24 June 2009

Passionate supporters of Israel

On the front page of The Age, Wednesday 24 June 2009, there is a story by Jerusalem correspondent Jason Koutsoukis about the visit to Israel of the delegation to an Australia-Israel leadership forum, plus a photograph of Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Member for Higgins Peter Costello rekindling the eternal flame at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem.

The article notes that Ms Gillard had been Acting Prime Minister at the time of the January Israeli offensive against Gaza, in which 1300 Palestinians and 13 Israelis were killed and says:

At the time, Ms Gillard condemned Hamas for shelling southern Israel, but pointedly refuse to criticize Israel’s response …

It goes on to describe Opposition representative Peter Costello in the following terms:

Speaking on behalf of the Opposition, Mr Costello reflected on his own passionate support for Israel that dated back more than 30 years.

He said his position was shaped in part by the anti-Israel rhetoric of those on the left of politics.

Let us unpack that first sentence a bit, because I do not understand what it means for someone to be a “supporter” of a foreign country. Does it mean that, rather than forming a dispassionate, analytical case by case view of the actions or policy settings of that country based on the objective circumstances of specific matters, the individual in question declares an a priori predisposition to support that country’s position no matter what – a sort of “their country right or wrong” position? Why would that be appropriate for any Australian citizen, let alone for someone who aspired to the highest office in the land? What would be the consequences of that position in a case where the interests of Australia were in conflict with the interests of Israel? Or is the person in question unable to conceive of a circumstance in which we would have different national interests? There are people in the United States doing jail time for espionage because they failed to make the distinction and hence believed that there should be no secrets between their country and Israel.

Is this any more than a morally and intellectually lazy position which says, “My mind was made up in the 1970s and therefore I do not have to think about issues that trouble other people, such as two invasions of Lebanon, the bombing of the southern suburbs of Beirut, Ariel Sharon’s involvement in the massacres at Sabra and Shatila refugee camps, in which at least 800 died, and possibly as many as 3,500 (see Robert Fisk’s harrowing first hand account here), the use of cluster bombs in civilian areas of Lebanon in 2006, the deliberate shelling of UN observation posts in Lebanon resulting in the deaths of Indian truce observers, or the 952 Palestinian minors killed by Israeli security forces in the period September 2000 to December 2008 (see Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem’s data here), or the 2,290 Palestinians not taking part in hostilities who were killed in the same period, the invasion of Gaza in January 2009, or the refusal of Israel to allow in building materials for reconstruction of the destroyed dwellings”. No qualms about any of that, or the proportionality of Israeli responses to provocations, because “I am a supporter of Israel”.

No worries about illegal settlements, the confiscation and destruction of property, the destruction of orchards, the illegal quarrying, the diversion of water, and all the Palestinians’ daily humiliations that bother President Obama?

And what is a “passionate” supporter? – presumably someone who holds the uncritical “supporter” position, but more intensely.

Considering the suitability of such a person for the office of Prime Minister, wouldn’t it tend to be a disqualification? A person holding such a position could hardly be considered a suitable contributor to any strategic thinking about Australia’s relationship with the rest of the Middle East, Arab or Iranian, because “I am a passionate supporter of Israel”. Presumably such a person would not know what to think until there were a declared Israeli position to “support”?

And what are we to make of a person who admits that his view of such an important question was shaped by the fact that people he didn’t like held a different view?

We are also told in this article that senior Israeli minister Israel Herzog, chairman of the Israel-Australia parliamentary association is “a personal friend of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd”. What does that mean exactly? Does it mean that they have a friendship which has nothing to do with the offices they hold, that even if they were both private citizens they would be exchanging Christmas cards and keeping up with the progress of each others’ kids? Does it mean that Mr Rudd would do something for Mr Herzog that he would not do if they were not “personal friends”?

The Israelis are very good at duchessing people. I had been Secretary to the Department of Defence for only a few weeks when I received a visit from the late Sir Peter Abeles, with the Israeli Defence Attaché in tow. They had come in ostensibly to talk about the merits of Israeli missiles – not a very profitable use of their time or mine because we buy military materiel through open competitive tender, so however impressed I might be with the capacities of Israeli missiles, it was not going to make any difference to anything.

The real purpose of the visit was dropped in right at the end. The Government of Israel would like to invite me to visit Israel, all expenses paid, and of course you must bring your wife, you will have a wonderful time. I thanked them politely and made a mental note that that was never going to happen; how could I as a public official place myself in the position of being beholden to a foreign government?

A pity not all of our Parliamentarians feel that way.

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