Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

Canberra and Jerusalem: A New Era begins

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By Allon Lee


A change of government always ushers in new emphases, personnel, policies and preferences. AIR therefore sought the views of a number of knowledgeable and interested figures in Australia and Israel, asking them both to evaluate the current state of Australia-Israel relations and assess how the new Rudd Government might affect the current state of affairs. While the Federal Labor Government is barely one month old, there is a tentative consensus that it will likely echo its predecessor’s strong support for and positive relations with Israel. However, there is also agreement that Australia’s future voting on Middle East issues at the United Nations remains one area which bears close scrutiny.

Professor Gerald Steinberg, director of the Conflict Resolution Program at Israel’s Bar-Ilan University, said the Coalition Government was a pioneer in showing the West how to adopt “principled stands on issues”. 

“We certainly saw the former government as particularly important in taking the lead not just in the UN but elsewhere in dealing seriously with the Arab-Israeli conflict without the usual political correctness or the exploitation of human rights rhetoric,” Professor Steinberg said.

Despite the distance between Canberra and Jerusalem, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s reputation for being “knowledgeable and realistic” on Middle East issues was known in Israel, Professor Steinberg said.

From Israel’s perspective, Professor Steinberg hopes the Rudd Government will largely maintain most of its predecessor’s stances.

“Continuity is very important. Australia took principled positions and hopefully it will continue to take principled positions and not politically expedient positions in the international framework. The United Nations is important, other frameworks on Iranian nuclear weapons programs and the IAEA, anti-terror positions – all these things are important,” he noted.

Professor Steinberg added that, “there is a natural concern that action and pressures will see a return of the Arabists to the Foreign Affairs office and other parts of the government.”
The veteran Israeli political analyst Ehud Ya’ari told AIR that Israel “would expect, hope, there was no change in policy on the Middle East.”

Ya’ari doesn’t expect much will change in the basic relationship between the two countries, characterising their relations as “good” and likely to “remain so”.

Julia Gillard, Australia’s new deputy-prime minister, had “made a positive impression” when she visited Israel in 2005, Yaari said.

“There is some concern of the far Left wing impacting on Rudd’s attitude, but he himself is perceived here as very friendly and knowledgeable,” Yaari said.

Neil Brown, a Fraser Government minister in the 1970s and Liberal deputy leader in the 1980s, is confident that Kevin Rudd will maintain the “substance” of the Howard Government’s support for Israel.

“I think in substance it will remain the same, mainly as Rudd has his team in a headlock and his dominance is so great that he will call the shots and the shots will be in favour of keeping a good relationship with Israel,” Brown said.

Barry Cohen, a former minister in the 1980s Hawke Labor Government, is content that the “creeping anti-Israel and, in some instances, antisemitic positions of some Labor MPs” has declined.

Cohen views the triumvirate of Rudd, Treasurer Wayne Swan and Foreign Affairs Minister Stephen Smith as “noted Israel supporters” and evidence that the Labor Party in government won’t display extreme Middle East postures.

“I don’t really know Kevin Rudd very well, but what I have seen and heard him say on Israel is very reassuring. He’s visited Israel a number of times and obviously has an affinity with the place,” Cohen said.

Cohen added he was particularly “thrilled” by a recent speech delivered by Swan, who has visited Israel, on the Jewish state’s challenges and described Smith as a “figure of substance”.
All four men agreed that Australia’s UN voting stance would be the crucible where the government’s commitment to Israel will be assayed.

Apprehension that the Rudd Government might adopt a “European” posture when voting at the UN was an issue for Professor Steinberg.

“It’s not a question of voting against Israel or abstaining [on UN resolutions],” Professor Steinberg suggested.

“Rather, the issue is taking a principled position. Most of the United Nations resolutions dealing with the Middle East are not principled. They are simply going along with the Arab majority.

It’s based on interests, financial concerns, and sometimes an anti-American and anti-Israel ideology. Abstaining is sometimes better than voting against, but it’s not a principled position,” he said.

Cohen advised the new government to avoid investing too much capital in the United Nations as a mechanism for resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict.

“As far as Israel is concerned, I’ve written off the UN years ago as a waste of space,” Cohen said.

“What I hope a Labor Government would do is not just defend Israel, but attack its critics. I don’t mind Israel being criticised if it’s even handed. I would be disappointed and surprised if [the government abstained]. Abstention is the coward’s way out,” Cohen cautioned.

“The classic example is the fence. Saudi Arabia is building a 900 kilometre fence, nobody even knows. America’s building a fence along its border with Mexico. Where’s the criticism of America?

“You can argue whether it should be here or there but you can’t argue against the principle. You shouldn’t be able to argue against the principle to keep out the suicide bombers. The fence has worked,” Cohen said.

For Cohen, the Labor Party’s proposal while in opposition that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad be indicted at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) for incitement to genocide against Israel was a significant step on the road to a principled foreign policy.

“It’s good to hear that Kevin Rudd’s at least prepared to think about things like that,” Cohen said.

Professor Steinberg said that indicting Ahmadinejad would “certainly send an important signal that Australia is on board on this issue and could even take the lead. It’s important that sentiments are translated into actions.”

Ya’ari said he was less enthusiastic on indicting Ahmadinejad at the ICJ, suggesting that the main issue remains sanctions.
Brown sees merit in the ICJ proposal despite viewing it as a “symbolic gesture”.

“In the past I would have said ‘no’… but now after Pinochet and Kissinger and the talk of prosecuting Howard and all the other strange prosecutions, it may be a way of putting pressure on the other side, or at least getting air time, so I would push on with it,” he said.

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