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Penny Wong’s Middle East trip likely to have more consequences at home than abroad

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13 January 2024, ABC, Brett Worthington

Penny Wong knows the power of a microphone.

You need only watch the foreign minister for five minutes to see it in action.

Whether it’s speaking with an official at a parliamentary hearing, or talking with a colleague in the Senate, she always covers the closest microphone. There’s been times when her two hands are covering two microphones.

Wong knows where the microphones are at all times and heavily calculates what it is that she says into them.

This, after all, is a disciplined politician who doesn’t say anything she doesn’t want to.

It’s all but certain that this will be the same approach she brings when she touches down in the Middle East next week — her first trip as Australia’s top diplomat.

In visiting Israel and the West Bank, Wong will become the most senior Australian official to visit to the region since war broke out last October.

What she says will be closely monitored and not just by those in the region. Back home, fractured communities will be parsing over every word.

Tensions rising in Middle East

Wong heads abroad as Australia supported the United States and Britain’s strikes on Yemen in retaliation for Red Sea attacks.

Tensions have been rising in the Red Sea, as Houthi rebels attack ships in the crucial global trade route, a response to Israel’s bombardment of Gaza.

The differences between Albanese’s deputies

With the prime minister out of the country this week, clear differences emerged between the acting PM and the foreign minister, who diverged somewhat on the Israel-Hamas conflict.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese this week accused Iran of “meddling” and playing a “destructive role” in further fuelling the battle between Hamas and Israel. He vowed Wong would continue to make Australia’s position on the conflict clear during her visit.

Realistically, it’s a message that will carry the biggest resonance in Labor’s heartland in Western Sydney, where the government has faced blowback for its response to the war.

Hamas shocked the world when it launched its October 7 attack, killing 1,200 people and taking hundreds hostage.

Wong, a senior figure in Labor’s left faction, called for restraint in response to the attacks — comments the Coalition ridiculed.

While Wong, and most in Labor, argued Israel had a right to defend itself, she has repeatedly called for the preservation of life and greater humanitarian support. Those calls have grown as the Palestinian death toll hit the tens of thousands, with almost 2 million others displaced.

But it wasn’t enough to convince Australian Arab community members of the government’s approach.

Last month, community members talked of a desire to “punish” Labor for its response to the war. They said Labor’s failure to take a stronger stance had left a stain on Australia for years to come.

Wong walking a tight-rope

The task before Wong now is ensuring she can assuage their concerns when she meets with Israeli officials next week, while also not provoking pro-Israeli communities when she heads to the occupied West Bank.

Aware that the party has been accused of being too close to Israel, Labor politicians have been speaking out about the consequences being experienced in Gaza, most significantly by cabinet minister Ed Husic, who argued Palestinians were being collectively punished.

While Labor voters in Western Sydney might be disappointed in the party’s handling of the Middle East, they are unlikely to shift their support to the Coalition, which has been far more supportive of Israeli’s response to October 7. The Greens’ progressive politics also likely alienate voters in these religious communities.

It’s therefore unclear how damaging this war will be for Labor’s electoral fortunes in Western Sydney at the next election.

Further south in Melbourne, Labor MP Josh Burns represents large Jewish communities. It’s little wonder he took part in a cross-party delegation to Israel in December, all too aware his communities are closely monitoring his and Labor’s response to the war.

Refusing to go it alone

Even before the war started, the foreign minister was changing government policy on the Middle East.

Speaking to colleagues in August, she said the government was re-adopting the term Occupied Palestinian Territories, consistent with other countries and the United Nations.

Her action here, pointing to how other nations addressed Gaza and the West Bank, proved fortuitous for how Australia has responded as the Israel-Gaza war drags on.

Whenever the government steps out on the war, it does so in the embrace of allies.

When he called for a “sustainable ceasefire”, Albanese did so alongside the leaders of Canada and New Zealand.

When it came to responding to the Red Sea attacks this week, Australia joined with nine other nations to condemn the Houthi attacks.

The Middle East has long been a lightening rod for global politics and Australia has made it all too clear that it won’t be taking any decisions that leave it out on a ledge alone — even if that comes as a disappointment to some.

Closely watching Wong

Wong is a darling of the Labor movement, with cult-like status among parts of the party.

She serves as Albanese’s deputy in all but title. A confidant of the PM, both have played integral roles in helping the other get to the positions they currently hold.

She’s undoubtedly an important and senior voice in the Pacific, an area that has been her focus since coming to government.

But at the end of the day, she’s the foreign minister, not prime minister, of a mid-level nation on the global stage.

This should dampen any hyperbolic references to the trip being internationally significant.

What she says into those microphones that will follow her trip will of course be important but unlikely to change the state of affairs over there.

It’s back home that Wong’s Middle East trip is likely to have the greatest resonance, and consequences, for the government.

Article link: https://www.abc.net.au/news/2024-01-13/penny-wong-middle-east-visit-israel-palestinian-labor/103313166
Article source: ABC | Brett Worthington | 13 January 2024

2024-02-22 05:36:48.000000