By Olivia Ireland and James Massola
Six former prime ministers have made an unprecedented intervention in the Israel-Hamas conflict, issuing a joint letter declaring “there is no more tenaciously evil race hatred than antisemitism” and warning that terrorist organisation Hamas wants to fuel ancient hatreds throughout the world.
In a public letter drafted by John Howard, Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard, Tony Abbott, Malcolm Turnbull and Scott Morrison, all six said that “no complaint or concern about international affairs justifies hate speech against any Australian, or any Australian community.
“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.”
“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. Our nation’s success depends on us not allowing conflict overseas to turn Australians against each other.”
The only living former prime minister not to sign the letter was Paul Keating.
The six former prime ministers condemned Hamas for the atrocities of the October 7 massacres, saying “they want Israel to invade and bomb Gaza” in a mission to promote hatred.
”If our hearts are filled with hatred, then we will be doing the terrorists’ work.”
Work on the letter began at the urging of former treasurer Josh Frydenberg, who contacted several former prime ministers.
Turnbull then wrote the first draft of the statement and coordinated contributions from Howard, Rudd, Gillard, Abbott and Morrison.
Rudd, who is Australia’s US ambassador and less free to offer his views, spoke in his capacity as a former prime minister and both Foreign Affairs Minister Penny Wong and her department were aware of his intentions.
The group endorsed the Australian government’s support for a two-state solution between Israel and Palestine, stating it would be “the basis for long-term lasting peace between the Israeli and Palestinian peoples”.
While the former prime ministers urged Israel to avoid civilian casualties “with all of its humanity and skill”, Wong told ABC Radio that it was critical that Israel listened to its friends in the international community.
“When Israel’s friends urge Israel to protect civilian life, as we have, it is critical that Israel listens. We are seeing continuing civilian deaths, which is, I think we saw in the United Nations vote, that the international community will not accept continuing civilian deaths,” she said in an interview recorded with the AM program before the letter was released.
Morrison told this masthead his government – which had controversially recognised West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital – had strongly supported the State of Israel, as well as a two-state solution “and I was very pleased to join with others to restate this position, which is commonly held by each of us”.
“It’s also very important to demonstrate our commitment to the Jewish community of Australia who I have long-term relationship. We wish to provide support to them and their families at this time.”
Abbott gave his old rival Turnbull rare praise for co-ordinating the letter and writing the first draft of the statement.
“Josh [Frydenberg] approached us all … Josh, as I understand it, had drafted a statement. Malcolm, I think quite suitably said ‘look if it’s going to come from all of the former prime ministers it should be drafted by one of us’ and Malcolm drafted the words,” Abbott told radio station 2GB, which like this masthead is owned by Nine Entertainment Co.
Abbott said he did not know why Keating declined to be a part of the letter, but pressed the importance of the joint letter as he described Hamas as a “death cult”, a term Abbott used regularly while prime minister to describe Islamic State.
“Israel does need to destroy Hamas as an organisation,” Abbott said.
“They do have to go into Gaza, they do have to find all these terrorist hiding spots. They do need to find the leadership and suitably deal with it and there is just no alternative.”
Morrison, Howard and Gillard are all recipients of the Jerusalem prize, which is awarded by the Zionist Federation of Australia, the Zionist Council of NSW and the World Zionist Organisation to an individual who has been exceptional in strengthening Australia-Israel relations.
Keating said in a statement he had been contacted by Mark Leibler – former president of the Zionist Federation – 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.
In response to the letter, the Zionist Federation of Australia praised the former prime ministers, saying they had sent a message to the world that “Australians understand what is right and what is wrong”.
President of the elected representative body of the Australian Jewish Community, Jeremy Leibler, said the joint statement “transcends politics” and the body was humbled and touched.
“This statement reinforces the longstanding bipartisan support of Israel from successive Australian governments,” Leibler said.
Victorian Labor MP Maria Vamvakinou, a long-time supporter of Palestine, said Australia’s political leaders needed to show greater understanding of Palestinians’ plight and the fact that “Gaza is suffering from cruel collective punishment”.
“To the extent that this letter seeks to address those concerns I welcome it but I also believe we are past the stage of just saying we support a two-state solution. People need to wake up to the fact that we are past that,” she said.
“Unless Palestinians are given self-determination and statehood this cycle of violence will never end.”
The Australia Palestine Advocacy Network released a statement that said the former prime ministers “have allowed themselves to be used as tool in a campaign by the pro-Israel lobby”.
“I’m most disturbed by the fact that six of our former prime ministers signed this statement knowing that it ignores Israel’s current and historical violations of international law,” the network’s president Nasser Mashni said.
The Executive Council of Australian Jewry co-chief executive Alex Ryvchin expressed support for the former prime ministers’ letter, describing it as a powerful rejection of the incitement to hatred and violence directed at the Australian Jewish community.
“The fact that our former prime ministers put aside ideological and political differences to stand united in rejecting terrorism and antisemitism is an example that all Australians should follow,” he said.
“This letter is a sober reminder of how fragile our multiculturalism is and how urgently antisemitism must be confronted.”