Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

Media Microscope: Over-Reaction Reactions

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Jamie Hyams


The Australian Government’s decision to expel an Israeli diplomat received very broad media coverage. On the May 24 ABC TV “Lateline” and “News”, AIJAC Executive Director Dr. Colin Rubenstein explained, “The government’s already expressed its condemnation in the strongest terms and therefore we think the extra step they’re taking today is really an over-reaction.” On the May 25 SBS TV News, he noted, “You can’t divorce what happened from the broader political context, the international context. This is a senior terrorist figure.” On May 25, on radio station 774 ABC Melbourne’s “Mornings” program, he queried “whether it was necessary to take this extra step when countries like France, Germany and Ireland who are in a similar situation to Australia apparently have not.” He also noted that the government had made a political judgement. On 3AW’s May 25 “Mornings” program, he told Neil Mitchell, “The killing of Mr. Mabhouh is not irrelevant to the broader war of counter-terrorism that Australia’s engaged in together with Israel and many other countries.” Parts of the AIJAC statement in this Review also appeared in many papers.

Rubenstein was not alone. In his May 26 Herald Sun and Advertiser column, Andrew Bolt slammed the decision, writing, “The killing itself hardly deserved comment - and certainly should not have been described by Foreign Affairs Minister Stephen Smith as ‘murder’. After all, knocking off a jihadist boss on an arms-buying mission is morally no different from what SAS soldiers do every week in Afghanistan, hunting more jihadists there. Or do our soldiers ‘murder’, too, Mr. Smith?” He noted, “France and Germany in particular seemed content to issue the usual protests, but to then let the matter slide - perhaps because they know they, too, are endangered by the jihadist tide that threatens Israel with annihilation.” He attributed the decision to our quest for a UN Security Council seat.

Greg Sheridan, in the May 25 Australian, called the expulsion “gratuitous and needless” and a “poor and misjudged move against a close friend.” He noted, “Hamas is committed to murderous terrorism directed at killing Israeli civilians. It is a proscribed terrorist organisation. Australian troops in Afghanistan have targeted al-Qa’ida leaders personally and directly in missions to kill these leaders. In Mr Smith’s terms, the Diggers must also be guilty of murder.” Alan Gold, in the same edition, noted, “Israel, like any nation, has the inalienable right to defend itself from those determined to do it harm. While nobody can condone the abuse of a nation’s passports, it is surely rank hypocrisy on Australia’s part to take such overt action against a diplomat because his country is doing what virtually every other country does. Britain has an entire unit under the control of MI6 whose job it is to forge passports for its security operatives. The US and most European nations have the same.”

Former Foreign Minister Alexander Downer stated, on the May 24 edition of ABC Radio’s “PM”, “Intelligence services around the world do this sort of thing the whole time. But to start going round expelling them, well I think that is an over-reaction.” He also suggested the government was motivated by its UN Security Council aspirations.

Sadly, many in the media overlooked the reasons why the killing was not murder, and, like our Foreign Minister, described it as such. Some also sanitised Hamas terrorist leader al-Mabhouh. On Channel 9’s May 24 News, reporter Jane Azzopardi referred to the “murder of a senior Palestinian official.” This was followed by Clive Williams suggesting that we should review our relationship with Israel, given the changing make-up of Australia’s population, as if that should determine our moral or strategic interests. On that night’s SBS TV News, newsreader Neena Mairata referred to “the murder of a Hamas operative,” while reporter Leah Craven called it the “murder of a senior Hamas operative.” The May 26 edition saw Karen Middleton call it “murder”. On the May 25 ABC TV “Midday Report” and News and ABC Radio “AM”, Ben Knight referred to the “Dubai murder”. On ABC Radio’s “Midday Report” on May 24, anchor Eleanor Hall referred to Mabhouh as a “top Hamas official” and then, ironically, referred to the expelled “official”. Reporter Brendan Trembath referred to Mabhouh as a “senior Hamas figure” who was “murdered”. That night, on “PM”, host Mark Colvin referred to “Hamas figure Mahmoud al-Mabhouh” and reporter Sabra Lane called him a “senior Hamas official” and his killing “the murder”. On May 25, Julian Drape, in the Advertiser, Stephanie Balogh, in the Courier-Mail, Malcolm Farr in the Daily Telegraph, and Jason Koutsoukis and Kirsty Needham in the Age and Sydney Morning Herald all referred to his “murder”. Mark Dodd, in the May 26 Australian, called it a murder, but also referred to Mabhouh as a terrorist.

Some editorials also described it as “murder”, while many supported the expulsion. The May 25 Sydney Morning Herald even titled its editorial “No passports for murder” and stated, “Nor should the government appear to be condoning a murder, even of a man of violence like Mabhouh.” The May 25 Advertiser editorialised, “The expulsion is serious but so was the theft and cloning of Australian passports to commit a murder.” The May 25 Herald Sun described Mabhouh as a “terrorist leader” but also called his killing a “murder”, wondering if there were other “highly illegal and murderous acts” committed using Australian passports. The May 26 Age editorial criticised and mocked Jewish leaders who spoke out against the decision.

The May 26 Courier-Mail was more measured, stating, “Israel is confronted by nations, some of whom are close neighbours not just opposed to its existence but committed to attacking and undermining its security. But this does not excuse using the official documents of friends for nefarious acts, regardless of how justified it might be to kill a senior member of a terrorist group dedicated to killing Israelis.”

The May 26 Canberra Times editorialised that Australia would have looked weak had we not expelled an Israeli.

Others used the affair to vent their wider hostility towards Israel. Malcolm Fraser rang 3AW’s Neil Mitchell after hearing Colin Rubenstein interviewed. He “would have liked to have seen the government do more,” and, ignoring Palestinian division, violence and rejectionism, claimed Israel’s settlements “are the major impediment to progress and peace talks”. He stated, “Israel can not go on using the Holocaust…to stifle legitimate criticism of Israeli policies.” It doesn’t. He also claimed, “Quite often if you come out [and say] the government should be doing more to help Obama stop the expanded settlements, people in Australia tend to say, ‘Oh well he’s antisemitic’.” Sadly, Fraser never seems to tire of making these untrue slurs against Israel and its supporters.

On Radio National’s May 26 “Breakfast” program, the ANU’s Michael McKinley claimed Australia has “indulged Israel’s foreign policy and strategic policy excesses quite considerably.” The previous day, Ross Burns, a former ambassador to Israel, suggested, maybe in hope, that the affair “might give us greater grounds for suspicion of some of the material being passed to us [by Israeli intelligence agencies]” and described the opposition’s criticism of the government as “almost grotesque”.

Michael Shaik, in the May 27 Australian, ridiculed non-Jews who advocated against expelling a diplomat, awarding the “first prize for loyalty to a foreign power”, ironic if not bizarre, given he is the public advocate for Australians for Palestine. Greg Barns, on the ABC website The Drum Unleashed on May 25, argued that the expulsion “may help to reduce violent extremism in Australia” because a “key selling point” for Islamist recruiters has been “Australia’s toadying to Israel and the United States over the past decade.” He described the reaction by the “pro-Israel lobby” as “hysterical”.

Finally, some gave the affair its proper perspective. Yossi Melman, on ABC TV’s May 24 “Lateline”, warned against believing everything said by the Dubai police. He also said, “I’m sure that between intelligence organisations there is a greater understanding that such operations are necessary from time to time.”

Indeed, Dylan Welch, in the May 27 Age and Sydney Morning Herald, wrote, “Australian security agencies use false passports issued by the Department of Foreign Affairs to allow covert operatives to function overseas, intelligence sources have admitted… sources confirmed Australia had a long-standing tradition of providing passports to overseas intelligence agencies.” Senior Herald journalist Peter Hartcher, interviewed on Sky News “Agenda” on May 25, noted, “This is a minor affair compared to what’s coming. Which is the Israeli confrontation with Iran. Israel will want as much support, political, diplomatic, and in the right quarters, military and logistics. This government will support Israel in a confrontation with Iran. That’s the main game, and we can now put this matter aside and get on with that.”

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