Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

Viewing Australia's election from Israel and elsewhere

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In Australia we have a new government, following the Liberal/National Party's (‘the Coalition') sweeping election victory on September 7. While Australians have been heavily focused on the election campaign, its aftermath, and the effect of the change of government in terms of a number of domestic policy priorities, it is always interesting to see how Australia and our politics is viewed overseas.

Israeli media coverage of the outcome was, as you would expect, heavily focused on how it might affect Australia-Israel relations.

As outlined in the last AIR, prior to the election the Coalition said it is "firmly committed to restoring the Australia-Israel friendship to the strength it enjoyed under the Howard Government." It also offered a number of commitments affecting Israel including, instant electronic visa waivers for Israelis for short term visits, and "a policy across Government that ensures no grants of taxpayers' funds are provided to individuals or organisations which actively support the BDS campaign."

The Times of Israel ran with the headline, "Conservative, pro-Israel candidate wins Aussie election". The article stated:

"The Liberal Party's election victory may signal a strengthening of ties between Canberra and Jerusalem. Abbot[t] told reporters last month that the last two Labor governments had not maintained Australia's strong relationship with the Jewish state, something he said he aimed to fix, according to the Australian Associated Press. ‘There's been a bit of wobbling under the current government but I would expect our standard rock-solid friendship with Israel to resume should the coalition win the election,' he said. ‘I'm a friend of Israel - always have been, always will be.'"

Similarly, an article in the Jerusalem Post by Herb Keinon carried the headline, "Australian-Israeli ties to remain strong under newly elected Abbott". Keinon wrote:

"From Jerusalem's vantage point, Saturday's election in Australia was a battle between the ‘good friends of Israel' vs ‘the very good friends of Israel.' And, with the victory of Tony Abbott's Liberal-National coalition over Kevin Rudd's Labor party, the ‘very good friends' won this time around.

Abbott, in an ‘election message' that appeared last Wednesday in the Australian Jewish News, said that if elected, ‘we are firmly committed to restoring the Australia- Israeli friendship to the strength it enjoyed under the [John] Howard government.' And, indeed, the Howard era is considered by some as the cherry on the top of historically strong and robust relations between Israel and Australia... In Australia both parties are strongly supportive, and political support given to Israel from Canberra is robust. It was strong under Rudd during both his terms in office, and under his party rival Julia Gillard. It is now expected to be even a bit stronger."

An article in Haaretz by Dan Goldberg on September 7 was titled, "Israel regains staunch ally as opposition wins Australia election". Goldberg commented:

"Israel once again has a staunch ally in Australia following the election of Liberal Party leader Tony Abbott as prime minister... Abbott has said he wants to return bilateral relations to the era of former Liberal leader John Howard, who was an unashamed and unapologetic supporter of Israel. ‘I'd like to think that nowhere in the world [does Israel] have a stauncher friend than us,' Abbott told an Australia-Israel forum in Melbourne when he was first elected party leader in 2009."

But on September 9, Goldberg followed up the article with a piece that questioned whether the Coalition's victory will lead to a return to support for Israel at the UN comparable to the Howard era. The piece stated:

"Prime Minister-elect Tony Abbott, a Christian conservative, has made no secret of his desire to return bilateral relations to the days of former Liberal PM John Howard. He has also signaled his intention to ban more terror groups, upgrade trade ties with Jerusalem and block financial support to organizations that support the campaign to boycott Israel. But the return to the Howard era of ‘uncritical support for Israel at the UN' is too simplistic a narrative, according to Philip Mendes, a Melbourne-based academic and co-editor of ‘Jews and Australian Politics.' ‘The international context has changed since the Liberals were last in government,' Mendes said."

In contrast, veteran Australian Jewish leader Isi Leibler, now living in Israel, noted in a column "A good mate down under", published in Israel Hayom that, "Australia's election results are good news for the Israel-Australia relationship." In the article, Leibler praised Prime Minister-elect Tony Abbott, and was very critical of former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and Foreign Minister Bob Carr:

"The victorious Tony Abbott of the center-right Liberal party is an outspoken friend of the Jewish state. He has pledged to improve relations with Israel, toughen the government's approach toward terrorist organizations and end financial support for organizations connected to the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign against Israel. These results represent a sea change in Israel-Australia relations. Before assuming office in 2007, Rudd portrayed himself as a Christian Zionist. But in office, he launched a campaign to downgrade Australia's relationship toward Israel. He reduced Australian support for Israel at the U.N. and adopted policies akin to those of hostile European countries.

Julia Gillard, who displaced him in 2010, made efforts to revive the friendly relations with Israel. But after Bob Carr was appointed as foreign minister in March 2012, the relationship again began to decline...

Carr stunned the Australian Jewish community a few weeks ago when he told Muslims at a Sydney mosque, ‘I've been to Ramallah, I've spoken to the Palestinian leadership, and we support their aspirations to have a Palestinian state in the context of a Middle East peace. ... We say unequivocally, all settlements on Palestinian land are illegal under international law and should cease.'

Australia's Jewish community leaders condemned the statement and the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council (AIJAC), the Australian Jewish lobby equivalent of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, accused Carr of having "altered a long-standing bipartisan policy in Australia by repeatedly asserting a contentious and disputed legal claim ... which ... potentially undermines progress toward a negotiated two-state resolution to the conflict."

Elsewhere in the world, in Indonesia, a Jakarta Post article, "Pragmatic ties under the abbot of Canberra" by Meidyatama Suryodiningrat, stated:

"Both Abbott and Julie Bishop, who is expected to be appointed foreign minister, have underscored the narrative of an 'Asia first' foreign policy and Indonesia as Australia's "most important" relationship... This may placate concerns over the new government's posture, which will still be 'Western' - read: 'Washington and London' - but not diminish them altogether as Abbott still sees the US as 'Australia's greatest ally'. Abbott's polarizing style, especially on issues of the Middle East and boat people, is something many in Jakarta may find unpalatable. Visiting Australian troops in Afghanistan in December, he described the country as one that 'has been pretty short on decency for a very long time'. In Washington last year, he likened Israel to Australia as ‘a liberal, pluralist democracy'. With little reference to the fate of Palestinians or the occupied territories he pledged: ‘When Israel is fighting for its very life [...] Australians are Israelis. We are all Israelis in those circumstances'. Putting style aside, there is likely to be greater emphasis on Australian foreign policy by the diplomats, rather than the prime minister's office. Bishop said the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade would become the driver of foreign policy."

Many countries also focused on Australia's new policies towards asylum seekers. Al-Jazeera's pre-election coverage, featured an interview with former Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser that criticised both the ALP and Coalition's asylum seeker policies. When asked whether the "policy debate regarding asylum seekers damaging Australia's international reputation?" Fraser responded:

"The policy debates over the last 10 years have gone a long way towards destroying a reputation we had as a humane and decent society... Whoever wins, the policy will be bad. It will be inhumane and it will be brutal."

Meanwhile, in Lebanon's Daily Star, an article was titled, "Australia looks inward as conservatives ascend", it stated:

"Australian politics looks set for a period dominated by domestic concerns as new prime minister Tony Abbott seeks to move on from a vitriolic campaign with a focus on local issues, analysts said Sunday.. ‘At first take I would suggest we're going to see a far more inward-looking government than we have previously,' said Norman Abjorensen, from the Australian National University's College of Asia and the Pacific. ‘I think the foreshadowed cuts to our foreign aid budget last week really put the writing on the wall that we're going to look at domestic policy as being all-important' he added, referencing Abbott's pledge to slash $4.2 billion from overseas development spending.

In contrast to Mandarin-speaking former diplomat Rudd and his ‘Australia in the Asian Century' objectives, Abbott had not shown a ‘flicker of interest' in foreign affairs through his political career, Abjorensen said. Abbott was ridiculed in some quarters for describing the conflict in Syria as "baddies versus baddies" during the election race.

The one-time trainee Catholic priest has held conflicting positions on Asia, downplaying the importance of China's rise in his 2009 political manifesto 'Battlelines' and emphasizing the importance of what he referred to as the ‘Anglosphere.' However, he vowed during the election campaign to put Asia at the center of his foreign policy agenda."

Also discussing Australia's relationship with China, an article in the New York Times by Matt Siegel, commented:

"One thing Mr. Abbott is unlikely to have to worry about wrangling through Parliament, at least in the short term, is foreign policy. Australia, which hosts 2,500 U.S. marines at a base near Darwin, is an important player in President Obama's strategy of shifting the American military's long-term focus toward the Asia-Pacific region, where China has been ascendant, and few here expect a radical shift on that front. Strengthened ties with Australia, one of Washington's foremost allies, is seen as key to restoring a substantial American footprint near the South China Sea, which increasingly has been the focus of territorial disputes between China and other countries.

But China is also the chief consumer of Australian coal and iron exports, which have helped drive Australia's remarkable economic performance over the past decade. With the economy here showing signs of slowing on sagging commodity prices, Mr. Abbott will have to tread carefully. The coalition is likely to play it safe and focus on domestic rather than international affairs for the time being, Michael Fullilove, director of the Global Issues Program at the Lowy Institute for International Policy in Sydney, said in an interview...

In the long run, however, he will want to craft a China policy with which he feels personally comfortable, said Mr. Fullilove. And that means Mr. Abbott, whose roots as a Roman Catholic seminarian eschew moral relativism, could struggle to justify the ethics of doing business with China's authoritarian government. ‘I just think over time, any leader dealing with the Chinese has to deal with this question of values and interests,' he said. ‘The big question is whether Tony Abbott will go with his heart or his head on China, and I think he's going to go with his head.'"

Australia's policy positions on Israel and other foreign policy matters are of great significance given that Australia has a temporary seat on the UN Security Council, and this month holds the presidency of the Security Council. Many will be looking to the new Australian government's voting at the UN on matters concerning Israel, to see the extent to which a change in policy has occurred.

Sharyn Mittelman


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