New Australian Cabinet Features Several pro-Palestinian Ministers

The newly appointed ministers include a founding member of a parliamentary pro-Palestinian group, a former United Nations legal advisor in Gaza and the first Muslim frontbencher.

SYDNEY, Australia – Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, who took over when Australia's first female prime minister was dramatically deposed last week by party colleagues, announced a new cabinet on Monday that includes several ministers known for their support of Palestinian causes.

The newly appointed ministers include a founding member of a parliamentary pro-Palestinian group, a former United Nations legal advisor in Gaza and the first Muslim frontbencher.

Julia Gillard’s nemesis, Kevin Rudd, was parachuted into power last Wednesday for his second stint as prime minister. The Mandarin-speaking former diplomat on Monday unveiled the team that will lead the governing Labor Party into the upcoming federal election. He said the election probably would not be held on September 14 – as scheduled by Gillard – because the clash with Yom Kippur is a “massive inconvenience” for the nation’s 110,000-plus Jews. It must be held by November 30.

Gillard called a leadership battle last week amid plunging support and growing consensus that Rudd could save the party from the electoral beating predicted by most polls.

Although weekend polls showed a bounce for Labor following the shakeup, it still trails the conservative Liberal Party led by Tony Abbott.

The new deputy prime minister in Rudd's 30-member cabinet is Anthony Albanese, a founding member of Parliamentary Friends of Palestine who describes himself as “a strong advocate of justice for Palestinians.”

Albanese recently said on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation television station that that he is “very critical of a lot of Israel's policies.” He previously said that “responding to terrorism does not in any way free Israel from its obligations under international law.”

But the Sydney-born member of Labor's left faction has also been at the forefront of the fight against those promoting a boycott of Israeli goods, blasting the campaign as “clumsy and counterproductive.”

Rudd’s cabinet also includes 11 women, the most in Australian history, including West Australian MP Melissa Parke, who worked for the legal division of UNRWA, the UN agency that assists Palestinian refugees.

Parke, who lived in Gaza from 2002 to 2004, spoke in parliament last year in defense of UNRWA, calling claims that the organization was corrupt or incited terrorism in its textbooks, which are used in Palestinian refugee camps, "despicable." She said she visited a UNRWA school in Gaza in 2011, and saw that students “learn about tolerance, peaceful conflict resolution and the Holocaust.”

Ed Husic, the son of Bosnian Muslims, was sworn in on Monday using a Koran. 

Husic, who is a non-practicing Muslim, wanted Australia to vote in support of an upgraded status for Palestine at the UN last year.

Gillard wanted to join Israel and America in opposing the upgrade but was forced into abstaining following a controversial campaign led by Foreign Minister Bob Carr. 

Carr, who remains at the head of the Foreign Ministry, irked many Jewish leaders earlier this year when he branded all Israeli settlements “illegal under international law.”

While several senior ministers resigned with Gillard, the two Jewish Labor MPs, Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus and Secretary for the Arts Michael Danby, retained their portfolios.

Jewish and Zionist leaders issued statements last week thanking Gillard for her “staunch support” of Israel and backing Rudd’s strong stance on Iran, his opposition to the campaign to boycott Israel and his support for a two-state solution.

But this week there was little public comment on Rudd’s redux, suggesting genuine concern about the change of leadership.

One senior Jewish official who declined to be named told Haaretz on Monday that Rudd was right to be angry in 2010 when it was revealed Australian passports were used in the assassination of Hamas leader Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in Dubai.

“But he was much more strident and critical than he needed to be,” he said of his decision to expel Israel’s Mossad agent in Canberra, the Australian capital.

Nevertheless, he added, “No one should portray him as a dyed-in-the-wool enemy.”

On the promotion of Parke, the senior Jewish official simply said, “That’s pretty telling.”

Another senior Jewish official well connected to Rudd said: "During his first term as PM he proved to be a total hypocrite on Israel. I don't think this will change. His bias against Israel is something I am afraid will accentuate and accelerate in his second term as PM."

But Danby, who did not vote for Rudd in last week’s leadership spill, said Albanese “led the campaign” to defeat the Green Party in a Sydney suburb when its local mayor tried to impose a boycott of Israel.

“He doesn’t have my views on the Middle East,” Danby said. “But he supports a two-state solution.

“All of the key pro-Israel people are all there in cabinet,” Danby said, referring to Israel supporters such as Bill Shorten, Mike Kelly, and Richard Marles.

In response to allegations Rudd has become more ambivalent about Israel, Danby said, “Kevin is criticized for always being close to the Americans.”

Philip Mendes, co-editor of the book "Jews & Australian Politics," said, “Given the nature of his return to the prime ministership, it is unlikely that Rudd will be beholden to any factions in the Labor Party that might be pro-Palestinian.”

Mendes added, “He is likely for the few months he has prior to an election to maintain his pro-Israel perspective, which is of course not the same as supporting the policies of any specific Israeli government.”

A longstanding supporter of Israel, Rudd said on the eve of his election victory in 2007 that Israel “is in my DNA.”

Soon after ending the Liberals’ 11-year rule, he successfully proposed a motion congratulating Israel on its 60th birthday. But in June 2010, just before he was unseated by Gillard, Rudd called a handful of Jewish leaders to his residence to assuage concerns following a series of incidents, including the expulsion of the Mossad agent.

Three years on, it appears unlikely those same Jewish leaders will be rushing to congratulate him on his new cabinet appointments.

Reuters