Australia’s election results are good news for the Israel-Australia relationship. Labor party incumbent Kevin Rudd, who held office for less than three months following a coup against former PM Julia Gillard, lost in a landslide, bringing an end to six years of Labor Government. Rudd is a political chameleon who abandoned Australia’s long-standing pro-Israel position when he previously served as Prime Minister from 2007 to 2010.
The victorious Tony Abbott of the center-right Liberal party is an outspoken friend of the Jewish State. He has pledged to improve relations with Israel, toughen the government’s approach toward terrorist organizations and end financial support for organizations connected to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Campaign against Israel.
These results therefore represent a sea change in Israel-Australia relations. Before assuming office in 2007, Prime Minister Rudd portrayed himself as a Christian Zionist. But in office, he launched a campaign to downgrade Australia’s relationship toward Israel. He reduced Australian support for Israel at the UN and adopted policies akin to those of hostile European countries.
Julia Gillard, who displaced him in 2010, made efforts to revive the friendly relations with Israel. But after Bob Carr was appointed as Foreign Minister in March 2012, the relationship again began to decline.
Carr, a former State Premier, was a founding member of the parliamentary Labor Friends of Israel and had previously been considered a friend of the Jewish community. However, in 2003, he awarded the Sydney Peace Prize to Palestinian propagandist Hannah Ashrawi, and since then has become increasingly critical, insisting that he understood better than Israelis what was in their best interest.
After visiting Israel in August 2012, Carr intensified the campaign to solicit support for Australia’s UN Security Council candidature by cozying up to Arab governments, even sending a delegation to Iran.
Distancing Australia was obviously crucial to win the Arab vote and he succeeded in compelling Prime Minister Gillard to reverse her decision to vote against accepting the Palestinian Authority as a member state at the UN General Assembly, stating: “I don’t apologize for the fact that Australia has interests in the Arab world. If we had voted no, that would have been a heavy blow to our interests in over 20 countries. The truth is they all see this as a bedrock issue.”
Foreign Minister Carr stunned the Australian Jewish community a few weeks ago when he told Moslems at a Sydney mosque, “I’ve been to Ramallah, I’ve spoken to the Palestinian leadership, and we support their aspirations to have a Palestinian state in the context of a Middle East peace…we say unequivocally, all settlements on Palestinian land are illegal under international law and should cease.”
Australia’s Jewish community leaders condemned the statement and the AIJAC, the Australian Jewish lobby equivalent of AIPAC, accused Carr of having “altered a long-standing bipartisan policy in Australia by repeatedly asserting a contentious and disputed legal claim…which…potentially undermines progress towards a negotiated two state resolution to the conflict.”
Australia’s long-standing friendship with Israel dates back to Australian troops serving in Palestine in both World Wars. From 1948 until recently, both the Labor and Liberal parties consistently allied themselves with the Jewish state (the only major aberration was Prime Minister Gough Whitlam’s hostility during the Yom Kippur War).
Both parties also supported broader Jewish concerns. In 1962, Australia became the first country in the world to raise the issue of Soviet Jewry at the UN, condemning anti-Semitism and calling for the right of Jews to emigrate. Successive governments made major global contributions towards ameliorating the plight of Soviet Jews. Australia was directly involved in efforts to rescind the infamous 1975 UN resolution that equated Zionism with racism. It also served as an intermediary for Jewish leaders seeking to promote diplomatic relations between Israel and Asian countries.
Australian Jewry, which numbers approximately 120,000, includes the highest proportion of Holocaust survivors of any diaspora community and is one of the most Zionist Jewish communities in the world. 15,000 Australians – more than 10% of the entire community – have made aliya and strengthen the relationship.
The “Lucky Country” enabled hard working Jewish immigrants, many of whom were penniless Holocaust survivors, to prosper. Whilst a Jewish underclass exists, a number emerged to become the leading commercial and industrial giants in the nation, many of whom were appointed to prominent roles in public life including two Governor Generals. The immigrants created a thriving Jewish cultural and religious community establishing a broad range of Jewish day schools ranging from Chabad to Reform.
Community leaders are united and do not hesitate to confront their government when they consider it biased or guilty of applying a double standard against Israel. The community can take much of the credit for its country’s historic support for Israel.
Traditionally, most Jews tended to support Labor rather than the Liberal party which was originally perceived as being aloof towards Jews and even anti-Semitic. However this has changed in recent years and Jews are more inclined to direct their support according to individual economic and social predilections.
This week’s election is a case in point. Even though Israel was not a major electoral issue, it is believed that because of the government’s hostility toward Israel, Australian Jewish voters went even further than the general public in expressing a broad lack of confidence in Prime Minister Rudd and the Labor leadership.
The community came out strongly for the Liberal party and Tony Abbott, who has been Leader of the Opposition in the House of Representatives since 2009. Abbott has been a passionate friend of Israel since his first visit to the country as a young man and subsequently as an MP prior to being elected leader of the party. He is a protégé of former Prime Minister John Howard, recognized as having been one of Israel’s greatest champions amongst world statesmen. It is anticipated that the new government headed by Abbot will foster robust support for Israel on par with that of Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
It is also ironical that, whereas the former Labor Government abandoned Israel in order to procure Arab support for its candidature to the UN Security Council, the Arabs will have effectively guaranteed the appointment of what will in all likelihood be the most pro-Israel government on the Council.
The Australian Jewish community leaders now face the challenge of restoring Australia’s bi-partisan policy towards Israel. Jewish organizations, particularly AIJAC, must focus their efforts on restoring ties with Labor leaders. Despite the powerful influence of 500,000 Moslems in a number of key electorates, most Labor MPs retain positive attitudes the Jewish state and the prospects for restoring Labor’s commitment to Israel are good.
The writer may be contacted at [email protected]
This column was originally published in the Jerusalem Post and Israel Hayom