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Labor motion on Palestinian recognition could put the Jewish vote in play at the next election

AAP/William West

Vexed argument in the Labor Party about relations with Israel is set to come to a head at the conference later this month of the party’s dominant New South Wales branch. Barring the successful intervention of federal Labor, the NSW branch will call for recognition of Palestine along lines of various Scandinavian countries, including Sweden.

According to reports, the motion:

… notes previous resolutions on Israel/Palestine carried at the 2015 ALP national conference and the 2016 NSW Labor annual conference and urges the next Labor government to recognise Palestine.

This outcome would put the state branch on a collision course – potentially – with the Shorten-led forces that fought hard at Labor’s federal conference in Melbourne in 2015 to resist such an outcome. In the end a compromise resolution was accepted, under which Labor would work with:

… like-minded nations who have already recognised Palestine and announce the conditions and timelines for the Australian recognition of a Palestinian state.

That is, if there was no progress toward a two-state solution. Clearly, there has been no progress.

In the interim, attitudes within Labor have hardened toward Israel over its settlement-building activities. Party elders like Bob Hawke and Gareth Evans have called for Palestinian recognition, along with Kevin Rudd.

If the NSW branch were to carry the day at Labor’s next national conference due sometime in 2019, this would herald the first time since Israel’s founding in 1948 that Australia’s two major parties have diverged to such an extent on the Israel-Palestine issue.

In 1973, the Whitlam-led Labor Party settled on what it described as an even-handed approach to Israel and Palestine in contrast to previous conservative government’s pro-Israel positions. This infuriated Australian Jewish leaders. At the time, Whitlam did not advocate recognition of Palestine.

In the years since 1973, and including multiple attempts to achieve peace between Israelis and Palestinians, Israel has broadened and deepened its settlement-building in the West Bank, occupied in the 1967 war.

Continued settlement construction in contravention of international law has undermined support for Israel, and fuelled antagonism on the centre-left of Australian politics. An avowed supporter of Israel and someone who is close to Melbourne’s Jewish community, Bill Shorten risks finding himself out of step with mainstream Labor sentiment.

An indication of the toxic nature of internal debate on the Palestine question is reflected in comments this week by Michael Danby, the MP for Melbourne Ports. He accused former Labor foreign minister and NSW premier Bob Carr of having an “obsession” with the Palestine question, and urged him to engage in public debate on the issue. Carr is a prime mover behind the NSW resolution.

A lifelong supporter of Israel, Carr shifted ground following his exposure as foreign minister to the Palestine issue. He is now patron of Labor’s Friends of Palestine.

Carr is far from alone among senior figures in the NSW branch who are in favour of Palestinian recognition. This reflects demographic changes in Labor-held seats in Sydney’s western suburbs sensitising the party on Palestine. A pro-Israel stance has long since ceased to be a defining characteristic of the Labor movement.

The forthcoming NSW branch’s consideration of the Carr-inspired motion is presenting challenges for the likes of deputy Labor leader Tanya Plibersek, a NSW MP. She has indicated she will not support the NSW motion.

Labor’s foreign affairs spokesperson, Penny Wong, has said:

This is a motion before the NSW conference and is not determinative of the position of the federal parliamentary Labor party.

In February, Wong said the:

… current platform, which states this is a matter for a future Labor government to consider in light of the circumstances, is a very sensible approach.

However, the problem for Shorten, Plibersek and Wong is that attitudes on the Palestine issue in the Labor movement show no sign of easing off. The Tasmanian branch recently urged the immediate recognition of Palestine, putting that branch a step ahead of NSW.

Shorten and his team, therefore, face the possibility of going to the next election with a position that will enable the Coalition to drive a wedge between Labor and a Jewish constituency.

Since the Abbott government’s victory in 2013, Coalition policy has shifted back to a traditional and fairly uncritical Israel-supporting stance reminiscent of the Howard era.

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop set the tone early in her tenure for a more indulgent Australian government position on illegal settlements when she appeared to question whether settlements themselves were illegitimate. Asked by the Times of Israel whether such settlements beyond 1967 warlines are illegal under international law, she replied:

I would like to see which international law has declared them illegal.

The Coalition’s standard position when contentious resolutions critical of Israel are brought before the UN is to insist it will not support such “unbalanced” resolutions. In line with this position, the Turnbull government criticised a landmark UN Security Council resolution in December 2016 that said settlement activity in the Palestinian territories has:

… no legal validity and constitutes a flagrant violation under international law and a major obstacle to the achievement of a two-state solution.

In a move that had reverberations around the world the US abstained – that is, it did not exercise a veto.

Malcolm Turnbull reiterated his government’s opposition to the Security Council resolution in an op-ed at the time of the visit to Australia in February 2017 by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Turnbull wrote:

My government will not support one-sided resolutions criticising Israel of the kind recently adopted by the UN Security Council.

In the UN General Assembly of 2013-16 (sessions 68-71), a Coalition government has repeatedly abstained on resolutions critical of Israeli settlements. The previous Labor governments of Rudd and Julia Gillard had voted in favor of these resolutions.

In the UN since 2013, Australia has one of the highest abstention rates on resolutions critical of Israel of any western democracy.

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