Australia/Israel Review

Essay: A Distant Affinity

Apr 24, 2008 | Colin Rubenstein

60 Years of Australia-Israel relations

By Colin Rubenstein & Tzvi Fleischer

On March 12, Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd sponsored an unprecedented resolution, passed with bipartisan support, in which the Australian House of Representatives “celebrate[d] and commend[ed] the achievements of the State of Israel in the 60 years since its inception” and acknowledged “the unique relationship which exists between Australia and Israel.”

A look at the history of the past 60 years shows that this “unique” relationship is both real and unexpected.

Geopolitically, there is little reason to expect Australia and Israel to have any closer relationship than any other two states of a comparable size and similar distance from one another – say Brazil and Thailand, or South Africa and Costa Rica. But, in reality, over the past 60 years, the relationship between Israel and Australia has been at an entirely different level from any similar such dyads – much more intense, emotional and politically important.

The reasons are doubtless complex, but given the history of the last 60 years it seems difficult to question that one factor is a degree of affinity between Israelis and Australians. There is something in their respective cultures, national outlooks and personalities which tends to draw them together.

Australia and the Yishuv

Most accounts agree that the encounter between Australia and the Yishuv (the Jewish community inside what became British Mandate Palestine) can be dated back to the First World War. Serving at Gallipoli was the 600 strong Zion Mule Corps, made up of Jewish volunteers largely expelled from Palestine by the Ottoman Empire. Four Australian light horse brigades and a battalion of camel troops subsequently served in General Allenby’s conquest of Palestine in 1916-17. According to official Australian war historian H.S. Gullet, they were welcomed by residents of the Yishuv and hailed as deliverers from Turkish rule and Arab depredations. Moreover, the feeling was often reciprocated, “There began an association, often marked by affection, which was broken only by the close of the war… The [Australians of the First Light Horse Brigade] always recalled with gratitude those pleasant Jewish settlements with their groves of large golden oranges, their supply of wine, and their warm-hearted people.”

Despite these early contacts, Australian governments were not notably sympathetic to the Zionist cause in the years from 1919-39. Australian government leaders largely supported the increasingly anti-Zionist British government line, and even on occasion urged the British to go further in appeasing Arab opposition to Jewish immigration to Palestine.

Australian soldiers returned to the Middle East in large numbers during World War II, and many were stationed temporarily in Palestine and again developed good relations with local Jewish communities. The Zionist Federation of Australia (ZFA) arranged with the Jewish Agency in the Yishuv to attempt to make the visiting Australians feel at home, providing visits to local families on Jewish holidays, and helping make leave arrangements with the Australian commanders.

Australians and residents of the Yishuv fought together as well. The famous Israeli General Moshe Dayan lost his eye while fighting in Syria alongside Australian forces.

According to the late Yitzhak Rabin, the Australians were very well-liked in the Yishuv, and contrasted positively with the local British troops. Australian poems and other accounts from the period seem to suggest the feeling was reciprocated by many of the Australian “Diggers” serving in Palestine.

Australia and Partition

Australia subsequently played an important, perhaps even decisive, role in securing the passage of the UN General Assembly’s partition resolution of November 29, 1947, through the agency of its foreign minister, Dr. H.V. Evatt, Chairman of the UN General Assembly’s Ad Hoc Committee on Palestine.

The Australian Labor Party (ALP) government under John Curtin, which took office in Oct. 1941, maintained the line that issues related to Palestine were strictly a matter for the British. However, by 1947, when Britain referred the Palestine problem to the United Nations, the ALP government under Curtin’s successor Ben Chifley followed a more pro-Zionist policy, and Evatt was thoroughly sympathetic to Zionism.

Australia was one of the 11 members of the UN Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP), which ultimately recommended partition by a vote of seven to three. Australia abstained from supporting either this recommendation or the alternative, a single federative state, because of Evatt’s belief that UNSCOP should engage only in fact finding.

Evatt was then unanimously elected Chairman of the General Assembly’s Ad Hoc Committee on Palestine, set up in Sept. 1947. Evatt skilfully used his role as Chairman to see to it that partition was passed, by a vote of 25-13, with 17 abstentions, two months later.

A Polish envoy to the UN, Dr. Julius Katz-Suchy, himself Jewish, later confirmed Evatt’s crucial role in securing partition. He reportedly said to an Australian journalist, “Ah, from Dr. Evatt’s country. Now that’s a great man for you… Without him the Israelis would never have got in. He bullied, pleaded, cajoled, coaxed until he got the right numbers for them.”

Following partition, in 1948, Evatt was elected President of the UN General Assembly, and Australia repeatedly submitted resolutions calling for Israel to be admitted as a UN member state. An Australian-sponsored resolution to this effect passed in 1949.

More controversially from an Israeli point of view was Australia’s proposal of, and crucial role in ensuring the passage of, a Dec. 1949 General Assembly resolution demanding the full internationalisation of all of Jerusalem and Bethlehem. The best evidence suggests that, in pushing this resolution, Evatt was probably motivated primarily by a desire to win Catholic votes in the Australian election of Dec. 1949.

From Independence to the Six Day War

Following its installation in early 1950, the new Liberal-led government under Robert Menzies began once again to tack closer to the British government line on Middle East issues. However, its predominant concerns about the region were containing Communist influence and freedom of shipping in the Suez Canal.

Relations in the early 1950s were hampered also by the first Australian Minister (equivalent to ambassador) to Israel, the openly antisemitic O.C.W. Fuhrman, whose reports back to Canberra had no sympathy for Israelis and found the hand of Moscow in many Israeli actions.

The lead-up and aftermath to the 1956 Sinai/Suez war saw increasing warmth toward Israel displayed by Menzies and his Minister for External Affairs, R.G. Casey.

Nasser’s nationalisation of the Suez Canal on July 26, 1956 was seen as a major blow to Australian interests. The Government supported preparation for British military action in response, and discussed Australia’s participation in any such efforts. Meanwhile, Israeli diplomats and Australian Jewish community representatives pressed Australia to support Israel’s rights to use the canal as part its diplomatic efforts. Casey argued that raising such considerations publicly would be ill-advised but insisted it was Australian policy to demand such freedom of navigation as a principle for any settlement. As feelings against both Egypt and the Arab cause rose in both Australia and the Department of External Affairs (DEA), Casey began to express stronger pro-Israel views privately and in Parliament.

Following the outbreak of the 1956 war, and once it became clear that Israel’s attack had been coordinated with Britain, Menzies expressed understanding in parliament for Israel’s position, quoting favourably Ben Gurion’s complaints about both Egyptian aggression and UN lack of help for Israel.

Australia was later to join Britain, Israel, France, and New Zealand as the only nations to vote against a US-sponsored UN General Assembly resolution calling for a Suez ceasefire and a withdrawal of forces.

The increasingly positive Australian Government attitude toward Israel created by Suez did not fade, but instead, relations continued to improve over the following decade. A parliamentary debate on the Arab-Israel conflict in April 1957 saw no fewer than 43 speakers address the House, and according to the Australian Jewish News, “Speakers on both sides seemed to agree that Israel had suffered much from Egyptian aggression and that it should be protected in future.” That same month, a speech in Melbourne by Menzies was characterised by a visiting emissary from Israel’s right-wing Herut movement as “one of the finest Zionist speeches I have ever heard.”

Later, as the Australian Jewish community became the first in the world to begin to campaign on behalf of the plight of Soviet Jewry, Australia in 1962 raised the issue at the UN Third Committee, while Menzies spoke out publicly calling for the Soviet Union to allow its Jews to emigrate. These were both world firsts.

By the mid-1960s, reciprocal official visits between Israeli and Australian public figures had become common and routine.

In Sept. 1966, when criticised by a member of the Labor Opposition for failing to protect the rights of Israel to use the Suez Canal, the new Liberal Prime Minister, Harold Holt, defended his government’s record of friendship for Israel.

As the crisis that led to the 1967 war heated up, Australian Minister for External Affairs Paul Hasluck issued a statement that called for diplomacy but also hinted that Israel had a right to be protected from “aggression” and “war-like acts”, and criticised the fact that the arrangements made for the Straits of Tiran and Sinai in 1957 had been “so abruptly terminated.” This declaration angered the Egyptians.

Holt made Australia one of the few nations prepared to contribute forces to an international military solution to the crisis created by Egypt’s closure of the Straits, offering US President Johnson two Australian cruisers to be part of a mooted international fleet to try to forcibly break the blockade.

In the diplomacy following the war, Hasluck insisted that Australia’s UN Ambassador, Laurence McIntyre, revise a planned speech at the UN calling for an Israeli withdrawal in exchange for a vague Arab recognition of Israel’s right to exist. Hasluck instead wanted a ceasefire, followed by negotiations, including on possible boundary adjustments. Cairo viewed this statement as hostile.

Then-Israeli Foreign Minister Abba Eban described Australian officials of the period as “endemically pro-Israel” in his memoirs.

The Australian public was, if anything, even more pro-Israel. Press comment was largely sympathetic during the war, and this reflected the general attitude of the community according to contemporary polls.

1967-1975: The Gorton, McMahon and Whitlam Years

Following Holt’s death in late 1967, the conservative coalition governments under John Gorton (Jan. 1968 – Mar. 1971) and William McMahon (Mar. 1971 – Dec. 1972) largely continued the Middle East polices which prevailed under Holt and Menzies.

Australia declared itself “neutral”, interested in friendship with both Israel and the Arab states, and keen on promoting peace processes, especially through the United Nations. However, as Sam Lipski put it, “while John Gorton was Prime Minister, there was no question [of Australia ever being] anything but pro-Israel,” with Holt and McMahon also fairly described by historians as “very friendly to Israel.” Voting at the UN throughout this period bears this out.

It is generally agreed that, despite a solidly pro-Israel record up until that point, the election of an ALP government under Gough Whitlam (Dec. 1972 – Nov. 1975) marked a sharp departure in Australian policy toward Arab-Israel issues. The Middle East was not a matter of controversy during the campaign, nor did it feature in the platforms of either of the major parties.

However, in office, the Whitlam Government moved toward a foreign policy designed to be closer to the Non-Aligned Movement, where one-sided condemnation of Israel was the norm. While Whitlam described this policy as one of “even-handedness and neutrality,” this neutrality was very different from the “neutrality” also proclaimed by his conservative predecessors.

The effects of this new policy became most noticeable during the 1973 Yom Kippur war. Australia refused to condemn the Egyptian and Syrian attacks which launched the war, and then refrained from condemning the Soviet airlift of arms supplies to the Arab combatants. However, once the US began to airlift arms and supplies to Israel, the Australian UN representative, on instructions from Canberra, condemned both airlifts, with a particular emphasis on the US airlift.

Under Whitlam, Australia also voted for a resolution equating Zionism with racism at a UN women’s conference in Mexico, though it voted against the infamous equivalent resolution in the UN General Assembly.

Whitlam later approved the establishment of a PLO liaison office in Canberra and became embroiled in a series of scandals involving the acceptance of Arab loans to Australia and the ALP. It later emerged one of the men at the centre of the loans affair, ALP activist Bill Hartley, had also written to Yasser Arafat seeking PLO funds for the ALP.

1975-1983: The Fraser Years

The election of a Liberal-National coalition under Malcolm Fraser in Dec. 1975 saw a return to a more sympathetic position on Israel. Australia again refrained from voting for one-sided resolutions critical of Israel in the UN, and voted against many of the harshest annual examples, often in a minority of only three or four.

Foreign Minister Andrew Peacock consistently stated that Israel could not be expected to negotiate with the PLO until such time as it abandoned its call for Israel’s destruction and extended recognition to Israel. The government repeatedly stressed Israel’s right to “secure and recognised boundaries.”

One of the major Middle East policy developments of the Fraser years was the government’s decision in Oct. 1981 to send Australian forces to participate in the “Multinational Force and Observers” in Sinai, which were part of the mechanism developed to monitor the Israel-Egypt peace treaty. The Australian contingent, a combined air force helicopter squadron, was small, around 100 soldiers and eight helicopters, but was surprisingly controversial in Australia at a time when all overseas deployments were viewed with suspicion in the post-Vietnam era. The force was deployed in March 1982 and remained until April 1986, when it was withdrawn by the ALP government, despite Israeli and Egyptian requests that it remain. A smaller Australian contingent returned in 1993 and has remained since.

In responding to Israel’s raid on Iraq’s Osirak nuclear plant in Oct. 1981, the Fraser Government said it “regretted any action which could add to the tensions in the Middle East,” but did not name or condemn Israel.

In the early 1980s, while continuing to support Israel’s refusal to deal with the PLO, Fraser began to call for Israel to agree to the establishment of a Palestinian homeland or state.

During the Lebanon war of 1982, Fraser was initially understanding of Israel’s action, but as the war dragged on became more critical. Following the Sabra and Chatilla massacre by a Lebanese militia allied with Israel, Fraser declared, “Events [have occurred] which weaken or diminish Israel’s right to the support of countries such as Australia, because it breaks down the moral position on which it stands.”

1983-1996: The Hawke and Keating Years

Fraser’s ALP successor, former trade union leader Bob Hawke, had developed a strong affinity for Israel and Israelis during a 1971 visit to the country (and a subsequent trip in late 1973), striking up good relations with officials from the Histadrut trade union movement, and what has been described as a “platonic love affair” with Israeli PM Golda Meir. Subsequently, he threw himself into pro-Israel activity – publicly attacking Whitlam for his policies during the 1973 war, delivering speeches putting Israel’s case, fighting anti-Israel segments of the union movement, and becoming an internationally recognised champion of the campaign to free Soviet Jews.

Hawke actually formulated an original plan for peace in the late 1970s whereby Israel would withdraw to the 1967 boundaries, but would have the right, if attacked from the territories vacated, to counter-attack and permanently keep any territory captured as a result.

Nonetheless, Israel-Australia relations proved more complex and disputatious during the eight years of Hawke’s tenure than one might expect from Hawke’s undoubted emotional affinity with Israel.

The Middle East policy of the Hawke Government, at least until around 1988, largely mirrored the policies of the Fraser years, though with perhaps some more receptivity to a role for the PLO. During the election campaign, Hawke reiterated what had been essentially the Fraser Government policy in the early 1980s – support for Israel’s right to “secure and recognised boundaries” but also for the “right of the Palestinians to their independence and the possibility of their own independent state.”

In Dec. 1983, Hawke had a confrontation with Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi over a one-sided condemnation of Israel in the final communique during a British Commonwealth Head of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in New Delhi.

Hawke made the first visit to Israel by a serving Australian prime minister in January 1987. He was welcomed by Israeli newspapers recalling the role of Australian soldiers in Palestine during both world wars. Israeli leaders asked for Australian help in reaching out to Asia and Pacific nations.

UN voting by Australia during the Hawke years was somewhat less pro-Israel than during the Fraser years, with Australia making it more of a priority to vote with the majority of Western nations on questions relating to the Middle East.

Notably, the Hawke Government did play a significant role in the successful campaign to rescind the UN General Assembly’s infamous “Zionism is Racism” resolution of 1975. Hawke sponsored a bipartisan parliamentary motion deploring the resolution in Oct. 1986. Throughout the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, Australia made it a priority in its routine relations with neighbouring nations in the Pacific and South East Asia to solicit their support for repeal of the resolution, finally achieved in Dec. 1991.

However, the late 1980s also saw increasing Australian government criticism of Israel, especially concerning its handling of the Palestinian “intifada” and its refusal to countenance talks with the PLO in the wake of its 1988 declaration, which was accepted by Australia (and the US) as constituting recognition of Israel.

Following the outbreak of the Gulf crisis prompted by Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in August 1990, Hawke quickly backed US and UN action to reverse the Iraqi invasion. Contacts with the PLO were also frozen in the wake of Yasser Arafat’s support for Saddam Hussein. Hawke also firmly opposed “linkage”, the argument put forward by Iraq and some commentators that Israel should withdraw from the West Bank and Gaza as part of a deal for Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait.

However, probably Australia’s biggest contribution to the war effort was through use of the Nurrungar and the Northwest Cape communications bases, run jointly with the Americans. After the war it was confirmed that Australia had provided Israel with top-secret information from Nurrungar warning of the Iraqi Scud launches against Israel. Attacked for this after the war by left-wing groups opposed to the bases, then defence minister Senator Robert Ray said, “Essentially the [anti-bases] coalition accuses me of allowing the Australian-American facilities at Nurrungar to be used to give early warning time to citizens of Israel that missiles are coming. If I am guilty of that… that is my proudest moment in politics.”

Paul Keating, who deposed Hawke in a party room ballot in Dec. 1991, had much less record of emotional attachment to Israel, and his personal priority in foreign policy was the Asia-Pacific region. In May 1992, Keating re-iterated Australian policy of supporting a two-state solution and a secure Israel, but also renewed contacts with the PLO. Foreign Minister Gareth Evans just then left on a 12-day visit to six Middle East nations, including Israel. The visit included repeated efforts to promote the role of the PLO in the peace process, and criticism of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza.

In the aftermath of the 1993 Oslo Accords, Foreign Minister Evans assisted with Israeli efforts to establish contacts with Muslim countries of Asia.

As part of the Oslo peace process, Australia hosted, in April 1995, a multilateral experts’ meeting dealing with water issues, including Israeli, Palestinian, and other Arab scientists and policy authorities.

Australia helped supervise the Palestinian election of Jan. 1996, and an Australian jurist, Justice Marcus Einfeld, spearheaded an organisation of Australian lawyers, Australian International Legal Resources, to assist in developing a legal system for the Palestinian Authority.

New Heights: The Howard and Rudd Governments, 1996-2008

Throughout the 13 years of ALP government, the Opposition, under a series of leaders, had generally been supportive of government policy on Israel, and occasionally critical that the government was not being understanding enough of Israel. However, the March 1996 election of John Howard as prime minister, and his appointment of Alexander Downer as foreign minister, made Australia one of the most consistent friends of Israel in the world. Moreover, through their 11 years in office, the ALP Opposition was also largely led by individuals known for strong positive feelings for Israel – especially Kim Beazley, Simon Crean, and current PM Kevin Rudd.

John Howard’s personal sympathy and regard for Israel, which he first visited privately as a young man in 1964, is something he declared regularly. The policy of his government reflected its reality. In 2000, he declared, “The personal affection I have for the State of Israel, the personal regard I have for the Jewish people of the world, will never be diminished. It is something I hold dearly, something I value as part of my being and as part of what I have tried to do with my life.” In 2002, he called himself an “unapologetic and long-standing friend of Israel.”

Howard also consistently articulated an understanding of Israel’s security dilemmas.

For instance, during the 2006 Israeli conflict with Hezbollah in Lebanon, Howard went on Australian television to defend Israel’s response.

Later in 2006, he stated, “There must be unconditional acceptance throughout the entire Arab world, without exception, of Israel’s right to exist in peace and security behind recognised borders. The entire Arab world – including Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas and in addition Iran – must give up forever the idea that the Israelis can be driven into the sea.”

In the course of the Iraq war debate in 2003, criticisms of Israeli policies were raised, and Howard responded: “It remains a great tragedy that the courageous efforts of Ehud Barak, the former prime minister of Israel, who offered Palestinians the great bulk of their demands, were ultimately repudiated by the Palestinian chairman, Yasser Arafat.”

Under the Howard Government, Australia’s voting record at the UN was among the most pro-Israel in the world, excepting only the US and three small Pacific island states.

With respect to Israel’s West Bank barrier intended to block suicide terrorism, Australia voted against a UN special session on the issue following an International Court of Justice (ICJ) advisory opinion on the subject. Downer explained that the decision risked politicising the ICJ, and “we believe Israel has the right to defend itself against terrorist attack,” and “the security barrier has been demonstrably successful.”

Australia made it a priority to help Israel gain admittance in 2000 to the “WEOG” [Western European and Other Group] regional grouping at the UN to correct the situation where Israel was the only country in the world part of no such grouping, and at the notorious UN Durban Conference against Racism in Aug.-Sept. 2001, Australia took the lead as the most significant critic of the conference’s anti-Zionist resolutions and poisonous tone.

By 2003 and 2004, Australia began to vote against the maintenance of the UN’s one-sided “Committee on the Inalienable Right of the Palestinian People” and the “Division of Palestinian Rights” in the office of the Secretary-General. Downer also reportedly raised with Asian and Pacific island counterparts the need to defund the permanent anti-Israel bureaucracy inside the UN.

Australia’s contribution to the 2003 Iraq war was primarily elite Special Air Service (SAS) troops whose main role, successfully executed, was to penetrate behind Iraqi lines and prevent the launch of Scud missiles against Israel.

Alexander Downer made visits to Israel in mid-1998 and again in Jan. 2005. John Howard undertook an official visit to Israel in May 2000. He also held meetings with then-Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in New York in Sept. 2005.

Prior to the 2004 election, the ruling coalition issued the following statement about Australia’s policy on Israel, which accurately sums up the state of affairs over the past decade:

“Under the Coalition Government, the relationship between Australia and Israel has never been stronger. This is reflected in the quality and depth of relations at the ministerial and senior official level, extensive community and business links, expanding trade and economic ties, and the substantial cooperation between the two countries, including in the fight against international terrorism. As a staunch friend of Israel and as a country with strong interests in a peaceful and stable Middle East region, Australia continues to provide high-level political support to facilitate a comprehensive, negotiated peace settlement. We have been active in using Australia’s voice and vote in multilateral forums, especially the United Nations, to support initiatives that contribute to the peace process, and where necessary, oppose decisions and declarations that are unbalanced and unproductive.”

Current Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, who visited Israel twice before becoming opposition leader, has repeatedly declared himself a committed “friend of Israel”, and his foreign minister, Stephen Smith, has a similar track record. While the new ALP government is only five months old, all indications point to a basic continuity of policy on Arab-Israel issues. The resolution on Israel’s 60th anniversary is a strong sign that positive relations with Israel, as well as continuing efforts to promote a viable Israeli-Palestinian two-state resolution, seem likely to remain an Australian priority.

In 2000, the President of Bar Ilan University, Prof. Moshe Kaveh, welcomed Australian Prime Minister John Howard and stated, “Australian-Israeli political ties go beyond the political. They are culturally deep, spiritually intimate.” In 2005, Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer, visiting Israel, said, “Australia and Israel may lie on opposite sides of the globe, but our relationship is far closer. We share your hopes and aspirations and your anguish at the loss of loved ones at the hands of terrorists. Above all, we admire the strength and courage of Israelis, for these are traits Australians see in themselves.”

At first glance, such statements may seem to be merely the clichés of diplomacy. However, given the history of the last 60 years, it is difficult to explain the warmth, the political importance, or the intensity of the Australia-Israel relationship in terms of common political and economic interests. Australia and Israel, distant countries with limited overlapping interests, have been much more intertwined than one would otherwise expect, and the relationship has been remarkably friendly overall, despite occasional rough patches and polite disagreements. A compelling explanation almost certainly requires an affinity of precisely the kind suggested by Downer and Kaveh in their remarks.

A version of this article was originally published in Jewish Political Studies Review 19:3-4 (Fall 2007).



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