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  Kim Beazley went as far as to condemn media coverage of the alleged massacre in Jenin last April [2002] during an address to Jewish leaders in Perth.

Australian Jewish News
Sydney, February 20, 2003



Labor Pains

Dan Goldberg


SIMON Crean is puzzled. The Labor Party leader cannot understand the degree of the discontent within the Jewish community created by members of his own backbench who have attacked Israel in the past few months.

First came the debate on Iraq in Federal Parliament last September when Sydney MP Tanya Plibersek described Israel as "a rogue state" and Ariel Sharon as "a war criminal".

Then came the private member's motion on Israel, moved by Federal MP for Fowler Julia Irwin and seconded by Plibersek, which degenerated into a bitter war of words between government and Opposition MPs.

Such was the consternation of the leadership of the community that Executive Council of Australian Jewry president Jeremy Jones - who had referred to the "extraordinary venom" towards Israel by some Labor MPs during the Iraq debate - dispatched a letter to every Federal MP prior to the November 11 debate in the House of Representatives.

The letter pointed to "internal contradictions which appear to be based on an ignorance of Middle East history and recent diplomatic moves", and attacked the motion for failing to refer to the "terrorist atrocities, which have been aimed not only at murdering civilians, but also at harming any short-term prospects for peace".

Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council executive director Dr Colin Rubenstein went one step further. He told SBS on the evening after the debate of the concern "across the board in the Australian Jewish community that this drift [in the Labor Party away from its traditional support for Israel] should be firmly arrested".

Crean, to his credit, did intervene to ensure that Federal Member for Melbourne Ports Michael Danby, who was originally excluded as one of Labor's three spokespeople, represented Labor.

But the debacle within Labor prior to the debate was nothing short of a mud-slinging contest between Danby - who had attempted to quash the motion - and Labor's Chief Whip Janice Crosio, Irwin, Plibersek et al.

The irony of the debate itself was that the acrimony traded across the floor was largely personal, not political. Plibersek called the Liberals' Chris Pyne, chairman of the Australia-Israel Parliamentary Group, "a disgrace"; Pyne retorted by calling Crosio "a thug"; and Crosio conceded that her relationship with Danby was "poisonous" - all under the pretext of a motion on Israel.

Unsurprisingly, the brouhaha was picked up by the media. In a blistering attack on Danby, SMH columnist Alan Ramsey (October 26) wrote that the only Jewish Federal MP was "unarguably the Australian Parliament's most unambiguous and insidious defender of the Israeli Government".

Glenn Milne, chief political correspondent for the Seven Network, argued in the Australian that "the ground Crean cedes within the Australian Jewish community will be occupied by the likes of [Liberal MP Tony] Smith and Pyne. And the way Labor is going about it, that ground will be taken without a fight."

But concern over Labor's backbench is not confined to community leaders or the media. Even card-carrying Labor supporters are questioning why Crean has not quelled what appears to be an anti-Israel backlash on his backbench.

Take former Hawke Government minister Barry Cohen. So enraged was he by the statements attributed to Plibersek during the Iraq debate that he wrote to Crean on September 27. "At the moment I can't imagine any Jew with any feelings toward the State of Israel supporting the Australian Labor Party."

Cohen, who accepts that there is room for legitimate criticism of Israel within Labor, charged Crean with heading a party that has two "distinct and separate" policies on Israel: "The one expressed by you and your foreign affairs spokesman Kevin Rudd, and the anti-Israel tirades of the aforementioned MPs."

Crean responded by reassuring Cohen that "there had been no change to Labor's longstanding and deeply held commitment to the State of Israel".

Although he may not have raised the ire of the community to the degree that Gough Whitlam did in the 1970s, Crean has raised eyebrows among a community which, given the intifada, is extra sensitive to any attacks on Israel.

Yet he remains perplexed, especially by the fracas over the private member's motion: "I am puzzled at the extent to which the reading of the tea leaves is so narrowly focused on what, after all, was a private member's motion."

Offering three lines of defence, Crean stressed that the Israel debate was a private member's motion which did not require a vote.

"If they did require a determination of the parliament, clearly I would have voted against it and spoken against it."

Second, he believes in the democratic right of dissent, but firmly maintains that it does not alter Labor Party policy, which supports Israel's right to exist within secure, recognised borders, while supporting the right of the Palestinians to a state.

In addition, he cites former deputy prime minister Tim Fischer, who has criticised Israel in the past, as an example of the government allowing dissent within its ranks.

"Did the same sort of campaign get raised with John Howard when Tim Fisher spoke out against Israel?"

Although he acknowledges that the government did eventually distance itself from Fischer's remarks, Crean stressed that Fischer was deputy PM at the time, whereas Irwin and Plibersek are backbenchers.

Third, Crean, who has visited Israel three times, is adamant that however critical his backbench may be, it does not alter Labor's "rock-solid" support for Israel. "I'm making it categoric that our policy has not shifted, and it won't under me.

"My support for Israel has been longstanding; it's unequivocal and it's unshakeable."


THE Jewish community has a long relationship with the Labor Party dating back to Ben Chifley's and Dr Bert Evatts' support for the establishment of the State of Israel.

But Whitlam damaged the relationship when, in 1974, he incurred the wrath of the Jewish leadership when he was asked why he had failed to condemn the surprise Arab attack on Israel on Yom Kippur 1973.

Whitlam allegedly responded: "You people should realise that there is a large Christian Arab community in this country."

If Whitlam burned the bridges with the community in the 1970s, Bob Hawke rebuilt them when he was elected in 1983. In fact, according to a member of the pro-Israel lobby, Hawke's foreign minister, Bill Hayden, was as pro-Israel as Hawke himself.

Paul Keating, however, did not employ the same sensitivity as Hawke, and his foreign minister, Gareth Evans, put the community offside when he commented on Israel's human-rights contraventions.

By contrast, Kim Beazley had studied the Middle East and was staunchly pro-Israel. He went as far as to condemn media coverage of the alleged massacre in Jenin last April during an address to Jewish leaders in Perth.

But Crean's troubled relationship with the community is only one side of the coin; the other side - John Howard's Liberal Party - may be equally responsible for making Crean's rapprochement that much harder.

As one senior Jewish commentator put it: "I do not recall an Australian prime minister who has been as completely unequivocal in his support for Israel."

Not only has Howard defended Israel time and again, but Foreign Minister Alexander Downer and Treasurer Peter Costello have also been consistent supporters.

Unsurprisingly, Howard's own backbench has seized on Labor's internal division, with Pyne claiming the Israel debate broke "the 54-year bipartisan position that's existed between Labor and Liberal over the State of Israel" -- a claim flatly rejected by Crean.

Smarting from accusations in the media that his errant backbench is a sign of his own political weakness, Crean remains adamant that such allegations are unfounded.

"I should not have to wear the innuendo and the intellectual dishonesty that that is me softening my position."

Nonetheless, there are voices within the community questioning why Crean has apparently given the green light to anti-Israel voices from his backbench.

While he accepts that some of his NSW backbenchers "have constituencies that are geared to that [Arab] point of view", he is quick to defend the dissent in the name of democracy.

But perhaps the most damning attack launched by any Labor MP was not against Israel, but a scathing broadside by Irwin against the "Jewish lobby".

Just weeks after the Israel motion, Irwin, in a grievance debate on December 9, charged the Jewish lobby with trying to kybosh the debate, accusing it of a "code of silence".

Quoting an email from an unnamed commentator warning her that "you have taken on the most implacable, arrogant, cruel and powerful lobby in the country", Irwin said she felt "the taboo on discussing this issue has been broken" and vowed to continue the debate.

Crean did not see fit to publicly distance himself from Irwin's comments. Instead, he said he spoke to her privately: "I went to Julia Irwin and said that was an inappropriate statement to make and you shouldn't make it again."

While Crean conceded he was offended by the comment - "I think the reference to the Jewish lobby is offensive because that's the typecasting of everyone" - he didn't think it appropriate to renounce it in public.

Although the relationship between the Jewish community and the Labor Party has not been plain sailing, Labor's leadership, including Crean, has been largely pro-Israel.

And although Crean may have lost the faith of some, there are many dyed-in-the-wool supporters who - despite the government's position on Israel, and because of its stance on Iraq, refugees and Aborigines - would not conceive of switching sides.

As a pro-Israel lobbyist told the Bulletin in an August 1992 story on the relationship between the party and the Jews during the Keating Government: "For me, not voting Labor would be like eating ham."



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