2014 columns, Politics

Whitewashing occupation? Bill Shorten and the Israel Lobby

by David Donaldson , April 14, 2014Leave a comment

West Bank


Racism and military occupation have no place in the modern world, and are certainly not something looked upon favourably by a majority of Australians.

Yet while apartheid, for example, has become a byword for shame and racism, the Labor Opposition leader feels comfortable asserting that some Israeli West Bank settlements are legal. That a regime founded on racism and military occupation can be considered at least potentially acceptable is exactly what Bob Carr is talking about when he says the right-wing Israel lobby holds inordinate influence over our political debate.

The West Bank, which is supposed to form the bulk of a Palestinian state under a two-state solution, remains a fundamentally divided society. There are separate services and rules for Jews and non-Jews in most areas of life: roads, water, land rights, the movement of people, and basic legal rights are all dependent on whether you happen to be Jewish or not. Effectively, the Palestinian residents of the West Bank are ruled over by Israel, yet are completely disenfranchised – something ignored by those who promote Israel as ‘the only democracy in the Middle East’.

In addition to the military occupation and restriction of basic rights within the West Bank, Israel is carrying out ethnic cleansing in many areas, ejecting non-Jewish residents for ‘military exercises’ or nature reserves. Jewish settlements just happen to sit in the areas not required by the state.

Refusing to condemn the settlements, in practice, means assenting to the continuing replacement of Arabs and Bedouins with Jews, in violation of international law.

Incredibly, a couple of weeks ago we saw Opposition Leader Bill Shorten telling the Zionist Federation of Australia that only ‘some settlements … have been decided or deemed to be illegal under Israeli law.’ This is not ALP policy, which says that all settlements are illegal, a position held by most of the world. Many Labor MPs were outraged that their leader seemed to be changing highly controversial party policy to reflect his own views.

‘Even Israel’s closest ally, the United States, regards the settlements as illegitimate,’ said Labor’s former Minister for International Development Melissa Parke when the issue came up last month.

Bob Carr told the media last week he believed that ‘extreme right-wing’ pro-Israel lobbyists in Melbourne have an ‘unhealthy’ influence on Australia’s policy towards Israel-Palestine.

Predictably, said lobbyists immediately tried to imply Carr was an anti-Semite, implying that he was painting the entire Jewish community with the same brush. Where Carr used the term ‘pro-Israel lobby’, those attacking him insisted on saying he was criticising the ‘Jewish lobby’. Labor MP and strong supporter of Israel Michael Danby even went so far as to call Carr a ‘bigot’.

This is a tactic that American academics and authors of The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy, John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, have referred to as ‘the great silencer’: ‘Anyone who criticises Israeli actions or says that pro-Israel groups have significant influence over US Middle East policy […] stands a good chance of getting labeled an anti-Semite.’ The debate rarely takes place on the merits of the policy, instead instantly leaping to the question of whether or not the dissenter is a racist.

Mark Leibler, National Chairman of the Australia/Israel and Jewish Affairs Council (AIJAC) and one of those attacking Carr, wrote in The Age on Friday: ‘Carr’s claim that Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council and the Jewish community take an extreme right-wing view on Israel is disingenuous. Carr knows that there are quite a range of different views in Israel and within the Australian Jewish community in relation to settlements.’

This is exactly the problem with organisations like AIJAC: despite a range of views within the Jewish community, the main, influential Jewish community groups tend to advocate a far right-wing viewpoint on Israel that is inimical to the principles of modern social democracy. Organisations such as the Australian Jewish Democratic Society, which take a more critical view of Israeli policy, are usually drowned out by better resourced and better connected right-wing bodies.

If we believe apartheid to be completely unacceptable, there is little reason to defend the settlements.

When else would it be conceivable that the leader of Labor – an ostensibly social democratic party – would be prepared to accept that one people, backed by a military occupation, could build houses on the land of another?

To support even some of the settlements not only ignores the social democratic values of the Labor party, but the opinion of the majority of international legal scholars and, indeed, the majority of states. The victory of the pro-Israel right is that these issues are even debated in the first place.

David Donaldson is a Master of International Relations graduate who lives in Melbourne. He tweets @davidadonaldson.

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