When I made an appointment to see Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard last week, I hoped we would spend most of our time discussing her new effort to better integrate her country into Asia.
Gillard’s pivot toward Asia, much like President Barack Obama’s, reflects the self-evident truth that China and its neighbors are her country’s biggest markets and the source of many of its new immigrants. Now the pivot has been paralyzed midrotation by events from that most unpromising corner of the world, the Middle East.
I saw Gillard in Canberra after one of her rougher weeks as prime minister. She was already being shellacked by the opposition, and by much of the news media, for her alleged involvement in a union scandal, the details of which are so convoluted that it is impossible for an outsider such as myself to discern exactly what she is accused of doing. (Suffice it to say the scandal has a Whitewater quality to it, just as Gillard has a certain pugnacious Hillary Clinton quality about her.)
The larger problem Gillard faced last week had to do with the vote at the United Nations to grant the nonstate of Palestine enhanced status. Gillard, who leads the pro-Israel wing of the Labor Party, was unable to rally her Cabinet to vote against the General Assembly resolution. The United States and Israel were counting on her to place Australia in the “No” column, but she got comprehensively rolled by a bloc of Cabinet members led by the foreign minister, Bob Carr, who had the backing of the esteemed former Labor Prime Minister Bob Hawke.
Australia ended up joining a group of countries that are friends of Israel in abstaining. Only nine countries, the United States and Canada among them, voted against the resolution.
When I met Gillard, in her peach-colored office in Parliament, we spent a good amount of time talking about what the U.N. vote meant for Israel, and for Australia’s traditional role as one of Israel’s dependable supporters. (We also eventually managed to make our own pivot to the subject of a rising Asia, and in the next installment of this column, I’ll discuss what she said about Australia’s relationship with a more assertive China, and what it means for Australia’s role as a U.S. ally.)
After Gillard lost the internal battle on the Palestine vote, there was much analysis about the quotidian politics behind the Cabinet revolt. Labor Party leaders from western Sydney, which is home to many Muslim immigrants, were said to be worried about the impact of a “No” vote on their electoral chances next year, and it’s true that Muslims now significantly outnumber Jews in Australia. Jews there are more established and more politically active, but demographics are demographics.
“It would be no surprise that the views of parliamentarians and the views of Australians tend to reflect the diversity of views in the Middle East itself,” Gillard said, carefully. “I don’t think it is any surprise that here in Australia, people reflect those differences.”
She made clear she thought the U.N. vote was an exercise in pointlessness.
“The thing that is dispiriting about it is that there was no outcome to this resolution that was actually going to get people back on the pathway that might lead to peace,” she said.
This was an echo of the U.S. position, which holds that the state of Palestine will only come into being through direct negotiations with Israel.
Gillard then rushed to provide her party’s bona fides on the matter of Israel.
“What is absolutely clear and is absolutely unchanging is our underlying belief in the two-state solution, a belief in Israel’s right to live in secure borders in peace, the need to create a Palestinian state that can live behind secure borders in peace," she said. "We have been a long-term friend of Israel, and that is something that is bedrock for the Labor Party.”
But she acknowledged, indirectly, that there has been a shift in the views of the mainstream of the Labor Party on Israel.
“When you have a Labor luminary like Bob Hawke who has been an incredibly strong friend of Israel, who is advocating support for the resolution, when you’ve got those things happening you have to think of your colleagues’ views," she said. "I thought the best way for me to respond to a diversity of views was to announce that we would abstain.”
Hawke’s defection from the consistently pro-Israel column shouldn’t be particularly surprising. Likeminded leaders around the world are finding it increasingly difficult to justify the actions of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his government.
This is especially true on the matter of settlements. Shortly after the U.N. vote, the Netanyahu government announced, in punitive fashion, that it was authorizing the building of 3,000 new housing units in Jerusalem and the West Bank, and making plans for construction in an especially contentious area known as E1. The announcement caused the governments of five countries to summon Israel’s ambassadors in protest.
Not long after the U.N. vote, Israel’s deputy foreign minister, Danny Ayalon, said, “This day is the day of the historic rout of the Palestinians.”
But Israel’s collapsing reputation among even its friends suggests that the rout is moving in a different direction.
Gillard demurred when I asked her to assign blame for the impasse in peacemaking.
“I think there are issues on both sides about being prepared to come to the table and talk clearly,” she said. “I’m not in the business of attributing blame.”
Gillard is among Israel’s best friends in Australia, and certainly the most powerful. When her Cabinet rises against her over her support for Israel in the U.N., and when she refuses to side with Netanyahu in his battle with Mahmoud Abbas, the leader of the moderate Palestinian camp, the question that needs to be asked is this: Is Netanyahu paying any attention at all?