SYDNEY – Israel is backing Australia’s bid for a temporary seat on the United Nations Security Council later this month, despite allegations that Canberra’s campaign caters to Arab countries and has cost Jerusalem some of its traditional Australian support in the international assembly.

Israel’s ambassador to Australia, Yuval Rotem, confirmed to Haaretz that its UN envoy will support Canberra’s candidacy for the 2013-2014 term.

“We will vote for Australia,” Rotem said. “Australia’s election to the Security Council will be very promising news to all like-minded countries that appreciate [Australia’s] agenda, Israel included.”

Although Australia has long supported Israel, he admits the country “has changed its position on various resolutions related to the Middle East.”

“Like friends, from time to time there have been differences of opinion, but these are usually worked out via diplomatic channels,” Rotem said.

Australia is competing against Finland and Luxembourg for one of two temporary seats reserved for Western European countries. Voting will take place by a secret ballot of all UN members on October 18.

Strained relations

Canberra’s bid for a Security Council seat has strained relations with the leadership of the Australian Jewish community, most recently over Foreign Minister Bob Carr’s decision to send two senior delegates to last month’s Non-Aligned Movement summit in Tehran.

Danny Lamm, president of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, blasted the government for legitimizing “a political ideology that is corrupted to the core with anti-Semitism.”

Philip Chester, president of the Zionist Federation of Australia, agreed, saying it was “inevitable” that Australia’s representatives would be “exploited as lending legitimacy to Ahmadinejad and Iran.”

Carr tried to pacify them by ordering the delegates to be “the first to walk out” at any signs of “anti-Semitic or anti-Israel rhetoric.”

But the Australians opted not to attend Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s tirade against “the blood-thirsty Zionist wolves,” prompting the Australian Jewish Newsto editorialize that it was “one of the greatest diplomatic cop-outs in recent memory.”

Australia’s late bid for a Security Council seat was launched by former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd soon after he won power in 2007. Since then his Labor party has switched Australia’s vote on key UN Israel-related resolutions, such as voting with the majority of the world in calling on Israel to abide by the Geneva Convention in the occupied territories.

During the previous 11-year reign of the Liberal Government, Israel received virtual wall-to-wall support from Australia at the UN.

"More sympathetic than Britain"

Jewish leaders this week refused to be drawn in to the assertion that Canberra’s bid to woo Arab countries was behind the change in its UN voting pattern on Israel.

However, Michael Danby, a Jewish legislator for the governing Labor Party, acknowledged support for Israel had been sacrificed “to a minor extent.”

“The government’s foreign policy is much wider than votes at the UN,” he clarified. “Its Middle East policy is much wider than votes at the UN.” He pointed to sanctions against Iran and Australia’s stance on Syria as examples.

Danby, chair of the Foreign Affairs, Defense & Trade Committee, confessed he’d had “some minor differences” with the government over Israel but stressed Prime Minister Julia Gillard “hasn’t wobbled” on defending Israel’s right to exist and the importance of a Palestinian state.

“We’re certainly more sympathetic than Britain. You won’t find our prime minister going to Gaza and saying it’s like an open-air prison,” Danby said in reference to David Cameron’s 2010 remark.

“If Australia is elected to the Security Council it will be a good thing because Australia will have a moderating influence in all discussions in international affairs including the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians,” Danby said.

Canada’s failure to win a Security Council seat in 2010 was widely blamed on Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s unqualified support for Israel.

“I understand the Canadians piqued at not getting it,” Danby said, “but Australia is adopting a sympathetic policy and is staying in the game.”

The current government is “arguably the most pro-Israel Labor government ever in this country,” Philip Mendes, a Melbourne-based Jewish academic and co-editor of “Jews & Australian Politics,” told Haaretz, “and almost certainly the most pro-Israel social democratic government anywhere.”

“I have no doubt that should Australia secure a seat at the Security Council, it will provide a positive voice in support of Israel and a two-state solution,” Mendes added. 

But he said tensions exist between Canberra and Jerusalem because the Netanyahu government “expresses support for two states in principle, but in practice has ruled out the basic territorial and political concessions required to achieve a Palestinian state.”

Disguising a pro-Israel position

Ironically, the Labor Party may not benefit from the campaign for a seat on the Security Council, Mendes said, because current polls suggest Liberal MP Julie Bishop will “most likely be foreign minister by the end of 2013.”

Bishop has lashed the government for compromising its principles – especially on Israel – in its Security Council bid.

In federal parliament in 2009, after Labor supported a resolution on Palestinian self-determination that made no reference to the right of the state of Israel to exist, Bishop accused the government of “overturning Australia’s longstanding bipartisan policy of refusing to support one-sided UN resolutions against Israel.”

Jewish leaders also expressed their “disappointment” in personal letters to then-prime minister Rudd and then-foreign minister Stephen Smith.

If a vote on the status of Palestine is held before October 18 it would “virtually cruel’’ Australia’s chances of a Security Council seat, according to a diplomatic source as quoted in the Australian Financial Review.

A Palestine vote “would seal Australia’s fate as far as the Arab world is concerned,” according to Prof. Amin Saikal of the Australian National University, as quoted in the same report.

Last year, Rudd, then foreign minister, urged Gillard to abstain from the Palestine vote. But Gillard over-ruled him and opposed upgrading Palestine’s status.

Greg Sheridan argued in The Australian that it would be “absolutely impossible” to find weaker opponents than Finland and Luxembourg, but lashed the “rather pathetic change of voting we have engaged in to try to disguise our pro-Israel position in order to suck up to Arab and African nations.”

Australia has not had a seat on the Security Council since 1986.