Why Australia Supports Israel

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In the wake of the recent Dubai assassination scandal, Australia has abstained from a vote on human rights abuses during Israel’s attack on Gaza, breaking with its old habit of doing everything it can to support Israel’s defiance of UN resolutions.

The question is: Does this signify a meaningful change in Australia’s official approach to Israel’s behaviour? As I wrote recently, Australian support for Israel comes at a cost to this country, but to understand what might lead to a policy shift that recognises this, it’s necessary to understand how that support itself has been generated. So: why have we been such a loyal supporter of this distant state? Let’s look at some possible explanations.

One possibility is that the mainstream of both countries shares a set of values and beliefs. One way of gauging this is to look at the rhetoric of our elected representatives. Both ALP and Liberal Party leaders have emphasised this bond. Kevin Rudd has described himself as "passionately pro-Israel" and as having support for Israel "in his DNA"; and in moving an unprecedented parliamentary resolution congratulating Israel on 60 years of statehood, he described it as a "robust democracy" and a "custodian of freedom" in a region "abounding in autocracies and theocracies".

John Howard stated that "The personal affection I have for the state of Israel, the personal regard I have for the Jewish people of the world … is something I value as part of my being and as part of what I have tried to do with my life." Tony Abbott applauded the Israeli leadership for striving to preserve a "liberal, pluralist democracy" against the depredations of a Palestinian leadership "running a one party statelet dedicated to destroying its neighbour". He went further, to claim that the World Trade Centre and Bali bombings had transformed Westerners into being "all Israelis now".

There is plenty more of the same. But the rosy image of Israel that they present has been steadily undercut by growing international awareness of Israel’s human rights violations, its illegal and expanding settlements, associated roads and "security" wall in the West Bank and Jerusalem (most recently condemned by the International Red Cross), its illegal blockade and brutal 2008–9 assault on Gaza, the second-class status accorded non-Jewish Israelis, the virtually on-screen murder of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in Dubai by assassins carrying phony passports of other countries, and, most recently, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s announcement that two religious sites in the West Bank would become Israeli national heritage sites and promoted accordingly.

Netanyahu justified this move on the grounds that "Our existence … is anchored in … the national sentiment that we will bestow upon the coming generations and in our ability to justify our connection to the land." His words would seem to corroborate the view of Israeli human rights group B’Tselem, who have said that "What renders Israel’s abuses unique throughout the world is the relentless effort to justify what cannot be justified."

Given the deterioration in Israel’s image resulting from these events, it is maybe time to look at sources other than "shared values" as driving Australian government loyalty. There are at least four such possible sources: public opinion, the national interest, effective lobbying, and the strength of the Israeli narrative of the conflict.

The first of these — public opinion — was undoubtedly on Israel’s side until the late 1970s, in Australia, as in many comparable Western countries. When, for example, in 1974–5 a Palestinian delegation applied for visas to visit Australia, the Whitlam cabinet decided that approval would result in public outrage. A Gallup Poll showed they had read the public mind correctly: 74 per cent opposed the visit. But public opinion changes with new events, new information, and new public relations campaigns; and more recent polls show that among those Australians with any knowledge of the conflict, sympathy has shifted towards the Palestinians. Force of public opinion does not therefore appear a strong explanation for our continuing loyalty.

It is similarly difficult to discern that Australia’s loyalty to Israel has been maintained in the national interest. At times, Australia has been the only country to vote with Israel, the US and the latter’s four satellite Pacific states against UN resolutions that have been critical of Israel. Our American Alliance under the ANZUS treaty is considered the cornerstone of Australia’s national security and our desire to strengthen America’s commitment to it is sometimes presented as a good reason for following America’s lead in foreign policy actions around the world.

On the one hand this could explain our continuing support for Israel, yet that desire to please the US cannot play too much of a part, since Australia often goes beyond America in its protestations of loyalty to Israel. One example is our failure to support President Obama’s 2009 call for an end to Israeli settlement-building in the occupied territories. In addition, Palestine/Israel is only one of America’s many foreign policy concerns and the US has little to gain by selecting this particular issue as one on which to pressure Australia for support. Nor does Australia stand to gain very much by politically supporting Israel so resoundingly that we outdo the US.

Trade is another vital national interest and one where our leaders can be ideologically flexible as shown in the Australian Wheat Board dealings with Iraq but it cannot provide an explanation in this case, as, despite an increase under the Howard government, our trade with Israel remains modest, dwarfed by our trade with other Middle Eastern states.

That leaves effective lobbying as a possible reason, along with the related effect of a powerful pro-Israel narrative. Rubinstein and Fleischer describe the small Australian Jewish community as having a history of successful access to national decision-makers, and as having created an Australia-Israel relationship that is "much more intense, ongoing and politically important" than that in comparable nations. A significant contributor to this relationship is provided by a network of well-established Jewish-Australian organisations. Encouraged by Dr Evatt, the Department of External Affairs in 1944 assisted in the formation of several of these, including the federal Executive Council of Australian Jewry (ECAJ). These joined an earlier-formed Zionist Federation of Australia (ZFA), which is particularly oriented to supporting Israel as the Jewish homeland. The Zionist movement is considered especially strong in Australia by international standards and to have equal status with other community bodies such as ECAJ, which is not the case in Europe or the US.

Another organisation, the Australia/Israel and Jewish Affairs Council (AIJAC) is the best-funded and most active of the Jewish lobby groups. Formed in 1997, its aim, as set out in Jews and Australian Politics, is "to confront the enemies of plurality and democracy and defend the interests of the state of Israel". It is privately funded, mostly by business interests. Another body, the Anti-Defamation Commission (ADC) specialises in monitoring the media and lodging complaints. Its activities include publishing and distributing material, providing speakers for television, radio, universities and colleges, contacting Australian journalists with information and comments, and bringing in Israeli and other speakers to meet and socialise with selected decision-makers.

A newer group is the Australia Israel Cultural Exchange (AICE) launched in 2002 by Foreign Minister Alexander Downer and then-Israeli Foreign Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Both AIJAC and AICE frequently arrange and fund trips to Israel for politicians, senior journalists, trade union leaders and other decision-makers; most recently, the June 2009 40-member delegation of MPs and others, led by Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard, to the Inaugural Australia-Israel Leadership Forum in Jerusalem. Other beneficiaries of these funded study tours include Paul Sheehan, Greg Sheridan, Janet Albrechtsen, Andrew Bolt, Alan Howe and Kevin Rudd. Few other countries are so generous to our opinion-makers.

The websites of the agencies illustrate their concentration on Israel-related issues, which generally comprise 80–100 per cent of all pieces posted. They also illustrate the vigour with which politicians are urged to pursue policies favourable to Israel and the equal vigour with which perceived criticisms of Israel are combated. SBS comes in for a lot of flak for its documentaries, and last year, for example, was impelled to rule out the use of the phrase "Palestinian land" to describe the occupied territories of East Jerusalem and the West Bank. They are now to be referred to solely by geographical location, as, for instance, "Israeli settlements on the West Bank". Local Jewish groups and individuals critical of Israeli policies also come under criticism.

Quite a bit of money is also involved. Australian Electoral Commission reports show that a small group of outstandingly successful Jewish-Australian businessmen have been major donors to both Labor and the Coalition as well as major supporters of AIJAC and its sister agencies. The same group sponsors a range of cultural, educational, sporting and other institutions that provide valued services to government and host politicians as patrons and honoured guests at status-enhancing events.

Our political leaders have also been rewarded with honours of various kinds. At least three (H.V. Evatt, Bob Carr and John Howard) have had forests planted in commemoration of their support. Howard received, among other bestowals, the American Jewish Committee’s highest honour, the American Liberties Medallion and the B’nai B’rith Gold Medal for "consistent support of Israel at the United Nations and throughout the world, combating anti-Semitism". Other awards include Bob Hawke’s Shield of Jerusalem, awarded by the World Zionist Organization and the Mayor of Jerusalem, and Malcolm Fraser’s Gold Medal for Humanitarian Services from International B’nai B’rith. All of these rewards involve strong connections and ready access to political leaders which are well-used. ALP leaders for example have come under heavy pressure to discipline backbenchers who criticise Israel’s continuing occupation of the Palestinian territories — pressure to which they have generally acceded.

All of the above suggests that at least a partial explanation of Australian Middle East policy lies in effective lobbying by local agencies and individuals such as to create "a history of successful access to national decision-makers" and an Australia-Israel relationship that is "much more intense, ongoing and politically important than that within comparable nations".

Effective lobbying requires a strong uncomplicated core narrative. Israel has such a narrative and many statements by Australian leaders indicate their acceptance of this narrative. Drawing on statements made by Evatt, Fraser, Howard, Downer, Hawke, Nelson, Abbott, Rudd, Gillard and others, the Australian version of this narrative can be summarised along the following lines.

Israel is: like us — part of the Western world and we are "all Israelis now"; a robust democracy and custodian of freedom; a beacon of hope; home to the Jewish people who have suffered many hardships and heroically overcome powerful evil forces to attain their ancient homeland; home to an industrious and gifted people who have made the desert bloom; and a peace-seeking nation, as demonstrated by generous offers made under the Oslo Accords.

Meanwhile, Palestine is: alien and anti-West — a home to terrorists; a one party statelet dedicated to destroying its neighbour; supported by autocracies and theocracies; part of the powerful evil forces; a country with a history of aggression and terrorism, but incompetent and disunited when confronted; not really a fixed homeland for a people who just wander around; backward — has never created anything much; no partner for peace; and not prepared to negotiate or renounce violence, as Oslo and Camp David showed.

This accepted narrative puts the small Palestinian-Australian lobby in a very weak position. Their spokespeople point out, for example, that while Israeli Independence Day is honoured by federal and state parliamentarians, it is rare for any MPs to attend events associated with al-Nakba, the annual Palestinian day of remembrance for their 1948 expulsion by the new Israeli state, because "it is suicidal for [Australian] politicians to be seen as pro-Arab". The Oslo Accords introduced a further double-bind, described by one Palestinian Australian as meaning that "our national liberation struggle movement has been catastrophically diluted and metamorphosed into a quasi struggle against what … is now termed a peace partner".

Neither public opinion nor national interests appear to adequately explain our Middle East policy. A reasonable conclusion, then, is that pro-Israel agencies and individuals in Australia have exerted an impressive influence on our governments.

But despite the discomfit exhibited by the Australian Government over the Dubai scandal, and the softening of Australian support at the UN, it is unlikely that we are yet seeing a major shift in policy.

While it would appear that the major factors keeping Australia within the small camp of uncritically pro-Israel nations has been some very effective lobbying, recent decades have shown just how powerful that lobbying can be.

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