The room was packed with around 200 people and the two men initially talked about the war in Afghanistan (Abbott backs it, “the best of the worst options” for the country), refugees, this year’s election campaign, the release of former Guantanamo Bay detainee David Hicks… (“I hope he’s learned his lesson and can move on with his life”) and the Labor government. He’s oddly likeable, even if his politics are laced with hardline Catholicism and conservatism. Abbott can be arrogant and deluded but also self-deprecating and charming. It’s no wonder he nearly won this year’s election against a Labor rabble of belief-free politicians.
I stood up and asked a question about the Middle East: “At what point will you, the Liberal Party and the major parties in the West recognise Israel for what it is rather than what you want it to be? Israel brutally occupies the Palestinians and the West stays largely silent. What will it take for you to look honestly at the situation and not simply mouth pro-Israel platitudes?”
Abbott said he had visited Israel a few times and believed in a two-state solution, a Jewish state and Palestinian state, and acknowledged the situation wasn’t “perfect” but remained far better than every other country in the region. He talked positively about the rights of Israeli Arabs in Israel but ignored the Palestinians in the occupied territories. I sensed he didn’t know too much about it all – at a few points he stated that he wasn’t an “expert” – but he seemed to be mouthing platitudes. The “lines” were repeated over and over again.
After, while signing books, I approached Abbott again and we talked for a few minutes about the conflict. He said he had visited Israel as a guest of the government and only been taken to where they wanted to show him. When I said that there were Jewish-only roads in the West Bank, he said that was “bad” and looked uncomfortable. I urged him to visit the region again and spend time in the West Bank and even Gaza. Abbott told me that he “admired” Israel because of its supposedly thriving democracy, free and open debate and ability of Arabs to vote and participate in the democratic process. It was a postcard version of the truth, ignoring the inherent discrimination within Israel and utterly forgetting the Palestinian territories.