The recent attacks by Hamas have again placed the Israel-Palestine conflict at the centre of the news cycle. The Australian government response, both at the state and federal level, can only be described as reinforcing the broad support Zionism has had for years across the political spectrum. Despite the mass demonstrations in support of a sovereign Palestinian state, every state premier has lit up public monuments in solidarity with Israel, and the Albanese government — besides vague support for a two-state solution and urges that Israel follow international law — has stuck to the line that Israel has the right to self-defence.
Labor has a complex and difficult relationship with Zionism. Labor played a crucial role in the foundation of Israel, but as the Labor base has become increasingly made up of Arab-Australians, and left-wing politics critical of US foreign policy and colonialism in all forms, that dedication to Israel has fractured. The combination of placating that internal left wing pressure while adopting a public stance that, in their eyes, is neutral enough to remain electable, is part of a broader ALP strategy to stay in government by preventing the Coalition’s wedge tactics.
The pressure on Australia to support a Jewish state began in the early 20th century with Australian involvement in World War 1. Stories of Australian soldiers liberating Jewish communities from Ottoman rule became popular and Sir John Monash, war hero and commander of the Australian Army in France, was himself a prominent Zionist who petitioned the Australian government to support a Jewish state. When the world learned the horrors of The Holocaust, that pressure only grew.
At this point, as the Labor government under John Curtin feared an Arab revolt, they followed the British line of not supporting a Jewish state. Curtin had to quash a pro-Zionist motion at the 1943 ALP convention as Labor’s voter base became increasingly hostile towards the British policy. By the time Zionism became mainstream among Western democracies, it was Australia leading the way.
Herbet “Doc” Evatt, the Labor Foreign Minister and Chairman of the UN General Assembly, was the main sponsor of the November 1947 Partition Motion which granted Israel territory under international law for the first time. He then aggressively called for votes to admit Israel as a member state until he succeeded in 1948. “Without him, the Israelis would never have got in…” the Polish envoy Dr Julius Katz-Suchy summarised. Evatt did all of this with full endorsement from the party and its base. Ironically, due to lingering antisemitism, it was the Coalition that was more sceptical of Zionism.
When Labor fell into opposition, they continued to push the Coalition government to maintain support for Israel. Zionism became part of the Cold War consensus as the Arab world became increasingly aligned with the Soviet Union and Israel with the West. Both parties sided with Israel when they went to war with Egypt in 1956 and called on Jews to be allowed to immigrate to Israel from the Soviet Union. Gough Whitlam, opposition leader at the time, often attacked the government for not going far enough, saying in August 1964 that they had “succumbed to Arab pressure.” By the 1970s, with the major push from Labor, support for Israel was never questioned and taken for granted.
While Whitlam in the 1972 election expressed solidarity with the Israeli Labor party and won support from the majority of Jewish groups, his administration saw the collapse of the Zionist consensus as Labor voters and politicians grew more sceptical of the US anti-communist project. When the 1973 Yom Kippur War broke out, Australia did not condemn the Syrian and Egyptian attacks on Israel but did condemn the US weapons being airlifted in to support Israel. Supporting Israel became tied to supporting Vietnam and other projects that the left increasingly saw as forms of neo-colonialism.
The 1970s was also when grassroots activists within Labor started pressuring the caucus to support Palestine. The National Union of Students split in 1974 over a motion to condemn Zionism and in meetings with Jewish ALP members, Whitlam explained his shift in policy by pointing to the Arab-Australian community becoming “more articulate.” When he was accused by Jewish groups of abandoning them, Whitlam said, “You people should realise there is a large Christian Arab community in this country…”. Clearly, the electoral calculus changed for Labor, making a purely Zionist stance untenable. Before he was dismissed, Whitlam approved establishing a Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) liaison office in Canberra and, in a UN Women’s Rights conference held in Mexico City, the government even supported a motion equating Zionism with racism. The 1970s was the closest Labor got to supporting a free Palestinian state.
The landslide election of the Fraser government in 1975 led to an internal backlash against the left faction in Labor who was blamed for being too radical for the Australian public. In an attempt to move back to the centre, Labor’s new policy on Israel started to resemble the modern-day attempt at playing both sides. Bob Hawke, who visited Israel twice in 1971 and 1973, and Bill Hayden were both viewed favourably by Jewish groups and largely reversed all of Whitlam’s changes. Hawke rescinded the motion equating Zionism with racism in 1986 and maintained Israel had a “right to secure and recognised borders.” Hawke only supported Palestine to the extent that he appealed broadly to human rights and an adherence to international law, whereas Whitlam explicitly condemned Zionism. The Keating government helped supervise the Palestinian elections in 1996 and the Foreign Minister Gareth Evens was critical of Israel, arguing it needed to be held to standards of any western liberal democracy, but never criticised Zionism as an idea.
Labor’s non-committal approach was successful up until recent years mainly because the Coalition became extreme in their support of not only Zionism but the far-right government that has dominated Israeli politics in recent years. The Howard government had the most pro-Israel voting record in the UN besides the US, and the Morrison government, desperate to score points with Jewish voters in teal seats, recognised Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. These flippant destabilising policy decisions make Labor’s rhetoric look sensible in comparison to the electorate as a whole. However, the internal and electoral pressure Whitlam faced in the 1970s are starting to materialise again. Arab-Australians, who marched in the thousands in support of Palestine, are an even larger voting block now and the left faction is becoming more outspoken than ever before in its criticism of Labor’s pro-Israel stance. State branches like Queensland in 2021 condemned “ethnic cleansing” and the “oppression of the Palestinian people”, and in response to the recent attacks, multiple Labor MPs in NSW signed an open letter in support of Palestine, publicly breaking with Premier Chris Minns. The Greens are also strongly in support of Palestine, and like on climate and housing, their comparatively radical stances are threatening to take votes away from Labor’s left flank.
It remains to be seen if Labor’s strategy of placating the left with small concessions, like reversing the Morrison government’s recognition of Jerusalem or changing how Labor refers to West Bank settlements at the 2023 national conference to “illegal and occupied,” will be enough for the party not to lose significant support. For Albanese, this is the same gamble as AUKUS and the stage three tax cuts. He believes Labor can only change the country when in government for long periods of time and is terrified of the backlash past Labor leaders like Whitlam faced for supposedly going too far. Shamefully, the result of the recent Voice Referendum only cements that caution going into the next election. With this current strategy, explicit support of Palestine and liberation for Palestinian people, beyond pushing for humanitarian aid, is unlikely.