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The great Australian silence in Gaza

March 18, 2024 - 18:43 -- Admin

In his address at the National Press Club last week, Yanis Varoufakis, the former Greek finance minister and renowned economist, took a firm stance on the ongoing crisis in Gaza, shining a spotlight on the Australian government’s weak and often contradictory one-sided position. Varoufakis, whose expertise stretches beyond economics to encompass a broad understanding of global geopolitical dynamics, criticised Australia’s implicit support for Israel’s actions in Gaza, East Jerusalem, and the West Bank, actions he described as deliberate war crimes.

Varoufakis’s poignant words, “children are not starving in Gaza today; they are being deliberately starved,” underscore a grave accusation against Israel’s policies, which is an intentional strategy to subjugate and eventually displace the Palestinian population. By drawing parallels with historical instances of apartheid and the ideological justifications used to erase native populations, such as the doctrine of terra nullius in Australia, Varoufakis not only condemned Israel’s policies but also called out Australia’s complicity in these actions, arguing that Australia’s diplomatic defence of Israel’s actions, uncritically supporting the right to self-defence—for Israel, but not for Palestinians—and its decision to defund the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, the only agency capable of alleviating the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, has tarnished its international reputation. Varoufakis urged Australia to lead a campaign against apartheid in Israel–Palestine, reminiscent of its historical campaign against apartheid in South Africa in the 1980s, to restore equal civil liberties to both Israelis and Palestinians.

The Australian government’s lacklustre response to the crisis in Gaza, suggests that it’s primarily parroting U.S. policies without forging an independent foreign policy stance. The ongoing violence in Gaza, resulting in the deaths of over 32,000 Palestinian people in just five months, has been met with a cowardly silence from Australia, marked by a failure to unequivocally condemn the actions of the Israeli Defense Forces. This stance is a significant stain on the legacy of the Albanese government, raising questions about the moral and ethical lines that must be drawn in international relations and human rights advocacy.

The dialogue surrounding this issue highlights a broader critique of global inaction and the need for a concerted effort to address the root causes of the conflict in Gaza. The lack of a strong, principled stance from countries like Australia not only undermines their moral authority but also implicates them in the ongoing humanitarian disaster. As the international community watches, the call for Australia to revisit its foreign policy priorities and stand on the right side of history grows louder, urging an end to the violence and a move towards lasting peace and equality in the region.

The unacceptable reasons for Australian cowardice

If people such as Varoufakis—and many others in the world community—can be so critical of the actions of Israel, why is it so difficult for political leaders to make the same strident calls? What are the barriers that make Australian leaders such as Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and Foreign Affairs Minister Senator Penny Wong so reluctant to call out the actions of Israel? What are the factors that have made them determine that supporting Palestinians—as well as being on the right side of history—will cause them far greater political and electoral damage, than calling out Israel for obvious war crimes, attempted genocide and ethnic cleansing?

At the heart of Australia’s foreign policy are its strategic and diplomatic alliances, particularly with Western nations. The longstanding military and diplomatic co-operation between Australia and Israel, reinforced by mutual interests in the Middle East, underscores a significant aspect of this relationship. The alliance with Israel aligns Australia with its primary ally, the United States, which exerts considerable influence over Australian foreign policy. This alignment reflects a broader geopolitical strategy, positioning Australia within a network of Western democracies facing shared security concerns.

Domestic politics also play a crucial role in shaping Australia’s stance. The influence of the Jewish community, while numerically small, is notable in political and business circles. This community’s support is seen as vital for political leaders of the Labor and Liberal parties, and there is a palpable fear among politicians of alienating these and other pro-Israel voters. This fear is compounded by the broader Australian public’s perception of Israel some kind of like-minded democracy in a turbulent region, which many politicians are loath to challenge. Whether this notion of democracy is the case or not—Israel currently has an extremist far-right government that doesn’t seem to be representative of the will of the electorate—this is the perception that exists within the Australian community.

The media’s portrayal of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict significantly influences public opinion and, by extension, political stances. Media coverage often sympathetic to Israel’s security dilemmas tends to shape a narrative that discourages overt support for Palestine and Australian leaders, wary of backlash or accusations of not supporting Israel, often find themselves navigating a media landscape that can be hostile to nuanced positions on the conflict.

The conflation of criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism is a significant factor in the Australian political discourse. Politicians are acutely aware of the fine line between legitimate criticism and being perceived as anti-Semitic—maniacally monitored and pushed by groups such as the Zionist Federation of Australia and the Australian Jewish Association—and it’s this fear leads to more cautious public statements that often favour Israel or express neutrality, even when faced with significant evidence of humanitarian crises or disproportionate responses in conflicts like that in Gaza.

And, of course, there is the grand old sentiment of racism in Australia, which has historically had a fear of outsiders and people who are ‘different to us’, and this is an issue that cannot be underplayed.

Australia’s cautious approach to the conflict in Gaza and the broader Israeli–Palestinian conflict reflects a complex interplay of strategic, domestic, ethical, religious, and racial considerations. The challenge for Australia lies in navigating these multifaceted issues while maintaining its strategic interests and upholding its values, necessitating a more assertive and principled stance in foreign policy. Whether or not Australia will rise to this challenge remains to be seen, however, it is evident that many politicians in federal politics—particularly within the Labor government—prioritise their political careers over the lives of the 32,000 individuals who have been lost in Gaza over the past five months.

A more independent course

For most governments, attempted genocide, ethnic cleansing and apartheid would be reasons for political leaders to speak out, irrespective of where it’s occurring in the world, but especially in a case where we can see exactly what is happening and have been constantly outraged by these events. Should Australia cultivate a more autonomous foreign policy direction, distinct from the overarching influence of the United States, so it can discuss more openly—and more accurately—the events that are taking place in Gaza?

The relationship between Australia and the U.S. is undoubtedly deep-rooted, characterised by extensive military, security, and intelligence collaborations. However, this intertwined relationship has sparked debates over the extent of Australia’s foreign policy autonomy, particularly in its current position on Israel and the ongoing situation in Gaza.

The unwavering support of the United States for Israel, epitomised by President Joe Biden’s unequivocal backing—a self-proclaimed Zionist—raises questions about the implications of such alliances for Australian domestic and foreign policy. While the solidarity with Israel may resonate with American political narratives, it simultaneously tests the waters of Australia’s political leadership, challenging the Prime Minister and Foreign Affairs Minister to navigate a complex geopolitical landscape.

Historically, figures such former prime ministers Bob Hawke and Paul Keating have demonstrated that Australian foreign policy can indeed be formulated with a degree of independence, mindful of the country’s unique geographical and strategic interests. Their efforts to differentiate Australian foreign policy from that of its allies, while maintaining amicable relations, offer valuable lessons for the current administration. The proximity of nations like Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, India, and China underscores the strategic imperative for Australia to pursue a foreign policy that not only respects its alliances but also recognises the importance of its immediate neighbourhood.

By positioning itself as a significant middle power within the South-East Asia region—where it geographically belongs—rather than merely acting as a subordinate player to the United States, Australia could assume a more impactful role in international affairs. This shift would not only enhance Australia’s standing but also provide itself with greater moral authority on issues in the Middle East, allowing it to address the death, destruction, and suffering of the Palestinian people more effectively, rather than continually overlooking these grave concerns.

The challenges facing the Foreign Minister are considerable as she endeavours to navigate the intricate landscape of international diplomacy and her goal is to strike a balance between maintaining Australia’s long-standing alliances and advocating for a distinctive and principled stance in foreign policy. At present, it is a balance that is not being achieved. The ongoing debate over Australia’s autonomy in foreign policy, especially highlighted by the Gaza conflict, prompts a wider discussion about the nation’s role on the global stage.

Anti-Semitism has lost its meaning

In the evolving narrative surrounding Australia’s position on the Gaza conflict, criticism towards the Foreign Minister and the Labor government has intensified, underscoring a perceived failure to navigate the diplomatic tightrope with the finesse expected of a nation with Australia’s international standing. The delayed decision to restore funding to the UNRWA for humanitarian aid in Gaza, as highlighted by former Foreign Affairs Minister Gareth Evans where he urged the government to “stop sitting on the fence”, epitomises this critique. The eventual reinstatement of aid, while a positive step, has been overshadowed by the protracted hesitation that preceded it, casting a shadow over Australia’s commitment to humanitarian principles.

There have also been incidents where Palestinians in Gaza, having been granted visitor visas to Australia, managed to escape from Gaza into Egypt and board flights to Australia, only to be told mid-flight that their visas had been cancelled, forcing them to return. Although over 2,000 visitor visas have been granted to Palestinians—and more than 2,400 to Israeli citizens—only 400 have actually arrived in Australia. Many have been left stranded due to these mid-flight visa cancellations, a situation influenced by pressure from Israeli lobby groups in Australia and political figures such as the Shadow Home Affairs Minister, Senator James Paterson.

Once again, a lacklustre justification was offered by Minister Clare O’Neil, stating that the government was investigating the manner in which some of these visa holders had exited Gaza “without explanation”—just a guess, but perhaps the daily bombings, genocide, and ethnic cleansing in Gaza could provide some context? This situation underscores the influence of the Israeli lobby and demonstrates the Australian government’s readiness to perpetuate the persecution of Palestinians, extending the suffering initiated by the state of Israel. It’s reminiscent of the ships of Jewish refugees turned back from the ports of the United States during Word War II, under the belief by the U.S. State Department that they could “threaten national security”. Short memories.

The conversation around Australia’s diplomatic language and actions—or the lack of action—regarding the situation in Gaza is marked by a palpable frustration. The government’s rhetoric often resorts to what could be best described as “weasel words,” a diplomatic contortion that fails to adequately address the gravity of the conflict or the disproportionate number of Palestinian casualties.

Amidst these critiques, voices within the Labor government, such as Tony Burke, Ed Husic and Senator Fatima Payman, have been acknowledged for their condemnation of the violence in Gaza—their outspokenness serves as a reminder that strong, principled stances on international human rights issues do not necessarily precipitate political fallout and these example underscores the possibility for the Australian government to adopt a more unequivocal stance in condemning the actions of the Israeli government and advocating for a ceasefire, without fear of reprisal from domestic political opponents or lobby groups. It shouldn’t be necessary to point this out, but surely it’s acceptable for political leaders to condemn genocide, ethnical cleansing, apartheid and the slaughter of over 32,000 Palestinians in Gaza and not be accused of anti-Semitism. Surely.

The discussion around response to the conflict also extends beyond diplomatic and humanitarian concerns, touching on broader issues of identity, morality, and the politics of criticism. The controversy surrounding writer-director Jonathan Glazer’s Oscar speech, wherein he called out the genocide in Gaza—only for him to be accused of anti-Semitism by the Combat Antisemitism Movement and Holocaust Survivors groups—encapsulates the fraught terrain of public discourse on this issue, where even a small and legitimate criticism of the state of Israel and the actions of the Israel Defense Forces—whether it’s a real or perceived criticism—brings on the torrents and waves of abuse and claims of anti-Semitism. What is the meaning of anti-Semitism if every course of debate has the label throw at it?

As Australia navigates its response to the crisis in Gaza, the calls for a more assertive and morally consistent foreign policy grow louder and the aspiration for an Australian foreign policy that aligns with the nation’s values and international human rights standards, while managing diplomatic relationships, presents a challenge. Yet, it is a challenge that Australia must meet if it is to fulfill its potential as a force for good on the world stage, advocating for peace, justice, and the protection of human rights for all, irrespective of political pressures or alliances. The path forward requires courage, clarity, and a recommitment to the principles that should guide international relations in the twenty-first century. We’re not seeing that at the moment.

The post <strong>The great Australian silence in Gaza</strong> appeared first on New Politics.