Haaretz op-ed: What Israel should expect from Australia's new government

Following Labor’s federal election win, I wrote this op-ed for Israeli newspaper Haaretz on what it means for the Australia-Israel relationship:

Last week in Australia, Anthony Albanese led a center-left Labor government to victory, ending almost a decade of rule by the conservative Liberal and National party coalition.

While in the United States a majority of Jews lean Democratic, only one in five Australian Jews identify as being politically closer to Labor. Despite this, Labor and the Jewish community have always had deep connections, even playing a formative role in the UN’s votes to partition Palestine and create a Jewish state.

In domestic politics, the previous government’s last term saw frustration deepen at its refusal to do the bare minimum on key issues such as addressing climate change, promoting gender equality, and preserving the integrity of the political system in the face of corruption and the misuse of public funds.

These issues gave the Liberal party a big headache deep in its traditional heartland. Although Labor’s result was strong enough to win a majority, it was a contingent of independents – all women – who toppled some of the government’s biggest stars. The government was said to have “lost its center” and it seems the public broadly agreed. In the seat of Macnamara, home to many in Melbourne’s Jewish community, the Liberal vote dropped by a quarter.

Foreign policy also played a role in the campaign. Even though the main story was a defense deal Australia’s neighbor, the Solomon Islands, signed with China mid-campaign – which seem to be the result of the government bungling the relationship – the issue of Israel-Palestine also came up.

This happened partly because two of the seats at risk from the independent candidates contained Jewish populations. Keen to find any issue it could to stem the bleeding, the Liberal party dredged up bad faith charges of antisemitism and anti-Israel bias. Supported by weeks of full-page ads in the local Jewish press and partisan editorials, it was a last-ditch attempt to scare Jewish voters into sticking with the government. 

There was another reason these issues came up: the Liberal party – like other conservative parties across the world – has long sought to use Israel as a wedge against Labor and its other political opponents.

Trying to win Jewish votes ahead of a tight special election in 2018, then Prime Minister Scott Morrison flagged that Australia could follow the Trump administration and recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Politicizing foreign policy has long been a no-no in Australian political campaigns, but desperate to win votes, the Liberal party defied convention.

This election, the campaign to ‘own’ the pro-Israel vote by smearing the opposition reached fever pitch. Aided by a febrile Murdoch press, conservatives went on the attack, accusing Labor leader Anthony Albanese of abandoning bipartisan support for Israel.

For the Australian right, ‘support for Israel’ only counts if it is a nuance-free blank check for right-wing Israeli governments. Criticism of Israeli settlement growth, Israel’s treatment of Palestinians under occupation or prime ministerial racism aren’t acceptable, even though they are staple talking points of Israel’s Zionist left.

It’s true that in its nine years in opposition, Labor’s policy has been refined. Its support for Israel is unchanged – it continues to support two-states and oppose the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement – but it’s also hardly surprising that things would shift given their time in opposition aligned almost entirely with the Netanyahu-led rightward shift in Israeli politics.

In 2018, recognizing the shift on the ground, the party’s national platform called for recognition of a Palestinian state as part of a comprehensive package which supported both Israel and Palestine’s existence in safe and secure borders. In 2021, in the wake of Israel’s unprecedented push towards annexation the previous year, it reaffirmed the resolution. It seems likely that the new government will begin a process to explore this recognition.

Focusing on that issue, as opponents of the new government have, is shortsighted, not only in that it ignores global trends, but also in that it overstates its negative impact. Israel’s newest Abraham Accord allies in the Gulf have long recognized Palestinian statehood, as have more than 100 other nations, while claims that doing so would somehow harm prospects for peace were dismissed recently by former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

For most of its time in opposition, Labor’s foreign affairs spokesperson – and now its foreign minister – has been Penny Wong. A smart, erudite and nuanced leader, she is widely respected in Australian politics. Within hours of her appointment she was at work reshaping some of Australia’s most important regional relationships. Even as Australia’s right-wing Jewish community leaders criticize Labor’s policies, they clearly have a deep respect for her.

In an event last year for the New Israel Fund, Wong confirmed Labor as a “steadfast friend of Israel” and that Labor’s “public position [is] really clear – you can be a friend of Israel, but you can also be principled about the issues that you raise concerns about.”

She specifically mentioned “annexation and the expansion of settlements [as] those issues which we consider to be inconsistent with a just peace and a two-state solution,” noting that “equally, where there is the sort of behavior we have seen from terrorist organizations, that should be called out.”

With precision and clarity, Wong outlined the core of Labor’s positions on Israel, and one which puts it in lockstep with virtually each of Israel’s other most valued and strategically important relationships. In fact, it would be strange to see otherwise from a center-left party like Australian Labor.

Outrageous statements of concern from right-wing Jewish community leaders in Australia, such as the Australian Jewish Association accusing incoming premier Albanese of having made “extreme anti-Israel comments” and other new MPs of having “crossed the line into antisemitism,” fuel a dangerous game.

Having a community leadership push partisan politics rather than honestly assessing the new leadership’s actual positions and embracing the new political climate puts at risk the community’s relationship with the new government.

True supporters of Israel and its aspirations to be a pluralist and democratic homeland for the Jewish people, whether in Australia or elsewhere, will find Prime Minister Albanese and Foreign Minister Wong to be honest friends both of Israel and of efforts to build a lasting peace with the Palestinians.

NIF event: Peace, War and the Future with Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert

I interviewed former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert for an NIF event about his latest book Searching for Peace, his new political memoir.

While in government Olmert supported Ariel Sharon’s disengagement from Gaza and breakaway to the new Kadima party, led Israel’s 2008-09 military campaign in Gaza, and was the last Israeli leader to support the establishment of a Palestinian state and conduct serious negotiations to achieve one.

During the event we discussed what Israel can do to break the cycle of violence in Gaza, the possibility that a future Labor government will recognise the State of Palestine and plenty more.

NIF event: Ohad Naharin on BDS, Israel-Palestine and the Sydney Festival

Over the last month, calls to boycott the Sydney Festival after it received sponsorship from the Israeli embassy for a production of Naharin’s Decadance have featured prominently on social and mainstream media. (You can read my Sydney Morning Herald op-ed discussing the issue.)

One of Israel’s most celebrated cultural identities, the conversation with Naharin canvassed his work over more than three decades at the Batsheva Dance Company, the founding of the Gaga movement, his political activism, and the ongoing debate about the Sydney Festival and the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement.

Sydney Morning Herald op-ed: 'Sydney Festival boycott a blunt instrument that blocks voices of dissent'

Following pressure on the Sydney Festival to reject funding from the Israeli embassy to host Ohad Naharin and the Batsheva Dance Company’s Decadance, I wrote this op-ed for the Sydney Morning Herald:

This week’s fracas at the Sydney Festival over the inclusion of Decadance, a renowned dance piece in the repertoire of Israel’s Batsheva Dance Company, and the festival’s sponsorship by the Israeli embassy, has followed a familiar script.

In response to the sponsorship, some artists have now withdrawn from the festival, with Khaled Sabsabi saying he was doing so “out of solidarity with the Palestinian people and the Palestinian cause”.

Israel’s largest contemporary dance company, Batsheva is hailed as one of the most important in the world today, having developed its acclaim over the last 30 years during choreographer Ohad Naharin’s time at the helm. During these decades, the company and Naharin himself have pushed every boundary, challenged every taboo, and remain a national treasure.

Naharin’s movement language “Gaga” is world renowned and productions using the dance vocabulary are popular around the globe. Decadance itself has been performed for more than two decades.

As one of Israel’s most well regarded cultural exports, Naharin’s productions are both an obvious inclusion in global events like the Sydney Festival and a way to attract much needed funding for the arts from a local embassy. Equally, it is a hot target for supporters of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement which seeks to isolate and pressure the state of Israel because of its treatment of Palestinians.

There is nothing out of hand illegitimate – and certainly not inherently antisemitic – about a boycott of Israel. This is particularly so when the call comes from Palestinians themselves whose personal and collective experiences with the conflict trump claims they might be unfairly and disproportionately targeting Israel for opprobrium.

Stories of injustice, as well as the voices of those speaking up against that injustice, are extremely important to amplify on our stages here in Australia. As a blunt instrument which blocks access to important Israeli artists like Naharin, the BDS movement is a counterproductive tool.

I want Australians to see the beautiful art that Naharin creates, of course, but mostly I want us to get to hear his views.

Like countless other Israeli artists, Naharin is one of the most articulate, persuasive and prominent critics of 54 years of Israeli government policies in the occupied territories.

He has raised funds for leading civil rights organisation the Association for Civil Rights in Israel and participated in public demonstrations for Breaking the Silence, an organisation of military veterans who have taken it upon themselves to persuade Israelis of the price paid for the continuing occupation.

Which brings us to the deep irony of what’s happening now. In speaking out against the occupation he “earned” a spot in a despicable McCarthyist campaign peddled by Israel’s ultra-nationalist right-wing and politicians against progressive artists.

Other Israeli icons like Amos Oz and David Grossman were on that list, as was singer Achinoam Nini, a Jewish-Israeli artist known for her stirring Eurovision collaboration with Palestinian Mira Awad and her broader activism for Jewish-Arab equality.

Five years ago, the organisation I run, the New Israel Fund (NIF), brought Nini to perform in Australia where her performances were protested by right-wing Jewish groups because of her peace and coexistence work, while the BDS movement continues to consider her problematic as an Israeli singer and musician.

Platforming these anti-occupation activists and their art can be a very effective tool to help Israelis and others around the world who hold attachments to the place and its people understand the injustice of the occupation.

A cultural boycott which targets them – either directly or by opposing those who fund them – shrinks the discourse, limits the access that influential allies of Palestinians have to the public square, and reduces the pressure within Israel to take serious steps to end the conflict.

Given how much the Israeli government’s policies conflict with Naharin’s own political positions, a meaningful act of subversion could be to play up that divergence.

Little would frustrate the right-wing pro-Israel lobby more than flipping the story into a discussion about how the shining lights of Israeli society – the products of which Israelis are most proud to showcase to the world, to prove itself a worthy member of the family of Western democratic nations – are also the most damning critics of the deep, dark occupation-shaped hole the country is in.

Art is always deeply political and should remain so. Responses which claim it shouldn’t be, hinting that antisemitism is at play, or which use Israel’s new relationships with human rights abusing Gulf dictatorships as a point of reference, do not positively contribute to the discourse around Israel-Palestine or provide a constructive environment for its resolution.

At the New Israel Fund our theory of change – to realise our mission of equality and justice for all – hinges on strategic, impactful investment in civil society organisations at the forefront of the campaign for Palestinian human rights and the realisation of Israel’s founding vision as a liberal democracy.

Success in those efforts will only come when more Israelis realise the toll that half a century of government policies continue to have on Palestinians, and how much they contribute to the degradation of democratic values, norms and institutions inside Israel.

There is a place for pressure on Israelis and their institutions to bring about change. People like Ohad Naharin have a big role to play in applying that pressure at home and abroad – but they most definitely should not be its targets.

Page 1 of 8