Labor Matures On Foreign Affairs


Julia Gillard had some uncomfortable moments in the Labor party room this week.

Given the blanket media coverage afforded the AWU non-scandal, you’d be forgiven for thinking the backbench revolt was due to nervous MPs demanding some kind of circuit-breaker on the controversy.

But it wasn’t. Instead, the revolt was about a vote in the United Nations on Palestinian observer status.

The vote, which is about raising the status of the Palestinian territories to "non-member observer" status, will not actually recognise a Palestinian state. But it will elevate the Palestinian territories to the same observer status as, for instance, the Vatican.

Perhaps more importantly, the vote recognises Palestine under the 1967 borders. That’s critical, because Israel now occupies large swathes of that territory. Given the red-hot tensions around the issue, the vote is being seen as an historic step towards fully fledged statehood for the Palestinian Authority.

The importance of the vote can be seen by the way Israel and US are trying to forestall it. Indeed, Israel has made public threats to destabilise Abbas’ government if the vote succeeds. But with world support now swinging behind the Palestinians, Israel is looking increasingly isolated. As Barak Avid argues today in Haaretz, "while the ruling party in Israel is moving to the right, the international community, including Israel’s friends, is moving to the left. They are no longer willing to accept Israel’s occupation of the West Bank."

There are also divisions with the Palestinian movement. This vote is being championed by West Bank leader, President Mahmoud Abbas of the Fatah party. But Fatah does not control the Gaza strip, which is of course home to the more militant Hamas movement, recently involved in another short war with Israel.

It looks as though Abbas will win, with many Western democracies backing it, including France, Switzerland and Spain. Only the US, Israel and a handful of Pacific micro-states are expected to vote against the resolution. The UK has signalled it will abstain.

In Canberra, the divisions with the ALP were all about whether Australia would also abstain, or vote against the Palestinians, as we often have in the past.

It’s a little surprising, to say the least, to discover that a vote on Middle East foreign policy has caused deep divisions in the Labor caucus, a body more used to arcane factional manoeuvres and disagreements over bread-and-butter domestic issues like carbon pricing or fiscal policy. But the many media reports about the issue suggest that there really was a showdown between Foreign Minister Bob Carr and the Prime Minister over the issue.

Troy Bramston has a very good piece about it in today’s Australian, in which he reads the tea leaves of Labor’s internal dissent over the vote. It appears to have divided both Cabinet and many factional caucuses, with the Prime Minister backing down after it became clear that she would be rolled in the party room.

Many Jewish groups are unsurprisingly opposed to the vote. Mark Liebler of the Australia/Israel and Jewish Affairs Council argues that "the true purpose of the move is to enable the Palestinians to launch a new campaign of diplomatic and legal attacks against Israel in various UN forums and elsewhere, particularly the International Criminal Court — and to do so as an alternative to direct negotiations with Israel".

The victory for pro-Palestinian factions in the ALP shows that public sentiment in Australia is shifting on this thorniest of international issues. The Zionist lobby has long been highly influential in Australian politics, and continues to enjoy a lot of sway with members of Parliament such as Michael Danby in Victoria and Malcolm Turnbull in New South Wales (Danby has had a swipe at New Matilda in the past, in fact, over our comments policy — you can see the background here.)

These changing views in the community on the Palestinian question are beginning to change Labor MPs minds. There is growing sense among many MPs representing western Sydney that their increasingly diverse electorates are very sympathetic to the Palestinian cause — a sympathy encouraged by the recent war, in which a dominant Israeli air force bombed many civilian targets. And many Left-leaning Labor members, like Andrew Leigh in the Australian Capital Territory, also want statehood for Palestine, reflecting their own deeply held beliefs.

Former Labor foreign minster Gareth Evans has also been prominent in the debate, telling the media this week that, "My very strong view was that to vote ‘no’ on this resolution would be not to help the cause of peace, not to help Israel and to be putting Australia absolutely on the wrong side of history in terms of our region and in terms of our capacity to be a credible and effective performer on the Security Council over the next two years".

Evans’ point about Australia’s future on the Security Council is an important one. The government — which could well be led by Tony Abbott by the end of next year — will have many difficult decisions to navigate once we take up our place on the Council. This will allow Australia a bigger opportunity to participate in global affairs. But it was also place us in some difficult spots, as we seek to reconcile our national interests with those of our allies like the United States.

For his part, Carr has been reiterating the value of Australia’s membership of the Council, and our capacity to pursue an independent line on foreign policy. Carr calls the abstention, "a signal to the world that Australia, with an independent foreign policy, can carve out a position that meets our assessments and meets our needs and our interests."

Labor backbenchers should get ready for further debates on issues like Palestinian statehood in the near future. Australia’s new role on the UN Security Council means there is suddenly a lot more at stake.

Ben Eltham

Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.