Following my article in yesterday’s Crikey about departing ALP MP Julia Irwin speaking honestly about Israel/Palestine – check the comments on the original piece that shows the massive interest in these rare statements – please find below the complete transcript of the interview with Irwin:
While some of my former colleagues may disagree, I have always felt that my statements on the Israel/Palestine conflict have been broadly in line with ALP policy. That probably says more about the nature of party platforms and the process of their creation than it does about toeing the party line on an issue. This was most noticeable going back to my 2002 motion which called for an active role for the United Nations in the peace process. While this was covered in the official policy of the time, it seemed to upset Israel supporters in Caucus more than most of the items in the motion. As the role of the United Nations generally is a pillar of the ALP’s Foreign Policy, the potential role of the United Nations in the Israel/Palestine conflict (apart from its membership of the Quartet) is rarely canvassed.
When I put the question of UN involvement to Ehud Barak when he visited Australia, he almost exploded. It seems this proposition is also strongly opposed within the Labor Party. Labor’s faith in the United Nations goes back to the days of Doc Evatt and before that to the League of Nations. Labor’s refusal to back the Iraq war and in part its opposition to the Vietnam War was based on the fact that neither were endorsed by the UN. Calling for UN action, (including the recent calls for an independent inquiry into the Mavi Mamara incident) could therefore always be seen as complying with ALP policy.
ALP response to my views on Israel/Palestine conflict:
With a few exceptions, the great majority of the Caucus have strong pro Israel views. Many have visited Israel as guests of various groups. You would find a check of the Register of Members Interests worth reading as it discloses who has been to Israel and who paid for the trip. Many Members and Senators from right wing unions have had close links with the Israeli union movement over the years and have maintained entrenched views.
I would have to say that my stance has cost me some “friends” but I should add that many of my colleagues these days begin a conversation with the remark “I know we don’t see eye to eye on the Middle East but;”
While ALP Officials, Eric Roosendaal and Mark Arbib have spoken to me and requested that I should have my speeches vetted, visit the Holocaust Museum, visit Israel and meet with members of various Jewish organisations, these requests have not been followed up. After one speech on Palestine, the ALP chief whip tore up my application for leave from the House when I was to attend an Inter Parliamentary Union meeting in Geneva. This was later approved but not before some emotional displays on both sides.
I should add however that I have enjoyed strong support from many rank and file members of the ALP. After speeches and statements I would receive a flood of emails and letters congratulating me on my stand. There is obviously a strong groundswell of support within the ALP for a more independent position when it comes to the Israel/Palestine conflict.
Discussions with leaders:
The only time I have had a direct discussion with party leaders on the Israel/Palestine conflict was with Simon Crean. He phoned me when I was visiting a Detention Centre in Port Headland to say that he was due to speak to a Jewish group and he would be telling them that he had spoken to me. He did not take the opportunity to demand any action from me which I took to mean that he respected my position. Until very recently neither Kevin Rudd nor Julia Gillard had spoken to me on the issue. Both appeared to be strong supporters of Israel. As you may know, Kevin and Julia visited Israel together with senior faction figures in early 2006, before Kevin’s successful leadership challenge later that year.
Then, strangely, at the Caucus meeting on the Tuesday before he was deposed as Prime Minister, I had gone up to Kevin to ask him to sign a hardback edition of “The True Believers” which had been signed by all Party leaders from Gough Whitlam. Kevin was surprisingly friendly and inquired about the reaction of supporters of the Palestinian cause to the Government’s handling of the expulsion of an Israeli diplomat over the theft of Australian passports and his statement calling for an inquiry into the Mavi Marmara incident. His remarks lead me to believe that there had been some change in the Government’s position with regard to Israel even if it was only a small step from being totally uncritical.
Other MPs willing to speak out on Palestine:
Apart from Maria Vamvakinou and Melissa Parke, most Labor MPs are silent on the issue of Palestine. I should point out that most members regard Foreign Affairs as a specialist policy area and rarely make public statements on these matters. Tibet, Burma and Zimbabwe would be exceptions. I myself was reluctant to enter the field as I have often said my main area of interest is social policy. After describing conditions in Gaza as being like a concentration camp I faced enormous pressure from colleagues and apologised for any offence in the Parliament. But you have to take the view that you are a member of the National Parliament and you can’t avoid Foreign Affairs policy.
Without naming names, I could point to at least one ALP member who receives big donations from Palestinian interests but is silent on the issue. (I should add that I have never been offered financial support for my re-election campaigns from groups outside my electorate and none with direct links to Palestinian interests).
On the Liberal side Susan Ley has made statements from time to time. It is interesting to note that she succeeded Tim Fisher, and has a family connection with Middle East affairs.
Why are MPs unwilling?
There is certainly a belief that support for Palestine will swiftly end any prospect of a front bench position. Even a hint of offence can result in an immediate unconditional apology. For all MPs there is the desire to “play it safe”. Why make enemies over an issue which does not directly affect your local community? And I have to add that many Labor members have an intense dislike of Arabic people. That’s something that comes across in their less guarded moments. They will talk about human rights abuse in every corner of the world, but not Palestine.
Effect of the Israel Lobby:
On the Labor side (and as far as I know the same applies to the Liberals), a newly selected member for a winnable seat is hosted to a private fund raising dinner. A table full of Jewish businessmen are happy to hand over $10,000 for the candidate’s first campaign. That’s a big bonus for a new member and many never forget the generosity. I was never afforded such an honour but I can say that I would have been suspicious of the motive.
And then there are the trips to Israel. The chance to see the achievements of sixty years of Zionism, and to look down on the depressed Palestinian villages is hard to pass up for some. How could any member not be impressed by such achievement, and how could they not share the fear of the backward Arabs threatening such an enlightened society? Any check of the Register of Member’s Interests reveals how Tel Aviv is such a popular destination, especially when it’s free. A visit to Israel is almost a rite of passage for new MPs and Senators.
Shortly after my motion on the Israel/Palestine conflict in 2002, the Israel Lobby sprang into action. “Jewish Friends of Labor” was formed and no doubt has been a rich source of support for Labor candidates ever since. As I have told Michael Danby, Julia Irwin has been the best electoral asset he has had. The Jewish Lobby needs support from both sides of politics. It cannot afford to snub Labor even if most Jewish voters live in blue ribbon Liberal seats.
Personally, while I have survived 4 terms, I have no doubt that senior ALP figures have promised to end my career on more than one occasion. At the grass roots level, in the branches and the wider electorate the lobby has no influence. Only at the highest levels can a member be threatened. But a party which allows that to happen is not worthy of public support.
My ALP Policy:
My 2002 motion not only reflected my policy approach to the Israel/Palestine conflict, it is I believe, still, the only workable approach for the long term settlement of this running sore of international concern.
At its core was the need for the United Nations to play the dominant role in the peace settlement. Resolutions since 242 have been ignored and this has totally undermined the standing of the UN. The UN is the most significant supplier of aid to Palestinians and has a long history of involvement in the issue going back to the original partition of Palestine. The UN is the only entity that comes close to being an honest broker in this conflict.
The BDS movement:
I grew up in a time when in Australia and the western world there was great sympathy for Jewish people. Our shock at the horrors of the Holocaust, our shame at our complicity in centuries of abuse and discrimination against Jewish people and our belief that the provision of a Jewish homeland would set everything right. We were in awe of the Jewish love of life and in its expression in artistic talent, intellectual achievement and benevolent service to others. But now I ask, what has changed. How could such people condone the oppression of others?
In the face of unquestioning support from powerful nations, Israel can comfortably survive the economic consequences of boycott, divestment and sanctions. What Israel cannot survive is a cultural and academic boycott. The sporting boycott of South Africa seems trivial today, but the clear message to white South Africans at the time was that they were out of step with world opinion. While politically Israel lurches further to the right, Israelis must come to realise that they are all judged by the actions of their leaders.
Engagement of Hamas:
In the epilogue of a recent docu-drama it was noted that the same group that initiated negotiations between the ANC and the South African Government was seeking to engage Hamas in negotiations. Given the unfounded level of fear in white South Africa of the consequences of majority rule, unconditional engagement with Hamas should be given some hope of success.
Two State Solution:
The question is have we already passed the point of no return. Are the settlements “facts on the ground” as George Bush referred to them, if so what happens to the Palestinian people. What cannot be denied is that demography is destiny, not ancient promises and modern day political slogans.
“We are fighting them in the bedroom” was the battle cry of one Palestinian father of 8 when I visited his two room house in Gaza. If there is to be a two state solution it will need to be resolved soon. Despite the belief of the Israeli leadership, time is not on their side. There can be no ethnic cleansing of the occupied territories. Only a truly independent and viable Palestinian nation can allow a two state solution. The alternative is an undemocratic, oppressive and uncivilised Jewish/Arabic apartheid state.