A timely intervention by former prime ministers over Middle East crisis

Oct 31, 2023

The Sydney Morning Herald

“The Australia Palestine Advocacy Network president, Nasser Mashni, accused the prime ministers of failing in their duty by not echoing the United Nations’ call for an immediate ceasefire,” writes Bevan Shields.

By Bevan Shields

Unlike old soldiers, retired politicians rarely fade away but when six former prime ministers put aside past differences to speak as one on the deteriorating situation in the Middle East, they surely demand our attention.

The six – John Howard, Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard, Tony Abbott, Malcolm Turnbull and Scott Morrison – declared support for both the Jewish and Palestinian communities in Australia and warned against allowing the conflict between Israel and Hamas to stoke division here. Their letter called for an end to antisemitic hate speech and endorsed a two-state solution as the basis for long-term lasting peace between the Israeli and Palestinian peoples.

“We believe we speak for the vast majority of Australians, of all faiths and of none, when we say we stand in solidarity with Jewish Australians at this time,” the former prime ministers said. “Likewise, we stand, too, with the Australian Palestinian community, whose families are dying and suffering in this terrible conflict. They, too, deserve our love and support.”

As the killings, kidnappings, bombings and propaganda fuel fears that the Middle East may ignite into wider conflict, our most senior retired politicians have chosen a united voice to remind Australians that, at the worst of times, a nation’s best defence is social cohesion.

Predictably, their message did not please everyone. The Australia Palestine Advocacy Network president, Nasser Mashni, accused the prime ministers of failing in their duty by not echoing the United Nations’ call for an immediate ceasefire. But on Tuesday, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese endorsed Israel’s right to defend itself, while also expressing concern for Gaza civilians.

Labor’s Paul Keating was the only former prime minister not sign the letter. Keating said in a statement he had been contacted last week by Mark Leibler, a prominent Australian Jewish leader and businessman, proposing the joint statement, but declined to be involved. “I told Leibler in a written message that I would not be agreeing to join other former prime ministers in authorising the statement. That remains my position,” he said.

Keating’s decision to go his own way received wide media coverage and unfortunately blurred some of the message his fellow ex-prime ministers intended to focus upon. But Morrison said he was not disappointed at the stand taken by one of his predecessors.

He said it was a free country and not everyone had to sign up to the letter. “Paul has every right to express his view as he wants to,” Morrison said in London. “This wasn’t a caucus, it was an invitation to be involved, and he didn’t wish to do that for his reasons, well, I respect that.”

But Keating’s refusal to take part in no way dilutes the potency of the prime ministers’ joint letter.

Perhaps the most important aspect of the letter was its condemnation of the terror group Hamas and its sinister motives. “The Hamas terrorists have no more interest in the safety of Palestinians than they do of Israelis,” the former leaders wrote. “They want Israel to invade and bomb Gaza. They want to be able to point to thousands of Palestinian casualties from Israeli military action.

“Their mission is to promote hatred – hatred of Israelis, hatred of Jews, hatred of Palestinians, hatred of Muslims. If our hearts are filled with hatred, then we will be doing the terrorists’ work.” The Herald strongly agrees.

The former prime ministers’ public letter is not only unprecedented, but sets exactly the right tone in reminding the nation of the urgent need for a sense of community and solidarity in such dangerous and frightening times.

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