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Labor Appeases Party’s Left with Israel Shift Ahead of National Conference

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Labor’s hardened position on ­Israel – calling its settlements on the West Bank “illegal under international law” and referring to the West Bank and Gaza as “Occupied Palestinian Territories” – sparked predicable fury.

Opposition foreign affairs spokesman Simon Birmingham accused the government of reacting to pressure from party activists on the left ahead of Labor’s national conference next week.

Colin Rubenstein, head of the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council, said Labor’s stance strained a longstanding bipartisan policy supporting a two-state negotiated peace settlement.

The claims of both are true.

Foreign Minister Penny Wong would not have gone ­public with such a dramatic escalation in rhetoric – except for her need to partially appease party hardliners.

Labor and the Coalition are now far apart in their expressed positions on Israel and the Palestinian territories, though both continue to support a negotiated two-state settlement.

There is another way to read what happened this week, however, as some of Labor’s most ardent supporters of Israel argue. Essentially nothing has changed, except for a hardening of language that reverts to the position of past Labor and even Coalition governments.

The Albanese government has been ruminating for months about how it would handle two issues above all that have caused internal dissent and threatened to blow out of control during debate on the floor of Labor’s three-day national conference in Brisbane, starting on Thursday.

The first is the AUKUS defence agreement, originally negotiated in secret with the US and UK by Scott Morrison and a few of his ministers. It was automatically endorsed by Labor in opposition, and then embraced wholeheartedly by Anthony Albanese and his government in March this year with a $3bn “down payment” towards the planned $368bn acquisition of nuclear-powered submarines.

Within the ALP, former PM Paul Keating has been the most prominent opponent, arguing the deal is unwise, a waste of money, and locks Australia into a US-led strategy for decades based on containing China.

Unusually, Keating has a unity ticket on this issue with retired Labor senator Doug Cameron and other hardline party left-wingers and unions who say the funds could be better spent on health, education and housing.

The left has also protested that submarines could not only be ­nuclear-powered but armed with nuclear weapons in future and raised the problem of nuclear waste disposal.

Many in the ALP Left feel emboldened because their faction will outnumber the Right for the first time in more than 50 years at this year’s national conference, providing hope that some of their pet issues will finally prevail.

When it became clear a few months ago that a motion opposing AUKUS was likely to hit the conference floor, at risk of passing and causing enormous embarrassment to Labor in Canberra, faction leaders on the mainstream Right and Left of the party started working together behind the scenes to lower the temperature. The objective was to protect Albanese and his government, which had put significant political capital into the AUKUS deal. Like other Labor governments going back to Bob Hawke’s, Albanese has put a premium on Australia’s alliance with the US.

Even though it was clear most opposition to AUKUS was coming from hardline unions in construction and manufacturing, and did not have wider support within the Left, there was discussion of diffusing dissent. Was it possible to urge restraint on AUKUS while letting through a stronger resolution on the Israel-Palestine conflict? The trial was effectively the Victorian ALP’s state conference in June.

Trouble certainly seemed to be brewing. The Queensland branch of the ALP, at its earlier state conference on June 4, had voted 299-140 against a motion congratulating the Albanese government for investing in AUKUS. Up to 40 ALP branches passed resolutions opposing the AUKUS deal. A party group called Labor Against War, led by eccentric hardliner Marcus Strom, was helping to lead the charge.

Yet when it came to Labor’s Victorian conference on June 18, the issue was a fizzer. It was clear the anti-AUKUS campaigners had nowhere near enough support to pursue their opposition – even in a state as red as Victoria.

A proposed motion condemning AUKUS as infringing “Australia’s independent foreign and defence policy” was pulled from the floor. Debate was postponed until the national conference.

Appearing on Sky News last week, Victorian ALP Right faction powerbroker and former senator Stephen Conroy was adamant: there was no link between the Albanese government’s position shift on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and AUKUS as issues for the national conference.

“Let me just put that right to bed,” Conroy said. “The Left will do what they’re doing on AUKUS at the national conference, and they will lose comprehensively. So there’s no need to do any sort of trade-off.”

While Albanese could never afford the embarrassing spectacle of losing a vote on AUKUS at his party’s national conference, the numbers indicate he will not. Party insiders say he will relish a debate on the subject and could confront dissent head-on, smashing it publicly in what could be a theatrical Hawke-style performance for the TV cameras.

But what of the conference ­debate on Israel and Palestinian statehood? Even if the Israeli-Palestinian conflict were not considered a front-order issue for the general public, a display of internal Labor dissent and losing a conference vote would be an unwelcome distraction. Worse, it could prompt some diplomatic difficulties for Australia’s relationship with the US if Labor were pressured into accepting a more radical approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The difficulty for Albanese has been that, while dismissing condemnation of AUKUS, the Victorian state party conference did pass a much tougher resolution on Israel that put direct pressure on his government to recognise a Palestinian state “within the term of this parliament”.

The ALP has been moving in this direction for some time. At Labor’s national conference in 2018, senior frontbencher Tony Burke from the NSW Right was in the vanguard pressing for Palestinian statehood. Past expressions of Palestinian support had used soft language, committing a future Labor government only to “discussing” recognition of a Palestinian state. Burke did not venture as far as former NSW premier Bob Carr, who’d noisily led the campaign for the NSW Labor Right, even likening Israel’s treatment of Palestinians to “apartheid”. But Burke did successfully help pass a resolution at the 2018 conference which not only supported “the recognition and right of Israel and Palestine to exist as two states within secure, recognised borders” but called on the next Labor government “to recognise Palestine as a state”.

Also publicly backing Burke at this time were his NSW Right colleague Chris Bowen, the NSW Left’s Albanese and the South Australian Left’s Wong.

At Labor’s “virtual” national conference in 2021, held online during the Covid-19 pandemic, Wong successfully moved an amendment that called on the next Labor government “to recognise Palestine as a state and expects that this issue will be an important priority”. Wong said she was seeking to replicate the Labor conference vote in 2018 – but that resolution was not incorporated into the national platform at the time. It is now.

As Foreign Minister, Wong made one unambiguous policy shift on Israel last October, reversing Morrison’s recognition of West Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. The Australia-Israel lobby was annoyed, but Wong said Labor was reverting to the long-held bipartisan position that Jerusalem is a “final status issue” to be resolved in peace negotiations.

Labor’s Conroy, a strong supporter of Israel, put bluntly the reality of geopolitics during his comments this week when he said support for a Palestinian state was “meaningless” because it didn’t exist – and never had. Conroy also pointed to differences between the West Bank and Gaza. “I mean, this is not a government, this is not a state,” he said.

The concern of Australia’s Labor government, as for governments in many nations including the US, is now focused on how Benjamin Netanyahu’s government seems to have entrenched Israeli control by expanding Jewish settlements further into the West Bank, with plans for more.

The attitude of even the most ardent Israel supporters in the ALP has been severely tested. They say Netanyahu has become the central problem by pushing the settlements issue too far in his quest to survive politically with backing from ultra-right parties that include Jewish settler leaders who reject a two-state agreement. Now he’s nobbled the country’s Supreme Court. As one ALP figure tells Inquirer: “Netanyahu is out of control; what is going on there is undemocratic, it’s impossible to support him.”

With AUKUS no longer an issue of government anxiety, Wong needed to tackle this kind of growing frustration inside her party. With immediate recognition of Palestine putting Australia out of step with the US and most other Western nations, Wong and Albanese chose a ­middle path to head off a repeat of what occurred in Victoria.

And so Wong attempted to offer some appeasement without changing policy, by toughening up the government’s language.

“This is consistent with past governments, reflects legal advice and the UN Security Council resolutions that determine the settlements have no legal (status) and constitute a violation of law,” she said last week. What Wong did not say – as ALP Left hardliners want her to – was that the Albanese government would support Palestinian statehood within any particular time frame.

“This is a modest advance in the pro-Palestinian position that will see the conference not degenerate into a loony confrontation where they (the Left) demand that Penny recognises Palestine tomorrow,” one insider says.

Indeed, the position is not really far apart from Australia’s closest ally, the US. The Biden administration has pulled back from Donald Trump’s unqualified support of Netanyahu’s government, and has been highly critical of moves to entrench control over the West Bank with more Jewish settlements.

A few days ago, the US State Department expressly condemned violence committed by some armed Jewish settlers.

The ALP conference can never bind a federal Labor government to implement matters incorporated in the platform ­according to a set timing. But the Albanese government does not want a strict prescription nonetheless.

Article link: todayspaper.theaustralian.com.au/infinity/article_popover_share.aspx?guid=4b56a93e-1cbb-46fa-bed4-bf851326a882
Article source: The Australian | Brad Norington | 12.8.23

2024-05-08 07:04:10.000000

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