By Matthew Knott
Elated would be too strong a word. But Nasser Mashni, the vice-president of the Australia Palestine Advocacy Network, has been heartened by three moves the Albanese government has taken in its short time in office to shift Australia’s position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The first two received barely any attention; the third caused an almighty conflagration this week.
In June, Australia declined to sign up to a US-led statement on Israel and the Palestinian territories at the United Nations, signalling a more independent stance from the new government.
In September, Foreign Minister Penny Wong announced Australia would double Australia’s contribution to the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) from $10 million to $20 million. Australian Jewish groups criticised the move, saying the agency was riddled with corruption and promoted hatred of Israel.
“Australia remains a strong supporter of a two-state solution, in which Israel and a future Palestinian state coexist, in peace and security, within internationally recognised borders,” Wong said at the time. “Viewing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from one perspective will not achieve that goal.”
Then, on Tuesday, the government announced it would no longer recognise West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Labor had vowed in 2018 to reverse the Morrison government’s decision to recognise West Jerusalem, but the issue had received little attention since. Neither pro-Israeli nor pro-Palestinian groups thought it was high on the government’s agenda.
“I thought it would happen at some point but didn’t know it would happen this week,” says Mashni, whose father was a Palestinian refugee. “I’m certainly glad that it happened but I’m disappointed by all the hullabaloo about the announcement. I think it was all about scaring the Labor Party from doing something more substantive.”
Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid, who faces an election in two weeks, blasted the government for its “hasty” decision, saying “we can only hope that the Australian government manages other matters more seriously and professionally”. Australia’s ambassador to Israel was hauled in for a reprimand.
Israeli media reported that their government was playing a long game in its response, lashing out over West Jerusalem in an attempt to prevent the Albanese government from recognising Palestinian statehood.
“This is the reason we reacted so strongly and we are sure that got the message across,” an Israeli official told the Walla news site.
A former senior Israeli diplomat told news site Ynet that stopping Australia from recognising Palestine was a top concern for Israel.
“We took a hit from the Australians [on West Jerusalem] but this is much less than the recognition of a Palestinian state,” the former diplomat said. “One can only hope that’s not where this is going.”
Mashni and his fellow pro-Palestinian activists hope that is exactly where the government is heading. “We look forward to the Labor Party honouring its commitment at two previous national conferences to recognise the state of Palestine,” he says.
Asked if he thinks the government will follow through, he insists: “It is a given. The Prime Minister and the Labor Party have spoken about the need to honour promises and the promise was to recognise Palestine.”
If the government was to recognise Palestinian statehood it would represent a significant break from Australia’s closest international allies and intensify divisions within Labor over Israel and Palestine.
Currently, 138 of the United Nations’ 193 member states recognise Palestine as a state – a list that includes almost every country in Africa, South America and Asia.
Australia is among the countries that do not, alongside the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Japan, New Zealand and others.
A Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade spokesperson said: “Australia does not recognise a state of Palestine. We continue to call on all sides to resume negotiations towards a just and enduring two-state solution.”
At Labor’s 2018 national conference, the party passed a motion calling on the next Labor government to recognise Palestine as a state. At its national conference last year Labor incorporated the resolution into its official platform, saying the party “expects this issue will be an important priority for the next Labor government”.
The resolution was introduced by Penny Wong, a leader in Labor’s left faction who is now the foreign minister. It was seconded by Tony Burke, a leading figure in the NSW right who is one of Labor’s strongest advocates for Palestine.
“The issue changed. It was no longer what you thought of Israel but what you thought of a drawn-out Israeli occupation in the West Bank.”
Former foreign minister Bob Carr on why he withdrew his support for Israel
Views on Israel and Palestine used to run largely along factional lines within Labor, with the right more disposed to Israel and the left favouring Palestine.
That divide has broken down over recent years, especially in the NSW right. The change is embodied by the shifting stance of former NSW premier Bob Carr, who helped establish Labor Friends of Israel in the 1970s but is now one of Labor’s most trenchant Israel critics.
“Israel had a Labor government, Israel seemed shaped by social democracy,” Carr says of his initial support. “Over the years the issue changed. It was no longer what you thought of Israel but what you thought of a drawn-out Israeli occupation in the West Bank by an increasingly nationalistic, right-wing government.”
Carr adds it is also a “fact of life” that many Labor MPs in western Sydney represent electorates with large numbers of voters with Middle Eastern backgrounds and pro-Palestinian views.
In 2012 Carr and fellow members of the NSW right led a cabinet revolt against Julia Gillard, forcing her to abandon a push to vote against granting the Palestinian Territories a seat at the United Nations. Australia ultimately abstained from the vote.
Labor’s pro-Israel forces are now concentrated within the Victorian right, in a grouping associated with Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus, Melbourne MP Josh Burns and former MP Michael Danby.
Dreyfus said after the party’s 2021 national conference that “Labor has not committed to recognising a Palestinian state” and that a future government would have the flexibility to formulate its own decisions.
The party platform is not binding on the parliamentary party, and any decision on statehood would ultimately be a matter for cabinet.
Executive Council of Australian Jewry co-chief executive Alex Ryvchin says recognising Palestine would “merely be an act of symbolism and another attack on Israel that would not materially improve Palestinians’ lives”.
“Just as Jerusalem is the capital of Israel, the Palestinian Territories do not meet the requirements for statehood,” he says. “They would be recognising a false reality.”
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese is a longtime supporter of Palestinian rights, and has regularly criticised Israel’s behaviour in the occupied territories during his parliamentary career.
He has also been a vocal opponent of the boycott, divestment and sactions (BDS) movement against Israel.
In a Zoom event with the Jewish community last year, Albanese said Labor would move carefully on the issue of recognising Palestine as a state.
“We wouldn’t take any action without consulting relevant organisations and nations, across the board, including the Jewish community, including Israel and the Palestinian community,” he said.
Some pro-Palestine advocates plan to ramp up lobbying on statehood in the latter half of next year, following state elections in Victoria and NSW.
Others believe any decision will be a matter for a second Albanese term, especially following the Israeli backlash to this week’s decision on West Jerusalem.