Labor’s cowardice on Israel makes a mockery of its legacy

In light of the displacement of 85% of the population in Gaza, the mass evacuation order on October 13 that told one million civilians to leave their homes, the mountains of live streamed evidence that question “Israel’s right to protect itself”, the statements from experts and academics that say that this could be the worst humanitarian crisis of the century (a human catastrophe more concentrated and deadly that South Africa’s ever was), and a Labor government who once would have once taken issue with situation — Penny Wong’s visit to Israel carries more significance than she thinks it does. 

As Penny Wong toured the curated sites throughout Israel and the immediate Middle East, a trip eerily similar in scope to that of US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken’s trip a week earlier, shaking hands with Israeli Government figures that have been accused of quoting lines inciting genocide cited within the currently submitted eighty-four page report before the ICJ, as she walked along solemnly through the scheduled program in Israel, across the border in Gaza the IDF planted hundreds of charges inside Israa University and blew it up. While the Foreign Minister made the customary visit to the occupied West Bank, calling for a ceasefire without using the word ‘ceasefire’, Wong announced a conservative $21.5m in funding for the occupied territories, before calling it a day and going back to the hotel.

The carnage in Gaza has drawn condemnation throughout the world, but not so much in the nations aligned to the west. As civilians in nations around the globe protest their horror at the crimes being committed in Gaza, Western governments have almost uniformly supported the actions of Israel, and by virtue, the highest concentration of civilian death in the 21st century.  

Abstaining from a UN resolution calling for truce in Gaza and refusing to endorse the South African ICJ ruling whilst continuing to produce components for Israel’s war machine, has put the Albanese government at odds with Labor’s traditional stance on the decades-old and complex conflict, standing steadfast with Israel (and its response) instead. With this shift, Labor has finally broken from a tradition as a more neutral moderating force with regards to the subject of Israel-Palestine, muddying its ironclad long-held position that maintained the need for a two state solution as per 1967 borders. The Global War on Terror washed into the Australian national interest under both major parties, resulting in the confluence of US national interest and Australian strategic acquiescence. Now, more than 20 years on, we find ourselves with a Labor government that has been content to spend half its effort in its first term delivering its predecessor’s AUKUS (with honours), fusing our strategic future to the American war machine, and it now seems incapable of speaking out of line about Washington’s rogue geostrategic asset in the Middle East. 

Recently, the Labor faithful mourned the passing of the late, great Bill Hayden. Serving as foreign minister during a dynamic period of geopolitical upheaval throughout the 1980s, Hayden was previously an emblematic leader of the ALP in opposition, and a giant of the Hawke government who left a mark on the legacy of the party as a courageous individual that shaped the policy of the party (often against the grain). Using his subject matter expertise, his clout as Foreign Minister, and his independent sovereign thinking, Hayden was able to influence his party to lead the world in opposition to apartheid, his passion and honesty capturing the public who felt the same way about the situation in South Africa, using his leadership to help articulate what many were feeling, at home and around the world.

“Destroy apartheid” – Geoff Pryor (Source: National Library of Australia)

In the face of a decaying and increasingly brutal apartheid regime in South Africa, Hayden told cabinet 1986 that “Australia’s capacity to influence South Africa was limited”. Nevertheless, he urged his party that Australia remain at the forefront of Western opposition to apartheid in South Africa. Almost four decades later, we don’t know if Penny Wong is urging her party to reconsider its trajectory around the ongoing catastrophe in Gaza, we don’t know how she feels about it personally. So far, our Foreign Minister has been unable to divert from the party line of “Israel’s right to defend itself”, her visit to Israel meticulously designed to foster support for the party responsible for the worst act of concentrated human violence this century. Like in South Africa during the 80s, the trade unions and the students are leading the public protest against the genocide in Gaza. But unlike last time, gone are the bold and emblematic Labor leaders that took the charge, and heard the plea of an Australian public overwhelmingly opposed to human suffering on a civilisational scale. Watching this crisis evolve, most of us are still the same, its only them that are different.

Simon Crean would oppose the Iraq War as Labor opposition leader, but by the time Rudd has been dumped for Gillard, and the ‘Pivot to Asia’ was declared by Barack Obama in Canberra, Labor would be a totally different government – as keen for US global military adventurism abroad as John Howard was. Gillard would let the troops station at Darwin and took a more pro-Israel approach, before the party infighting returned, further damaging the brand, ceding to another decade of Coalition government. When Labor returned again in 2022, it was completely unrecognisable from the party that led the global movement against apartheid in the 1980s. The Albanese/Wong duo of 2024 are ideologically aligned and strategically connected with the US endorsed actions of Netanyahu’s Israel, with both lacking the front to offer a different solution, and fundamentally different ethically to the Hawke/Hayden combination that rallied the world to do better on apartheid in South Africa. 

But South Africa isn’t Israel. White South African lobby groups and Boer appreciation societies didn’t get as much traction with the business and political classes as the Zionist lobby groups and bilateral-trade councils. When Rwandan Hutu leader Leon Mugesera called Tutsi the citizens ‘cockroaches’, he didn’t have sway over governments via powerful lobby groups. When Slobodan Milošević massacred ethnic Bosnians in the Yugoslav war, the world could condemn him because the power and influence of Yugoslavian lobbyists hadn’t yet captured the halls of congress in Washington. Australia condemned the crimes against humanity in Rwanda and Bosnia, and it led the western in world articulating the need to oppose genocide in South Africa, but with our Foreign Minister touching down in the lands of a nation that has undertaken an unrelenting hundred-day campaign of human devastation against the most concentrated human population on earth in Gaza, it can’t even seem to muster the courage to call for a rudimentary ceasefire.   

In a world of disproportionate influence and power, one could try to empathise with Wong and her government for their stance on this issue. Torn between a Coalition we could only imagine would be more gung-ho in its support for Netanyahu’s objectives and tactics, and the media who report subjectively with majority support for the conflict and ready to remove journalists who step out of the remit harshly hammered in by executives, a government run by a PM who founded the Parliamentary Friends of Palestine Association may feel like it should back the Israeli operation as an act of political prudence. They may even think they are being clever. After being a small target opposition, Labor is allowed to be a small target government also if it chooses, but it shouldn’t forgo its history of neutrality in this decades old conflict. It shouldn’t play a small target on a genocide.

The optics around Wong’s visit to a state carrying out a campaign of human destruction, amongst an ongoing deliberation over a genocide case before the ICJ, could not look worse at home and abroad outside the bubble of captive interests. Australia’s reputation as an independent diplomatic middle power evaporated in the photo opportunities in Israel with alleged war criminals conducting an ongoing genocide in Gaza, the abstentions in the UN, the refusal to recognise the findings of the ICJ, and the blind acquiesce to US foreign ambition through the eyes of Netanyahu’s Israel. Albanese says that “What happens in the world matters at home in Australia”, but it also matters how we conduct ourself when faced with choices around this grim moment in history.

This Labor government can’t pretend that the diplomatic efforts of previous (authentic) iterations of the party did not have profound impacts on the outcomes of global events. If Labor led the way with Wong calling out this action by Israel, as it did when Hayden called out South Africa, the impacts could be just as significant. This government can’t pretend it is any different now, it must accept that its actions are motivated by different reasons, and must be prepared to face a reckoning at the ballot box by people that watched this Labor government backing a genocide across the grain of public opinion, betraying the proud legacy of its party to deliver something that is against everything we stand for.  

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