By Deborah Snow
In early 1984 I was one of a party of journalists that travelled with then Labor foreign minister Bill Hayden through the Middle East. A reminder of that trip surfaced last weekend – only a few days after Hayden’s death – when I found an old report filed by telex (the only technology then available) from Damascus, outlining Hayden’s hopes and fears for the stalling Middle East peace process.
In summary, I’d reported, he’d set off with mild optimism, but was returning with his hopes “severely dented”. (Australia then had – and continues to have – a small contingent posted to a multinational peacekeeping force in the Sinai.)
Hayden was an activist foreign minister who sought out key players in Syria, Jordan, Israel and Egypt believing that an Australian perspective brought something useful to the table. In the decades since, many of the most significant figures have come and gone, and the pieces shuffled about many times.
But the sequence of events triggered by Hamas’ barbaric October 7 attacks on Israeli civilians including infants and the elderly, and subsequent carnage in Gaza as a result of Israel’s military response, is setting a new test for Labor in government.
For the federal opposition, coordinating a reaction to the outrage triggered by the Hamas terror attacks has been relatively straightforward.
The pro-Israeli view has a pronounced upper hand among Coalition MPs – strengthened in recent years by the actions of Scott Morrison who delighted the Netanyahu government with a decision (since reversed by the Albanese government) to recognise West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
But inside Labor, calibrating a unified response to the growing conflagration is proving more fraught.
Tensions between those whose sympathies align more with the Palestinian side, and those who remain staunchly supportive of the Jewish state, are bubbling to the surface.
Rival networks of influence are working overtime through two groups in the federal parliament, the parliamentary friends of Palestine and the parliamentary friends of Israel. (The conveners of these groups are public, but their memberships are confidential.)
Historically, pro-Israeli, pro-Zionist sentiment on the Middle East had more traction inside Labor than it does today.
“Over the last 10 years there’s been a shift,” observes former Victorian Labor MP Michael Danby, one of the staunchest champions Israel has had inside the party.
“Previously the Left [faction] were never given positions like prime minister or foreign minister … Today’s ministers are practical and pragmatic, and say the right thing, but the Jewish community notices a deal less passion [for the Israeli cause] … They wish Albo and Penny were a bit more reassuring.”
Former Labor foreign minister and onetime head of the International Crisis Group, Gareth Evans, who earlier this year addressed the federal ALP caucus in support of formal recognition of Palestinian statehood, sees it differently.
Even Bob Hawke, once one of Israel’s strongest supporters, ended up believing that “you can’t be Jewish, democratic and have the whole of Judea and Samaria [the biblical names for the West Bank],” Evans says.
“The mainstream sentiment of the party is where Penny Wong’s head is at, where Albo’s head is at, I think it’s still pretty even-handed,” Evans adds. “But it’s also much more complicated politically now because such a significant proportion of the Labor constituencies in key places are bringing a pro-Palestinian perspective.”
A senior government member worries that there’s a “a real Sydney/Melbourne thing going on too – our Sydney people [MP’s] largely represent Arab seats and our Melbourne people largely representing Jewish communities”.
That oversimplifies the party’s geopolitical divide. It’s correct that in south-west Sydney the Muslim population comprises a significant proportion of votes in some key seats – on ABS figures, around 25 per cent in the electorate of Watson, 32 per cent in Blaxland and 14 per cent in McMahon (held respectively by federal ministers Tony Burke, Jason Clare and Chris Bowen).
And traditionally, the right-wing of the party in Victoria has been a bastion of support for Israel. However, the parliamentary friends of Palestine is co-chaired by Maria Vamvakinou, the member for Calwell – an ethnically diverse electorate in Melbourne’s north-west.
She clashed on October 19 with the Coalition’s Luke Howarth after he’d called for the disbandment of the friends of Palestine group. Vamvakinou pointed out that her group’s co-founders included Prime Minister Anthony Albanese along with onetime Liberal treasurer, Joe Hockey, and that it would neither be “disbanded … or gagged”.
And it was the Victorian branch of the party that passed a motion in June demanding the Albanese government recognise Palestinian statehood in the current term. The demand to hasten recognition was headed off at the party’s national conference in August after intensive backroom horse-trading.
The Australian Jewish News later quoted federal MP Josh Burns (also from Melbourne) as saying that the outcome was “an important [one] that was achieved through hard work and the efforts of many friends of the Jewish community inside the ALP”.
Albanese and Foreign Minister Penny Wong seek to tread a narrow path, with carefully chosen words that express outrage and horror at the Hamas terror attacks, while signalling distress at the mounting civilian toll in Gaza.
The prime minister made the striking point in his initial response to Hamas’ atrocities that “Australia has the largest per capita Holocaust survivor population outside Israel”.
But the Muslim and Arabic-speaking communities, which mostly arrived in later immigration waves than the post-war Jewish emigres, are also closely parsing each word from Albanese and Wong.
On Thursday, Wong sharpened her message on the Gaza death toll, telling ABC radio that “the reality is the international community won’t accept ongoing civilian deaths … when friends like Australia urge Israel to exercise restraint, and protect civilian lives, it is really critical that Israel listens”.
Some of her ministerial colleagues with large Muslim constituencies have been much more direct. Industry Minister Ed Husic, and Minister for Early Childhood Education Anne Aly (both Muslim MPs) have talked of Gazans being “collectively punished” by Israel – a phrase that could denote war crimes.
Tony Burke, the most senior cabinet member to break ranks with Wong’s carefully formulated diplomatic language, unleased a storm of protest in Jewish circles when, in an ABC radio interview, he did not clearly reject the term “genocide” as a descriptor of the firestorm currently being unleashed on Gaza, saying listeners could “find their own words”.
Lynda Voltz, a member of the NSW parliamentary friends of Palestine, whose electorate of Auburn in Sydney is also home to a substantial Arabic-speaking community, told this masthead that “there has been so much stress in our community”.
“First our area got hit with COVID, we got hit with the fall of Kabul, we get hit with Ukraine – we have all these big communities, and now we get this. You need to understand how grief-stricken our people are,” Voltz said.
The battle for hearts and minds has also been playing out between advocacy groups, which have split over Australia’s decision to abstain from a United Nations vote calling for a humanitarian truce in Gaza.
Melbourne-based Zionist Federation of Australia and the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council wanted Canberra to oppose it outright, while the Australia Palestine Advocacy Network and the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils say the government should have supported it.
Six of Australia’s former prime ministers (excluding Paul Keating) stepped into the war of words, seeking to calm the debate, but appear to have inadvertently inflamed it. The six penned a lengthy statement, which ended by calling on Australians to “treat each other with love and respect”.
But while it was welcomed by Jewish advocates, it was slammed by the federation of Islamic councils, which said the statement showed “obvious bias” towards the “Zionist lobby in Australia”.
Its statement continued: “In an astonishing show of collective amnesia, they [the ex PMs] have ignored 17 years of illegal occupation and the clear and continuous human rights violations that preceded the October 7 attacks.”
Some Islamic community leaders feel let down by Albanese, having rallied to the cause of the Voice during a visit he made to Sydney’s Lakemba mosque on October 6. They feel they’ve been cold-shouldered since the October 7 attacks.
Conversely, inside some sections of the Jewish community there’s been a degree of trepidation about where Labor’s heart lies.
Walt Secord, director of public affairs at the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council, said there had been “an apprehension that Labor was starting to drift away from Israel over the last decade, but the recent terrorist attacks from Gaza and their barbarity seem to have halted that”.
Secord said there had been “genuine relief at … the support and solidarity” from Albanese and NSW Premier Chris Minns.
Evans, who as Crisis Group head was deeply involved in negotiations in the region, condemns as “indefensible” Hamas’ brutality on October 7. But he says “totally legitimate Palestinian grievances and demands” must be accommodated if there’s to be a lasting solution.
“When people lose hope they despair, when they despair, that too often tuns to rage, and rage turns to outrage … that’s the dilemma.”