Opinion |

How Australia’s New Leaders Really See Israel and the Palestinians

In these elections, aided by a febrile Murdoch press, the right-wing campaign to smear Australia's opposition as 'antisemitic' and 'anti-Israel' reached fever pitch. With Labor now in power, it's time to set the record straight

Liam Getreu
Liam Getreu
Newly-elected Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese flanked by Foreign Minister Penny Wong: The party leadership describes Labor as a 'steadfast friend of Israel' that won't hesitate to offer principled criticism
Newly-elected Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese flanked by Foreign Minister Penny Wong: The party leadership describes Labor as a 'steadfast friend of Israel' offering 'principled' criticismCredit: Issei Kato/Pool Photo via AP
Liam Getreu
Liam Getreu

Last week in Australia, Anthony Albanese led a center-left Labor government to victory, ending almost a decade of rule by the conservative Liberal and National party coalition.

While in the United States a majority of Jews lean Democratic, only one in five Australian Jews identify as being politically closer to Labor. Despite this, Labor and the Jewish community have always had deep connections, even playing a formative role in the UN’s votes to partition Palestine and create a Jewish state.

In domestic politics, the previous government’s last term saw frustration deepen at its refusal to do the bare minimum on key issues such as addressing climate change, promoting gender equality, and preserving the integrity of the political system in the face of corruption and the misuse of public funds.

These issues gave the Liberal party a big headache deep in its traditional heartland. Although Labor’s result was strong enough to win a majority, it was a contingent of independents – all women – who toppled some of the government’s biggest stars. The government was said to have "lost its center" and it seems the public broadly agreed. In the seat of Macnamara, home to many in Melbourne’s Jewish community, the Liberal vote dropped by a quarter.

Foreign policy also played a role in the campaign. Even though the main story was a defense deal Australia’s neighbor, the Solomon Islands, signed with China mid-campaign – which seem to be the result of the government bungling the relationship – the issue of Israel-Palestine also came up.

This happened partly because two of the seats at risk from the independent candidates contained Jewish populations. Keen to find any issue it could to stem the bleeding, the Liberal party dredged up bad faith charges of antisemitism and anti-Israel bias. Supported by weeks of full-page ads in the local Jewish press and partisan editorials, it was a last-ditch attempt to scare Jewish voters into sticking with the government.

There was another reason these issues came up: the Liberal party – like other conservative parties across the world – has long sought to use Israel as a wedge against Labor and its other political opponents.

Trying to win Jewish votes ahead of a tight special election in 2018, then Prime Minister Scott Morrison flagged that Australia could follow the Trump administration and recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Politicizing foreign policy has long been a no-no in Australian political campaigns, but desperate to win votes, the Liberal party defied convention.

This election, the campaign to 'own' the pro-Israel vote by smearing the opposition reached fever pitch. Aided by a febrile Murdoch press, conservatives went on the attack, accusing Labor leader Anthony Albanese of abandoning bipartisan support for Israel.

Australia's Prime Minister-elect Anthony Albanese signs a Labor Party poster in Sydney on Sunday. Credit: Dean Lewins/AP

For the Australian right, ‘support for Israel’ only counts if it is a nuance-free blank check for right-wing Israeli governments. Criticism of Israeli settlement growth, Israel’s treatment of Palestinians under occupation or prime ministerial racism aren’t acceptable, even though they are staple talking points of Israel’s Zionist left.

It’s true that in its nine years in opposition, Labor’s policy has been refined. Its support for Israel is unchanged – it continues to support two-states and oppose the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement – but it’s also hardly surprising that things would shift given their time in opposition aligned almost entirely with the Netanyahu-led rightward shift in Israeli politics.

In 2018, recognizing the shift on the ground, the party’s national platform called for recognition of a Palestinian state as part of a comprehensive package which supported both Israel and Palestine’s existence in safe and secure borders. In 2021, in the wake of Israel’s unprecedented push towards annexation the previous year, it reaffirmed the resolution. It seems likely that the new government will begin a process to explore this recognition.

Focusing on that issue, as opponents of the new government have, is shortsighted, not only in that it ignores global trends, but also in that it overstates its negative impact. Israel’s newest Abraham Accord allies in the Gulf have long recognized Palestinian statehood, as have more than 100 other nations, while claims that doing so would somehow harm prospects for peace were dismissed recently by former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

Labor Party leader Anthony Albanese celebrates victory with his partner Jodie Haydon, right, and Labor senate leader partner Penny Wong at a Labor Party event in Sydney on Sunday.Credit: Rick Rycroft/AP

For most of its time in opposition, Labor’s foreign affairs spokesperson – and now its foreign minister – has been Penny Wong. A smart, erudite and nuanced leader, she is widely respected in Australian politics. Within hours of her appointment she was at work reshaping some of Australia’s most important regional relationships. Even as Australia’s right-wing Jewish community leaders criticize Labor’s policies, they clearly have a deep respect for her.

In an event last year for the New Israel Fund, Wong confirmed Labor as a "steadfast friend of Israel" and that Labor’s "public position [is] really clear – you can be a friend of Israel, but you can also be principled about the issues that you raise concerns about."

She specifically mentioned "annexation and the expansion of settlements [as] those issues which we consider to be inconsistent with a just peace and a two-state solution," noting that "equally, where there is the sort of behavior we have seen from terrorist organizations, that should be called out."

Australia's new foreign minister, Penny Wong, explains Labor's policy on Israel and the Palestinians

With precision and clarity, Wong outlined the core of Labor’s positions on Israel, and one which puts it in lockstep with virtually each of Israel’s other most valued and strategically important relationships. In fact, it would be strange to see otherwise from a center-left party like Australian Labor.

Outrageous statements of concern from right-wing Jewish community leaders in Australia, such as the Australian Jewish Association accusing incoming premier Albanese of having made "extreme anti-Israel comments" and other new MPs of having "crossed the line into antisemitism," fuel a dangerous game.

Having a community leadership push partisan politics rather than honestly assessing the new leadership’s actual positions and embracing the new political climate puts at risk the community’s relationship with the new government.

True supporters of Israel and its aspirations to be a pluralist and democratic homeland for the Jewish people, whether in Australia or elsewhere, will find Prime Minister Albanese and Foreign Minister Wong to be honest friends both of Israel and of efforts to build a lasting peace with the Palestinians.

Liam Getreu is the Sydney-based executive director of New Israel Fund Australia. Twitter: @liamget

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