Australia renews its love affair with Israel

By Dan Goldberg, December 10, 2009

It was known as the “golden era” between Israel, Australia and the Jewish community.

The 11-year period of Conservative government under John Howard was arguably the zenith in bilateral relations between the two far-flung friends.

Between 1996 and 2007, Mr Howard — alongside Treasurer Peter Costello and Foreign Minister Alexander Downer — narrowed the distance between Canberra and Jerusalem, diplomatically if not geographically.

Aside from his ardent advocacy of Israel’s right to self-defence, Mr Howard joined George W Bush’s war against Saddam Hussein, defended Israel’s security barrier, backed her 2006 war against Hizbollah and delivered a scathing eulogy when Yassir Arafat died in 2004.

For that, and innumerable speeches at Jewish functions, he was showered with awards from organisations here and in America. Some Jewish pundits — this one included — went as far as suggesting that the Howard era would never be repeated and that a Labour government under Kevin Rudd and his deputy Julia Gillard, who hails from the Labour’s left flank, would never match the unequivocal support of Mr Howard’s Liberal Party.

After all, it appeared that the left-wing of the Labour Party had become intrinsically hostile to Israel.

Witness Tanya Plibersek MP, who in 2002 blasted Ariel Sharon as a “war criminal” and Israel as a “rogue state” (she later apologised); or Julia Irwin MP, who read out an email in parliament describing the Jewish lobby as “the most implacable, arrogant, cruel and powerful lobby in the country”.

And then Barry Cohen, a former Jewish cabinet minister, dropped a bombshell, accusing the party in 2004 of being “rampant” with antisemitism.

Mr Rudd slammed the charge as “offensive, inflammatory and inaccurate”. But either way, it seemed clear that, even if Labour’s Israel critics became muted in power, the Rudd era would never reach the dizzy heights of the Howard era, despite two Jewish MPs in government.

Well, two years into its three-year term and the jury is in: we were wrong, spectacularly so.

Labour’s report card reads thus: in March 2008, Australia passed a bipartisan motion, moved by Mr Rudd, on Israel’s 60th anniversary, lauding her “commitment to democracy, the rule of law and pluralism”.

In January 2009, Ms Gillard, who was acting PM, stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Israel’s bombing of Hamas in Gaza, despite a barrage of protests from pro-Palestinian groups.

In May, Australia boycotted the UN’s anti-racism conference in Geneva (Britain attended) and in November, voted against adopting the Goldstone report at the UN (Britain abstained).

Perhaps the most remarkable factor in Labour’s apparent love affair with Israel is not Mr Rudd, but Ms Gillard, who was once the source of angst among Jewish leaders.

Last Sunday, after a gushing address in Melbourne to the Australia Israel Leadership Forum, during which she described the two-day conference as “a special kind of conversation between friends”, she danced the hora with Jewish women while outside the hotel 150 student demonstrators clashed with police.

Could the Welsh-born deputy PM genuinely believe in the veracity of Israel’s case, having visited there twice in recent years? Or has she caved in on the issue following pressure, real or perceived?

Or is there a third possibility? As one Jewish leader put it, “She wants to be Australia’s first female prime minister and she knows that means currying favour with the Jews.”

Dan Goldberg is the JC’s Australia

Last updated: 3:39pm, December 10 2009