which effectively meant continued support for the expansion of Israeli settlements in the occupied territories.
A mark of the increasing sophistication of the local pro-Palestine-state lobbying effort is reflected in the fact that Ross Burns, a former Australian ambassador to Israel, appears at public events on behalf of the Australia Palestine Advocacy Network.
“No one should doubt Australia’s commitment [to Israel]”, Burns says, “but Gillard is taking it all too literally by agreeing with everything [current Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu wants.
“This is a very significant development in terms of the debate in Australia,” Burns says, due to the manner in which a hotly contested issue “has come out in favour of the Palestinians,” although Australia formally abstained in the vote.
Neither party in this conflict likes to dwell on simple statistics. But Burns’s comments also go to the fact that there are about five times as many Muslims in Australia as there are Jews, who number about 100,000. While nearly two-thirds of Australia’s Jewish population lives in Melbourne, the proportion of Muslims in Sydney is equally concentrated, where they enjoy significant electoral clout in federal seats in the city’s western suburbs like Werriwa and Blaxland.
Peter Manning, author of the book Us and Them: Media, Muslims and the Middle East, detects a move away from strong local public support for Israel in the ‘60s, ‘70s and early ‘80s, partly a result of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, quarantining of the Gaza Strip, and increased Israeli settlement of the occupied territories. According to Manning in 2007, after the Israel-Hezbollah war in Lebanon 68 per cent of those taking part in a poll had a negative view of Israel but two years later, after an Israeli invasion of Gaza, a more equal 24 per cent sympathised with Israel, 28 per cent with the Palestinians and 26 per cent with neither.
In 2010, according to Manning, another poll showed 55 per cent described the conflict as “Palestinians trying to end Israel’s occupation” while 32 per cent preferred “Israelis fighting for security against Palestinian terrorism’’. Last year, yet another poll showed sympathies were almost evenly divided, but 63 per cent were against settlers building on occupied land and 51 per cent thought we should vote ‘‘yes’’ for Palestinian statehood, compared to 15 per and 20 per cent “abstain’’.
For other reasons Friday’s UN vote resonates with those interested in post-war Australian history. It marked the 65th anniversary of an early UN General Assembly vote, with a strong role played by then Australian external affairs minister H.V. Evatt to divide Palestine into Jewish and Arab states.
At first blush, Australia does not even have bit-part status in international attempts to solve one of the world’s most intractable conflicts. But this sits awkwardly with the local tussle over our UN vote, Australia’s long history of involvement with Israel and, before that, the region known as Palestine.
Meanwhile, Julia Gillard last week sought to reassure the Jewish lobby with strong words of support in Parliament. However, such is the feeling about the Middle East that some senior ALP figures privately speculate that Gillard’s leadership might have been in jeopardy if she had not backed down on the Palestinian status at the UN issue.
Gillard wanted Australia to join the US, Israel, Canada and some small Pacific states in voting “no” to the Palestinian authority being granted “non-member” status at the UN but faced overwhelming resistance from Carr, at least nine other cabinet members, and Left and Right members of caucus.
The entrenched quality of Gillard’s position was, according to Leibler – national chairman of the Australia-Israel Jewish Affairs Council – “an instinctive reaction when the [Hamas-launched] rockets [from Gaza] were landing specifically in civilian areas in Israel. This is unacceptable and you have a right to defend yourself.”
“Julia Gillard has understood the reality and has understood it from day one. She’s been less concerned about the company we keep, as distinct from doing the right thing in the circumstances.” Gillard has a long history of close connections with prominent figures who have close connections with Israel.
Albert Dadon, who runs the Australia-Israel Leadership Forum, which has annual meetings alternating in each country, included Gillard in his first group to Israel and, more controversially, employed her partner, Tim Mathieson, as a consultant before she became Prime Minister.
Leibler is more blunt: “Do we look at what other countries are doing and fit in or do we do the right thing?
“This PM has always been far more supportive of us than Bob Hawke. When Gareth Evans was foreign minister I was president of the Zionist Federation of Australia and even at that stage we had substantial issues with him.”
But “I don’t think one can draw conclusions about the Labor Party as a whole from this one vote. It’s not for me to comment on internal Labor party matters but there were a variety of factors at play, not all of them directly relevant to the issue on which the vote was taken.”
Friday’s UN vote “does have significance in the sense that this is an attempt by the Palestinians to achieve through unilateral means in breach of the Oslo accords something which will only be attained by direct negotiations,” Leibler said.
Meanwhile, the fight to achieve Doc Evatt’s cherished two-state solution goes on.