The Australian Liberal Party’s landslide election victory over its Labor rival last weekend has ended one of the most turbulent periods in diplomatic relations between Canberra and Jerusalem.
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Prime Minister-elect Tony Abbott, a Christian conservative, has made no secret of his desire to return bilateral relations to the days of former Liberal PM John Howard. He has also signaled his intention to ban more terror groups, upgrade trade ties with Jerusalem and block financial support to organizations that support the campaign to boycott Israel.
But the return to the Howard era of “uncritical support for Israel at the UN” is too simplistic a narrative, according to Philip Mendes, a Melbourne-based academic and co-editor of “Jews and Australian Politics.”
“The international context has changed since the Liberals were last in government,” Mendes said. “They like to work closely with the Americans, and it is no longer the very pro-Israel George W. Bush but rather Barack Obama, who is trying to put some pressure on the Likud-led Israeli government to make concessions on West Bank settlements to progress the peace process.
“Given this context and the apparent willingness of even Netanyahu to consider concessions, the deck chairs have moved on what it means to be pro-Israel and the Liberals may have to fall into line,” Mendes said.
The settlements issue is “the contradiction,” he added. “Even the Liberals still say they support two states, so most of the settlements will have to go to achieve that. “But if it comes to the crunch – either the settlements or two states – the Liberals will have to choose. And Obama, and even Israel’s strongest friends amongst the Europeans, clearly want two states.”
The settlements issue was central to the showdown between Jewish leaders here and the previous Labor government.
Outgoing foreign minister Bob Carr, a founder of the New South Wales Parliamentary Friends of Israel group in the 1970s, infuriated Jewish leaders last month at a speech outside Australia’s largest mosque, saying, “All settlements on Palestinian land are illegal under international law and should cease.”
Jewish leaders had already berated him for making similar remarks alongside Britain’s William Hague in January and for allowing Australian representatives to attend a summit in Tehran last year in an apparent attempt to woo Arab votes for Australia’s successful bid for a UN Security Council seat.
A staunchly pro-Israel Australia will now sit on the Security Council as a non-permanent member until the end of 2014, while Carr is expected to announce his resignation from federal politics this week, local media reported.
Michael Danby, the longstanding Jewish Labor MP who was re-elected on Saturday, has been at loggerheads with Carr over the settlements issue. “I expect the welcome resignation of Foreign Minister Senator Bob Carr and the end to his acrimonious, unrepresentative foreign policy in the Labor Party,” Danby told Haaretz this week. Despite a nationwide swing to the Liberals, Danby said he retained his seat in Melbourne “due to thousands of Jews who voted [for me] despite their absolute distaste for Carr.”
Mendes said the swing to the Liberals in all seats with significant Jewish populations “may reflect Jewish concern at a perceived Labor shift from strong support for Israel.” But he added it could also be a function of economic concerns.
Campaigning on pledges to scrap the carbon tax and stop the boats of asylum-seekers flocking to Australia, Abbott, 55, is expected to unveil his cabinet this week. His foreign minister is likely to be West Australian Julie Bishop, an ardent supporter of Israel who accused the Labor government of “fraying” Australia’s bipartisan policy of support for Israel and “overturning” Canberra’s longstanding policy of refusing to support one-sided anti-Israel motions at the UN.
Although Labor’s Julia Gillard will be remembered as a pro-Israel PM, Kevin Rudd, who came to office in 2007 saying support for Israel is “in my DNA,” will likely be remembered for overseeing a government that sacrificed support for Israel at the UN and expelled an Israeli agent from the Israeli Embassy in 2010 in retaliation for the Dubai passports affair.
The Liberals’ victory means Australia and New Zealand are now ruled by conservative, pro-Israel governments, with John Key, the son of a Jewish refugee from Europe, in power in Wellington since 2008.
Some votes still remain to be counted, but the Liberals are expected to hold around 90 seats in the 150-seat chamber, with Labor reduced to about 55. Several seats still hang in the balance, including Labor’s Mike Kelly, who is married to a cousin of Ehud Olmert.
Danby, who was first elected in 1998, will be joined in Canberra by two other Jews who also retained their seats: former attorney-general Mark Dreyfus, and Joshua Frydenberg, the first Liberal Jewish member of government since Peter Baume in the early 1980s.