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One week Australia’s Labor Party Prime Minister Julia Gillard cheers on Israel’s murderous assault on Gaza, the next the parliamentary Labor Party caucus rolls her over recognition of Palestine by the United Nations General Assembly.
In the United Nations, Labor foreign minister Bert Evatt pushed for the partition of Palestine and in 1948 as the President of the General Assembly in 1948 supported the new Israeli state. Ever since Australian governments, Labor and conservative, have been hardline backers of Israel.
Has the Australian Labor Party’s position on Israel really changed?
The shift does not mean that Labor is now hostile to Israeli apartheid. Labor has a slightly different view from Israel, the United States and the Coalition about how best to preserve Israel as a racist state. The current Foreign Minister Bob Carr understands that the Arab Spring means that minor concessions have to be made to prop up the credibility of the Palestinian Authority, which is Israel’s policeman on the West Bank.
The laws that define Israel as a Jewish state mean that its Palestinian citizens have second class status. They are not allowed to live in most areas, their separate schools are underfunded, they are ineligible for many welfare services and public sector jobs, Arabic is treated as inferior to Hebrew.
After living for decades under Israeli occupation, the Palestinians of Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem have no say at all over Israel’s policies. Jews, like me, have a right of ‘return’ to Israel so long as they can demonstrate their hereditary Jewishness through their mothers’ lines. Palestinian refugees born in what is now Israel and their children and grandchildren have no right to return.
Australia abstained in the General Assembly’s overwhelming vote to accept Palestine not as a member of the UN but just an ‘observer state’, like the Pope’s toy state of the Vatican. Gillard had wanted Australia to vote against the resolution, with Israel, the United States and a handful of its clients.
The General Assembly decision will not improve the lives of ordinary Palestinians.
At best, it gives the issue of Israel’s repression of the Palestinians a little more profile and will probably lead to cases in the UN’s International Court of Justice, which will also help publicise the issue. Neither the USA nor Israel accepts the authority of the Court. The USA’s veto on the Security Council still ensures that the UN’s executive body will not act against Israel and that Palestine will not become a member of the UN.
If we want to understand the main reasons for Labor’s marginal departure from the Israel/US script for the Middle East, we have to look to Palestine and the Arab world rather than the New York and the Hague where the UN and ICJ sit.
Since its establishment in 1948, Israel has implemented the doctrine of the ‘iron wall’. This holds that the dispossession of the Palestinian people can only be maintained by armed force and that if the Palestinians ever accept the Jewish state it will only be because Israel’s military actions have made them give up hope.
The right wing Zionist Zeev Jabotinsky formulated the doctrine in 1923. But all Israel’s governments, including the Labour administrations of the country’s first decades, have pursued it.
Gillard’s support for Israel’s ‘right to self-defence’ is an endorsement of the iron wall.
The Arab Spring is revolutionising much of the Middle East, including Israel’s neighbours Egypt, Jordan and Syria. The vast majority of Arab people want democracy and better living standards. And, unlike the dictators and kings who formally or informally came to terms with Israel, they have real sympathy for their Palestinian sisters and brothers.
Israel and the United States, which backed the dictators Ben Ali in Tunisia and Mubarak in Egypt and still backs Abdullah the absolute monarch in Jordan, are much more isolated in the Middle East today than two years ago. Israel is even more dependent on US military and diplomatic backing. The United States needs Israel more than ever, as its one really reliable, powerful and relatively stable ally in a region whose location and oil give it outstanding global strategic importance.
The Australian Labor government’s minor shift on Palestine recognises that it is necessary to prop up the dictatorial Palestinian Authority of Mahmoud Abbas, his Fatah party and its allies, on the West Bank.
The PA is invaluable to Israel. Shawan Jabarin, director-general of Palestinian human rights organisation Al-Haq, currently in Australia, this week said ‘To be honest, the PA serves the Israelis’. The PA’s ‘security coordination’ with Israel is coordination in the repression of Palestinians. Without consulting the Palestinians, Abbas recently gave up on the Palestinian right of return.
Particularly after the Palestinians of Gaza resisted the latest Israeli attacks and were even able to secure some concessions from Israel, the credibility of the PA is at a low ebb. The government of Gaza is run by Fatah’s equally dictatorial but less corrupt Islamist rival Hamas.
The success of the PA’s project of gaining observer state status at the UN will be a small boost to its prestige and the declining plausibility of the ‘two state solution’ of the conflict in Palestine, which the Israeli, the US and Australian governments claim to support. That ‘solution’ would leave Israeli apartheid in tact.
The ALP caucus deal no doubt also reflected other considerations much less directly connected with the Middle East. Bob Carr wanted to stay on the right side of some of the governments that voted for Australian membership of the UN Security Council in October. Although the Labor left initially wanted Australia to actually support Palestine’s observer state status, the caucus deal appeared to demonstrate that the left is not entirely irrelevant through a concession on an issue of quaternary significance. The decision might help Labor hold some seats in Sydney with substantial Arab and Muslim populations.
Finally, there has been a major shift in wider public attitudes in Australia to Palestine over the past three decades, as opposed to the solid bipartisan Zionism of the ALP and Coalition. But the government has been quite wiling to ignore overwhelming public rejection of some of its policies, even on issues like equal marriage where Australian national interests, that is corporate interests, are not at stake. Australia’s abstention in the General Assembly vote is part of a strategy that is intended to advance those interests. Whether it will succeed in strengthening the capacity of the US governments to impose their will on the world and hence Australia’s ability to call the shots in the south west Pacific and south east Asia is another question.
Rick Kuhn wrote Labor’s Conflict: Big Business, Workers and the Politics of Class with Tom Bramble and has been involved in the Palestine solidarity movement since the 1970s.