A little-noticed casualty of the leadership coup which saw Julia Gillard installed as Prime Minister was the modest progress made by Kevin Rudd to fashion a "principled" position on the Israel-Palestine conflict. Under Rudd, Australia was making a series of steps away from its reflex pro-Israel position under John Howard — and away from the Washington line.
On taking office in 2007, Labor had the political savvy to get controversial decisions made quickly, while its reputation was still unsullied and before resolve could crumble under Canberra’s lobbying system. And at the UN, it seized an early opportunity to signal that foreign policy was under new management, supporting a resolution calling on Israel to stop establishing settlements in the Palestinian territories and a resolution calling for the Geneva Conventions to apply there.
These basic tenets of international law and humanitarian law are accepted, notionally, by the entire international community, but a vote is held annually at the General Assembly (GA), if only to isolate and attempt to embarrass those countries sufficiently brazen to make what is, in effect, a public declaration that Israel should be exempt. In 2003, Australia joined the "hard core" of those voting against this declaration: Israel itself, the United States and four Pacific micro-states whose votes have essentially been bought — the US Marshall Islands, Nauru, Palau and Micronesia.
Under Rudd, Australian officials told the UN in 2008 that the Government had changed its position because it supported a two-state resolution of the conflict to deliver a secure Israel living beside a viable Palestinian state and that Australia believed both sides should abide by their obligations under the Road Map for Peace. Australia said it was concerned that continued settlement-building activity would undermine confidence in the negotiations.
Ominously — in light of the sequence of events that was to follow — the president of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, Robert Goot, was quoted in the Fairfax media as being "concerned" over the switch. "We are concerned that the vote has changed, we do not understand the basis for the change", he said.
Those concerns, we may assume, would only have intensified with the publication of the Goldstone report, with its detailed consideration of evidence that both Israel and Hamas broke international humanitarian law during "Operation Cast Lead", Israel’s attack on Gaza which started at the very end of 2008.
Initially, Australia voted at the GA against referring the report to the UN Security Council. Foreign Minister Stephen Smith complained about Goldstone’s "unbalanced focus on Israel [and]insufficient attention to Hamas’ actions prior to the conflict, especially rocket attacks".
This was a "holding position": a line hastily lashed together on the assumption — justified, as it turned out — that Canberra would not have to undergo any serious media scrutiny on the issue. (In fact, Goldstone investigated and dismissed the Israeli propaganda claim that Hamas rockets were responsible for breaking the Egyptian-brokered ceasefire. The truce had held successfully for six months until a raid in the Strip by Israeli commandoes in November 2008 brought it to breaking point).
Events took a novel twist when a second resolution, amended to demand that Israel and the Palestinians follow up Goldstone’s evidence to investigate possible war crimes in the attack, was tabled at the GA. Now, Australia switched its vote, from a "no" to an "abstain".
This was shortly after the "fake passports affair", when a Hamas military commander, Mahmoud al-Mabouh, was killed in a Dubai hotel room apparently by a team of Mossad agents who used counterfeit travel documents including three forged Australian passports. "Australia would not regard that as the act of a friend", Smith said, and later, Canberra expelled an Israeli diplomat in retaliation. This was the "harder" of the two "lines" adopted by the countries concerned: in France and Germany, for instance — countries whose passports were also faked for the exercise — the local Israeli ambassadors were called in by the respective foreign ministries for a dressing-down.
Any one of these steps was small in itself, but, added together, they sent a clear signal in the highly coded language of diplomacy.
Meanwhile, however, Australia’s pro-Israel lobby had begun to mobilise. Peter Hartcher, the Sydney Morning Herald’s well-connected political editor, recounted how the Jewish community was now declaring itself "too busy" to join in fundraising for Labor’s re-election campaign, whereas, in the heady days of Kevin ’07, "a single lunch in Sydney raised $100,000. A Toorak tennis court party, attended by Rudd and Julia Gillard, raised more". More recently, a meeting over dinner at the Lodge in June 2010, intended to smooth relations with Jewish leaders, was brokered by Michael Danby and Mark Dreyfus and included leading parliamentary supporters of Israel and luminaries of the Labor Right.
Why risk this cosy relationship? Rudd had other fish to fry, that’s why.
Australia had set its cap at winning a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council. The first attempt had attracted a solitary vote (our own, we must assume) but, undeterred, DFAT pressed on with its campaign for a place at the top table for the session in 2013-14. Indeed, it recently sent round a leaflet extolling Australia’s virtues to other foreign ministries appealing for support.
Shortly before the Lodge dinner, Ambassador Hesham Youssef, chef de cabinet to the Secretary-General of the Arab League at its office in Washington, DC, made a visit to Australia. After meeting with MPs and officials, he came to the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Sydney, DFAT minder in tow, for a chat with me, and my colleague, Professor Stuart Rees, Director of the Sydney Peace Foundation.
He had informed everyone he met in Canberra, Ambassador Youssef explained, that Australia could look to the Arab countries to support its Security Council bid only if it took steps to distance itself from Washington on issues arising from the Israel-Palestine conflict.
All in all, then, these were optimistic days, for those wishing for a more even-handed line from Australia on this litmus-test issue of international affairs. And the steady accretion of infinitesimal gradations seemed to be in line with public opinion. A poll by Roy Morgan research, conducted for the pressure group, the Coalition for Justice and Peace in Palestine, found that Australians felt more sympathy for the Palestinians, and expressed more support for their position, over the attack on Gaza, than for the Israelis or their position.
But for those opposed to such developments, an alternative strategy was taking shape. At the time of "Cast Lead", Australia’s response was given, not by Rudd himself — who was taking a short break between Christmas and New Year — but by Gillard, standing in for him. She characterised the onslaught as no more than Israel exercising its "right to defend itself".
Weeks later, she became the first world leader since the attack to make an official visit to Israel, at the head of a bipartisan political and business deputation (accompanied by former Treasurer Peter Costello for the Opposition) — to fulsome thanks from her hosts for having been "almost alone in sticking by us". A study of the transcripts of her speeches and press conferences reveals that the word, Gaza, never once passed her lips.
And we now know — thanks to Wikileaks — that at the same time in Canberra, another key figure on the Labor Right, NSW Senator Mark Arbib, was briefing his handlers at the US embassy on Rudd’s travails, and the credentials of his deputy to take over. Leaked cables reveal Arbib to be a longstanding American intelligence asset. And at some point in this period, the wish became father to the deed: Arbib was not merely discussing the possibility of Rudd’s ouster, but playing a leading role in organising it. By the time Labor’s leadership spill brought the underlying tensions into the open, Rudd’s fate was already sealed by the numbers Arbib had stacked up behind the scenes.
Under Gillard, Australia has reverted to its previous form. At the UN vote last November, we were back with the not-so-magnificent seven, voting against a resolution which "reaffirmed the illegality of Israeli actions intended to change the status of Jerusalem … Reaffirming its commitment to the two-State solution of Israel and Palestine living side by side in peace and security within recognised borders, the Assembly also stressed the need for Israel to withdraw from Palestinian territory occupied since 1967, including East Jerusalem".
So, was there an elaborate plot, involving the active connivance of pro-Israel groups, the US embassy, the mining industry and the Right faction of the ALP, and kept successfully secret, to bring Rudd down and install Gillard in his place? To pose the question in those terms is to stretch credulity, but of course there is a way to answer it, which resonates with abundant life experience, and is encapsulated in another question: cui bono? Or perhaps we could simply say: Go Figure.