Labor’s abstention explained

ZCV assembly 3

Labor MP Mike Kelly touts his party’s credential on Israel through the years, and explains the decision to abstain on last year’s UN vote.

RECENTLY all those who support Israel and its right to live in peace and security behind practical and secure borders have been embroiled in a debate around the difficult decision on the UN General Assembly vote on state observer status for the Palestinian territories.

The process of determining what was the best of the three voting options in the interests of Middle East peace and the secure future for Israel that we all seek, was portrayed by some as an indication of the stronger support of the Coalition for Israel over the Gillard government. This was based on the fact that the Coalition advocated a “no” vote whereas the Government ultimately settled on an “abstention”. Determining the right approach on this issue was complicated and particularly so in the context of the recent escalation of violence in relation to the rocket threats from Gaza.

Before considering the pros and cons of the vote it is perhaps timely to revisit the record of the major parties on Israel. Three excellent references in this respect which I would strongly recommend to all who wish to be properly informed on the Australia/Israel relationship are Australia and Appeasement by Christopher Waters, Australia and Israel by Chnnan Reich and Nazi Dreamtime: Australian Enthusiasts for Hitler’s Germany by David Bird. In the first book the terrible record of the conservative government of Australia through the years leading up to the Second World War is laid out in damning detail. The conservative figureheads of Robert Menzies (Attorney General and later Prime Minister), Joseph Lyons (Prime Minister), Richard Casey (Foreign Minister) and Stanley Bruce (High Commissioner to the UK) all vigorously exerted influence on the British government in favour of a policy of appeasement of Nazi Germany, even after it was abandoned by the British.

In late 1934 and early 1935 Menzies, then Attorney-General, unsuccessfully prosecuted the Lyons Government’s case for the attempted exclusion from Australia of Egon Kisch, a Czech Jewish campaigner against the Nazis. While some saw this as an early example of his anti-Communism, others suspected and charged Menzies with holding Nazi sympathies. Following the outbreak of World War II Menzies attempted to distance himself from his actions as Attorney-General in this affair by claiming Interior Minister Thomas Paterson was responsible since he made the initial order to exclude Kisch.

Menzies, the founder of the Liberal Party, had a great deal of sympathy for Nazi “achievements”, even after having personally visited Germany in 1938. Menzies spent several weeks in Nazi Germany and was extremely impressed with the abolition of trades unions, suppression of the right of collective bargaining and the outlawing of the right to strike. In October 1938, after five years of increasing violence against the Jews and others, he made a speech in Sydney where he contrasted the quality of the leadership of Lyons as PM unfavourably with Hitler. For this the PM’s wife Dame Enid Lyons never forgave him.

Menzies was to say, “…it must be said that this modern abandonment by the Germans of individual liberty and of the easy and pleasant things of life has something rather magnificent about it. The Germans may be pulling down the churches, but they have erected the State, with Hitler at its head, into a sort of religion which produces spiritual exaltation that one cannot but admire and some small portion of which would do no harm among our somewhat irresponsible populations.” This despite the anti-Semitic policies of the Nazis being well known by this stage, including the savage Nuremberg Laws of 1935. Menzies’ view was that Hitler was a patriot and he was not concerned for the fate of the Jews of Germany or what awaited the peoples of Eastern Europe under the Nazi domination he was prepared to concede.

The Lyons government refused, despite much lobbying, to raise the issue of the treatment of the Jews with the German Government. This remained the case even after Kristallnacht in 1938 when the ALP, particularly the NSW Branch, condemned the Lyons government for failing to protest the atrocities.

Christopher Waters came to the conclusion that, “Lyons, Menzies, Casey and Bruce badly misjudged Hitler’s and Mussolini’s foreign policies, and actively pursued the imperial appeasement policy long after they should have recognised its failure.” He added that the successful implementation of the Conservative Australian Government’s policy “…would have resulted in a new world order under which a large swathe of the globe would have been governed by Hitler’s racial ideology”. Even after Menzies lost the elections in 1941, as Leader of the Opposition in 1942 he lobbied for the release of a notoriously anti-Semitic old law school acquaintance, pro-Nazi sympathiser, Rud Mills who had been taken into security detention.

During the crucial period in the lead up to the outbreak of World War II the Conservative Government also vigorously opposed allowing Jewish refugees into the British Palestine Mandate territory. Australia’s High Commissioner to the UK, Bruce, advised the British Government that, “Australia’s views were very definitely that we must not arouse the hostility of the Arabs in trying to pacify the Jews”. Compounding this opposition was their position at the Evian Conference in July 1938 on the plight of Jewish refugees desperately attempting to get out of Germany and Austria. The Australian government reluctantly agreed to take very few of these with TW White on behalf of the Government infamously stating: “as we have no real racial problem, we are not desirous of importing one”.

In May 1939 the British Government issued its infamous White Paper, spelling the death sentence to so many Jews, by placing extreme limits on their entry into the Mandate territory. The Zionist Federation of Australia and New Zealand and several intellectuals and church men approached Menzies to protest this and transmit their grievances to Britain. He refused to do so.

In February of 1939 Lyons warned the British against the partition of the Mandate territory so as not to estrange the Muslim world and urged safeguards be put in place “to prevent Jewish predominance”. Reich states that, “The policies of Lyons and Menzies towards the Jewish-Arab conflict over Palestine were the product of a unique Australian interpretation of the interests of the British Empire in the Middle East, reinforced by anti-Jewish prejudice”.

After the war when the great debates began on the creation of Israel, a Labor Government was now in office in Australia under Ben Chifley.  HV “Doc” Evatt represented Australia at the UN and headed up an ad hoc committee in 1947 that achieved acceptance of a partition plan for the Mandate territory creating separate Arab and Jewish states. He was a key driving force in attaining that outcome and was praised by the governing authorities of the Yishuv, with a forest planted in his honour. Chaim Weizmann was to say of Evatt that he played “a momentous role in all the processes which culminated in the birth of Israel”. In 1965 the Australian Jewish News said of him that he was “the man who piloted the establishment of Israel through the UN in 1948”.

Meanwhile the Liberal Country Party Coalition continued their anti-Zionist stance, severely criticizing the Labor Government’s support for partition, claiming the UN decision resulted from pressure from American Jews and was therefore illegitimate. They also criticized fundraising activities by the Jewish Agency among Australian Jews.

The next great debate in the process concerned recognition of Israel after the Arab States and Palestinian leadership rejected the partition plan and Israel declared its independence. Evatt and Chifley were locked in a bitter fight with the UK over this issue but, responding to a leaflet supported by trade union leaders, academics and clergymen published by Brian Fitzpatrick in July 1948 urging recognition, they pushed on. Chifley announced full recognition on January 29, 1949 stating he regarded the new nation of Israel as “a force of special value in the world community”. The Federal Opposition vehemently criticized the Government’s de jure recognition of Israel.

The Labor Government also supported Israel’s admission to the UN, vigorously aided by Evatt who was now President of the UN General Assembly. Again this was opposed by the UK and the Federal Opposition. Despite this opposition Israel was admitted as a full member on May 11, 1949 and Australia immediately moved to exchange diplomatic missions. To sum up this critical phase in the birth and establishment of Israel, Reich states “From April 1947 onwards, the Labor Government conducted, by and large, a very pro-Zionist policy in the face of severe criticism by Britain and the Federal Opposition.” He cites a quote from Banativ, the Zionist youth magazine, urging a Labor vote in the 1949 elections because Labor had “consistently supported the cause of Israel, Jewry, and the UN”, warning that a “a Liberal Government would result in the growing tide of anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist feeling being heard more loudly in Parliament, but this time from the Government benches”.

This difference in attitude between the Conservative and Labor sides of politics had a number of causes. Labor was very impressed with the support the Yishuv provided to our troops, including members of my own family, in both World Wars and Jewish solidarity with the Allies in the fight against the fascists. This was in marked contrast to figures like the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem who was an active Nazi collaborator. Secondly they identified strongly with the Labor leaders of Israel who had done the most to build the Yishuv, Israel and its institutions as well as provide its best military leadership.

The Unions in Australia were deeply impressed with the achievements of the peak union body in Israel, the Histadrut, and the communal kibbutz movement. In contrast the Conservative politicians in Australia were slavish followers of British policy, were suspicious of the left leaning nature of the Israeli leadership and Israel’s institutions and clearly had a degree of prejudice against the Jews born of the inherited or aped attitudes of high British society of the time.

This dichotomy only really began to change from the 1956 Suez Crisis when the UK and France were allied with Israel through which Israel sought to clear the maritime blockade by Egypt against her. The growing intensification of the Cold War also transformed conservative attitudes, as Israel was clearly not in the Soviet camp. Nevertheless strong anti-Israel sentiment continued to exist in Conservative ranks over the years among key figures such as Malcolm Fraser, Tim Fischer and in the current Parliament Sussan Ley. On the Labor side every leader has been a supporter of Israel. A prime example of that tradition and to great effect was Bob Hawke, whose strong advocacy for the right of Russian Jews to emigrate to Israel saw thousands make Aliyah. He was another Labor figure for whom Israel has dedicated a forest. In recent years both Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard have been very strong supporters. Prime Minister Julia Gillard cannot be questioned on her long time support for Israel and the Jewish community in Australia. She has proclaimed her strong commitment proudly, vigorously and openly at every opportunity, including during the trying confrontations with Hamas in Gaza.

And so why did the Government determine to abstain in the recent vote in the UN General Assembly on the Status of the Palestinian territories? There are only three options available in such votes: Yes, no or abstain. Given the complicated nature of this issue such options are something of a blunt instrument. What made the situation even more difficult was the close proximity of the most recent Gaza confrontation. It is the position of both Coalition and Labor and of both the Palestinian Authority and Israel that there ought be a two-state solution to the conflict. A number of voices in the Israeli polity advocated a “yes” vote, including former Likud Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Olmert’s view, conveyed with some force, is that if Israel must have a two-state solution to succeed as the Jewish homeland then it should support all processes that move the Palestinian territories toward acceptance of that reality. In his view the status vote was part of that process.

My own view was that there were valid arguments in support of all three voting options. Given the recent escalation in aggression by Hamas I settled on the firm conclusion that a “yes” vote was not merited as it could have the effect of being seen as a reward for their bad behaviour, which could strengthen Hamas in the febrile politics of the area. It has also been the Government’s strong and clearly stated view, which I support, that the two state solution can only be attained by both parties returning to direct negotiations without preconditions. In the end the decision to “abstain” was taken to convey the nuance required by the situation that, while the Australian Government acknowledges the legitimate aspirations of the Palestinians for statehood, our position on how that is to be achieved remains unchanged.

Within the Labor caucus there were different views on this issue. This discussion was not driven by domestic political considerations but on what was the best option for achieving the two state solution. The Prime Minister ultimately presented to the Caucus her final view that we should “abstain” and this position was unanimously supported by the Caucus without further debate. No argument was put to the Caucus to vote “yes” and such a proposal would have been overwhelmingly defeated.

It is utterly false and repulsive to suggest that this vote in any way indicates a dilution of Labor’s committed support for Israel, based as it is on a proud and unmatched tradition, or that the Coalition is in any way a stronger supporter. Under this Government, and particularly within my own portfolio of Defence, the relationship with Israel has been taken to unprecedented levels and we are seeking to elevate it further.

This has been to the great benefit of our effective operational capacity in Afghanistan and the enhancement of our Force Protection. There is no stronger friend of Israel than this Government. We face the same enemy and we have the same fervent hopes for peace. From time to time friends will differ but a healthy level of disputation is only a reflection of the nature of Israel itself, and what makes it so worthwhile defending.