In 1948, Australian Labor foreign minister Doc Evatt was instrumental in convincing the United Nations to recognize Israel. Today the ALP continues his legacy by ignoring Israel’s crimes against the Palestinian people.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese speaks next to newly appointed foreign minister Penny Wong during a press conference at Parliament House on May 23, 2022 in Canberra, Australia. (David Gray / Getty Images)

When Israel launched its campaign of ethnic cleansing in Gaza last year, hundreds of thousands of Australians who support the Palestinian cause organized and attended protests, including many rank-and-file Australian Labor Party (ALP) members.

Labor prime minister Anthony Albanese did not join them. Instead, he quickly affirmed Australia’s solidarity with Israel. In an October 11 parliamentary speech, Labor foreign minister Penny Wong bolstered these sentiments, noting that in 1947, under Labor prime minister Ben Chifley, Australia was the first country to vote in favor of the UN plan to partition Palestine and formally recognize Israel. Citing Herbert “Doc” Evatt, Chifley’s foreign minister, Wong stated that “we remain as steadfast and unwavering as ever in our support for Israel.”

This response would be unremarkable for a prime minister or foreign minister from Labor’s right, and as Wong noted, Labor’s support for Israel is in keeping with the party’s record. However, both Albanese and Wong hail from the Labor Left. Indeed, Albanese cofounded the Parliamentary Friends of Palestine and, early in his political career, spoke at pro-Palestine rallies. Given this seeming paradox — and the fact that Labor’s stance is out of step with many of its rank-and-file members and voters — it’s necessary to explain the party’s support for Israel.

Explanations

Perhaps the most popular theory blames Labor’s right-wing position on the Israel lobby, in particular on the Australia Israel & Jewish Affairs Council (AIJAC). And it’s true that the AIJAC has steadily increased its lobbying efforts, which include taking MPs and journalists on sponsored trips to Israel and running smear campaigns against politicians who criticize Israeli policy.

However, lobbying alone cannot explain Labor’s position. To begin with, while there are plenty of influential supporters of Israel in Australia, there is no local equivalent to the evangelical Christian Zionist movement, which now comprises the largest pro-Israel lobby group in the United States. And on a broader level, exclusively blaming the Israel lobby implicitly absolves Labor of responsibility. Rather, we need to explain why pro-Israel lobby groups have found a sympathetic ear in Labor.

Exclusively blaming the Israel lobby implicitly absolves Labor of responsibility.

Alternately, many on the Left argue that Labor’s pro-Israel position stems from the fact that both Australia and Israel, as settler-colonial states, share historical and cultural affinities. As journalist Antony Loewenstein argues, both nations were founded by dispossessing indigenous populations that they have continued to oppress.

However true this may be, it misses important differences between Australian and Israeli colonialism. While both countries are settler-colonies, the British who colonized Australia never claimed they were returning to their historic homeland. Further, both countries have different relationships with the indigenous peoples whom they displaced.

British colonizers were more “successful” than their Zionist counterparts in reducing the land’s indigenous people to a tiny minority. As a consequence, twentieth-century Australian governments were able to eventually grant Aboriginal people civil and political rights without risking radical change. The Zionist settler-colonial process, by contrast, did not lead to a Jewish majority in historic Palestine. Taken together, Israel and the occupied territories are home to as many Palestinians as Israeli Jews. Consequently, to maintain itself as a Jewish state, Israel has to restrict the democratic rights of Palestinians via a system of apartheid.

A more plausible analysis of Labor’s stance points to Australia’s status as a “sub-imperial power.” In this view, Australia trades its sovereignty and foreign policy independence to an imperial power — first Britain and then the United States — in return for the political-economic benefits of being in the imperial core. This approach helps because it proceeds from the class interests of Australia’s rulers and explains how Australia has made its foreign policy interoperable with US policy, resulting in support for Israel.

However, this is only a starting point for explaining Labor’s position. The danger of a broad-brushstrokes analysis is that it misses key moments — such as the Yom Kippur War of 1973 — when Labor did assert a more independent and progressive foreign policy. Then Labor prime minister Gough Whitlam criticized US arms shipments to Israel while refusing to publicly condemn Syria or Egypt for their attacks on Israel.

To understand how this happened and how the Labor Party, its Left included, reverted to a staunch pro-Israel position under Bob Hawke, it’s necessary to look at the history of Labor’s support for Israel.

Labor and Israel’s Founding

In 1948, the Australian left almost universally supported the establishment of Israel, thanks to the efforts of the Communist Party of Australia (CPA), the Jewish Council to Combat Fascism and Anti-Semitism, and the Labor Party. The CPA’s policy echoed that of the USSR, while the ALP’s policy evolved in step with other social democratic parties worldwide and in response to pressure from progressive Zionist campaigning.

Indeed, the ALP is notable because of the outsized role it played in drumming up support for the 1947 United Nations (UN) Partition Plan that allotted most of British Mandate Palestine to the soon-to-be-formed state of Israel.

At the time, this was somewhat unexpected. Largely out of fidelity to Britain, Labor prime ministers John Curtin and Chifley had been lukewarm toward Zionism and the end of the British Mandate in Palestine. Yet by 1947, the British Empire was transforming into the Commonwealth and Cold War concerns were ascendant. Doc Evatt — Curtin and Chifley’s minister for external affairs from 1941 to 1949 — understood this and intervened to rally Labor behind the Zionist cause.

Evatt’s role in the UN was crucial on two counts. First, in May 1947, on Evatt’s initiative, the Australian delegation to the UN successfully moved to establish the UN Committee on Palestine. The committee voted in favor of partition, strongly influencing the later UN General Assembly vote. Second, Evatt himself chaired the Ad Hoc Committee on the Palestinian Question, appointed by the General Assembly to develop recommendations on Palestine. This committee also recommended partition.

Although the United States also supported partition and supplied arms to Zionist forces during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, Evatt was not acting on America’s urging. As a committed liberal internationalist, Evatt was suspicious of American postwar ambitions, especially in the Pacific. Rather, his position reflected the consensus on the Australian left, which was shaped by progressive Zionist campaign groups. The most influential of these was the Melbourne Jewish Council to Combat Fascism and Anti-Semitism, a coalition of Zionist social democrats, communists, and liberals.

In the late 1940s, the council stepped up its campaign to win the Australian left over to a pro-Israel position. For example, the council organized a petition demanding that Australia recognize Israel, which was signed by prominent left-wing figures including the leftist intellectual Brian Fitzpatrick, socialist union leader Clarrie O’Shea, and Labor MP Frank Crean.

The council also pitched its argument in leftist language. Their pamphlet, Israel Reborn argued that the Arab ruling class opposed the partition of Palestine because they feared the enlightenment Jews had brought to the Middle East. These arguments made little reference to concerns held by Palestinians. The council did not acknowledge that Palestinians were being asked to compensate Jews for crimes committed by Europe, nor did they heed their well-founded fears that the creation of a Jewish state would lead to Palestinian dispossession and exile.

By the late 1940s, the Australian left overwhelmingly supported Zionism, and Evatt’s view reflected this consensus.

At the same time, there was no significant or organized Australian-Arab movement to present an opposed view. In fact, the only forces in Australia to articulate remotely pro-Arab views were the conservative Liberal and Country Parties. They opposed establishing Israel out of concern it would undermine the British Empire and drive Arab states into the arms of the Soviets.

In short, by the late 1940s, the Australian left overwhelmingly supported Zionism, and Evatt’s view reflected this consensus. So, as the two emerging Cold War superpowers threw their support behind Israel and Britain scaled back its empire, the Zionist cause found itself ascendent. Shortly after Israel declared independence in May 1948, then Labor prime minister Chifley recognized the new Jewish state.

The Whitlam Years

After taking power in 1949, Liberal prime minister Robert Menzies did not seek to alter his predecessors’ stance. By the time Labor returned to power under Whitlam in 1972, however, the situation had transformed, both domestically and internationally, creating space for Whitlam to take a more progressive, independent position.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Labor’s left faction took up the Palestinian cause. Following the 1967 War — when Israel officially occupied what remained of historic Palestine — they lauded the Palestinian Liberation Organization as underdogs fighting for justice and pushed Labor to recognize them. At the same time, Australia’s strong anti-war movement pressured Labor to take a more neutral position on the Arab-Israeli conflict, as did the non-ALP left, many parts of which were nevertheless closely tied to Labor.

Internationally, America’s weakness following the Vietnam War also facilitated the shift. As US forces withdrew from Vietnam, America found itself forced to pursue détente with the USSR and a less offensive foreign policy. At the same time, buffeted by high oil prices, US policymakers entrenched America’s “special relationship” with Israel.

A turning point came shortly before the 1973 October War and subsequent Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) oil embargo. Up to and during the October War, Australia departed from the United States and took a neutral position on the Arab-Israeli conflict. At its federal conference, the ALP adopted a resolution that called for Arab recognition of the state of Israel. However, it also called upon Israel to withdraw to secure boundaries and for a just settlement of the Palestinian refugee problem. For the first time in 1974, the Australian ambassador to the UN General Assembly indicated that “if the Palestinians want to create a state of their own alongside Israel, we will accept this,” in principle committing Australia to supporting a two-state solution.

Indeed, under Whitlam, the Australian delegation to the UN changed its vote on African and Third World issues. Instead of voting with America, Australia began voting alongside the nonaligned movement, without, however, officially joining it.

Whitlam’s shift toward a more progressive, independent foreign policy was, in part, motivated by economic and domestic political concerns. For example, the Whitlam government’s condemnation of South African apartheid was part and parcel of dismantling the White Australia policy and enshrining new antidiscrimination laws. Similarly, following the 1973 oil crisis, the Whitlam government drew up ambitious plans to develop Australia’s national resources independently of US capital. Under the purview of Rex Connor — committed left nationalist and then minister for minerals and energy — the Whitlam government sought Middle Eastern petrodollars, including via controversial and unconventional channels. This rendered a less pro-American policy advantageous.

Key Labor Left politicians also encouraged the Whitlam government’s shift. Although Whitlam himself was not from the Left, notable members of his cabinet were. Of particular importance was treasurer and deputy prime minister Jim Cairns, a New Left socialist and popular leader of Australia’s anti–Vietnam War movement. Indeed, Cairns had led some of the biggest political marches Australia has ever seen and had even been arrested for his activism. His appointment as deputy prime minister both reflected the strength of Australia’s anti-imperialist movement and legitimized the Whitlam government in the eyes of the progressive wing of civil society.

As deputy prime minister, Cairns called for an end to Labor’s in-principle commitment to the US alliance. Ministers Clyde Cameron and Tom Uren — also from Labor Left — supported him, with Cameron stating that “maniacs” were in charge of US foreign policy and Uren denouncing Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger as mass murderers.

Still, it’s important to note that Whitlam’s shift was as much motivated by pragmatism as principle. In other areas — including his shameful support for Indonesia’s dictator General Suharto — Whitlam’s foreign policy positions were in line with those of his conservative predecessors. Nevertheless, the Whitlam years are important insofar as they prove that it’s possible for the Left to pressure governments to adopt more progressive foreign policy positions.

Hawke: The Turning Point

Australia’s increasingly independent foreign policy was a casualty of the 1975 constitutional coup that toppled Whitlam and his government. Indeed, there is evidence that Whitlam’s independent stance motivated the CIA’s partial involvement in his dismissal. In particular, the CIA was worried that Whitlam was about to inform Parliament about the secret US intelligence presence in Australia via their spy base at Pine Gap.

The Whitlam dismissal badly disoriented the Labor Left and paved the way for Labor’s shift to the right under Hawke. Indeed, after taking office in 1983, Hawke visited the United States and declared that Australia “is not and cannot be” a nonaligned nation. There was little internal opposition. The same was true when Hawke personally reassured America that he would unapologetically commit to increased defense cooperation.

Under Hawke, the ALP also recommitted to Israel, partly a product of Hawke’s strong personal attachment. As president of the Australian Council of Trade Unions, he organized a visit to Israel by a “learning group” of young ALP activists and was also the first serving Australian prime minister to visit Israel while in office. In a 1987 speech to a Bondi synagogue, Hawke explained his admiration for Israel and Labor Zionism, noting that

I was impressed too by the strength of the Trade Union Movement. . . . And as a social democrat, I could not fail to respect the way in which Israel had incarnated the vision of David Ben-Gurion of a working class building its own nation through its own physical and intellectual labor.

In the speech, Hawke did not make a single mention of Palestinians.

Hawke’s campaign to discipline the Labor Left — part of his broader agenda of reigning in union militancy and restraining wages — was overwhelmingly successful at the parliamentary level. Nevertheless, some ALP members continued to demand Labor pursue an even-handed policy on Israel-Palestine. As a result, Hawke occasionally acknowledged the Palestinian cause. However, rather than speaking in favor of Palestinian statehood, he supported a Jordanian-Palestinian confederation.

Labor leaders and foreign ministers have paid lip service to the plight of Palestinians or the two-state solution while simultaneously deepening defense cooperation with the United States and Israel.

After taking office in 1991, Labor prime minister Paul Keating did not initiate a significant change in Australian policy with respect to Israel. However, lacking Hawke’s emotional attachment to Israel, Keating did welcome the Oslo Accords and promoted the Palestine Liberation Organization’s role in the negotiating a two-state solution.

The 2010s

During the 2010s, Labor’s approach to Israel-Palestine followed the formula Hawke and Keating established. This has seen Labor leaders and foreign ministers pay lip service to the plight of Palestinians or the two-state solution while simultaneously deepening defense cooperation with the United States and Israel.

Perhaps the main difference is that after the Hawke years, leaders from the Labor Left have defended Israel just as loyally. Indeed, the Left’s anxiety to prove they are not too left-wing has sometimes placed them to the right of their factional opponents. For instance, Labor Right’s Tony Burke recently gave an interview in which he strongly implied that Israel was an apartheid state. It’s a view well to the left of any expressed by Albanese or Wong.

Consequently, supporters of Palestine should view the Labor Party — its Left included — without illusions. If anything, the 1960s and ’70s, during which Labor entertained a more independent, critical position, were the exception to a long-standing historic commitment to Israel.

At the same time, we should look back to the Whitlam years, but not because of Whitlam himself or to discover a more principled Labor Party. Rather, those years show that with a strong enough peace movement and non–Labor Left, it’s possible to wrench Australia away from its dogged loyalty to the United States and Israel.

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