Amid Israel’s increasing isolation following the UN vote on Palestine and Jerusalem’s controversial plans for new settlement construction, Australia’s prime minister-hopeful says he intends to adopt a staunchly pro-Israel posture similar to Canada's if he wins next year’s election.
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Tony Abbott, the leader of the opposition Liberal Party, told Haaretz in London on Tuesday that a government he leads will be unashamedly and unapologetically pro-Israel, akin to that of Stephen Harper's Conservative Party.
“Israel is the one country on Earth that is most subject to an existential threat and that is why Israel deserves a very high level of instinctive support from countries like Australia,” Abbott said.
“Israel deserves the benefit of the doubt from a country like Australia because of its status as the only mature pluralist democracy in the Middle East and because of the unique perils that it faces.”
Abbott was speaking on the sidelines of the Australia-Israel-U.K. Leadership Dialogue, a trilateral conference of politicians and powerbrokers that included Ehud Olmert, Avi Dichter, Silvan Shalom and Roni Bar-On among the 50-plus delegates from the three countries.
“There would no doubt be friends who are more useful to Israel than Australia,” Abbott conceded. “But we would defer to none in the staunchness of our friendship.”
Asked for his response to the announcement of Israel’s new plans for settlement construction, Abbott was diplomatically cautious.
“I think it would be a mistake for Israel to act in ways which make a two-state solution significantly more difficult,” he said. “All they’ve done is make an announcement.”
Australia’s Labor government followed several other countries earlier this month in calling in the Israeli ambassador in Canberra for a diplomatic dressing down following the controversial announcement of the E-1 construction plans.
“Friends can disagree, there’s no doubt about that,” Abbott continued. “But before a friend publicly disagrees it normally would do its damndest to understand the reasons for the actions or position with which it is disagreeing.
“The fundamental point is that Israel is a pluralist democracy facing not just a terrorist threat but an existential threat, not just from an Islamist ideology but from at least one potentially very powerful state – Iran.”
Abbott’s position is similar to the ardent support given by former Liberal prime minister John Howard, who stood shoulder to shoulder with Israel during his 11-year administration.
While the Labor government has solidly supported Israel since it took power in 2007 – most notably by defending it in the two recent conflicts with Hamas – it has been accused of abandoning Israel at the UN, triggering tensions between Jewish leaders and government officials.
Prime Minister Julia Gillard had intended to vote against the UN resolution on Palestine’s status last month but Australia abstained following a bitter party debate in which she was rolled by her cabinet and caucus, prompting Abbott to accuse her of “acting at variance with what up until now has been settled Australia policy.”
“The UN is one of the few places where what Australia does in respect to Israel really matters,” he said, stressing that the Liberals would have voted against the motion.
“Australia is a bit player at best in the Middle East but we have a vote at the UN. Offering help to Israel at the UN is one of the most material things we can do.”
Australia will take up a temporary seat on the UN Security Council in January. But Melbourne-based political analyst Philip Mendes told Haaretz, “The real policy differences between Labor and the Liberals on Israel/Palestine are so minor.”
“But political conservatives in the post-September 11 paradigm see Israel as a close ally in the war on Islamic terror and not to be criticized, whereas social democratic parties like the Labor Party and New Labour in the U.K. agree with the general premise, but still believe that a more balanced – whilst still pro-Israel – two-state position is likely to lead to better outcomes for both Israel and the Palestinians,” he added.
In a speech to the Australia-Israel Chamber of Commerce in 2010 Abbott heaped praise on the contribution of Australia’s Jewish community. “Outside Israel, the only country in the world where Jewish people have occupied the highest offices of state, chief justice, chief of army and head of state itself is, in fact, here in Australia,” he said.
Once dubbed the “mad monk” – a reference to his stint at a seminary before he abandoned his plans for priesthood – Abbott came within a whisker of winning office at the 2010 election when Labor and the Liberals both won 72 seats in the 150-seat House of Representatives.
But Labor managed to cobble a coalition with the Greens with support from Independents to forge a minority government. While Abbott’s personal approval ratings have slumped, many pundits believe his party has a good chance of defeating Labor, which has been rife with factional splits since Gillard deposed Kevin Rudd as PM in a bloodless coup in 2010.
The Leadership Dialogue is a closed session exchange on issues of “mutual strategic interest,” according to its founder, Melbourne businessman and philanthropist Albert Dadon.