How things change: Gillard, Palestine & political authority

by · November 30, 2012

No longer so chummy?

In just a few weeks we have gone from the near-unanimity of Australia’s political class in refusing to clearly support the people of Gaza from a brutal Israeli military attack, to the “humiliation” of the prime minister over Australia’s vote for Palestinian observer status at the United Nations. What is it that has driven this remarkable political shift?

Prior to the assault on Gaza, for most Australian supporters of the Palestinian struggle for justice, the last two years must have felt like the cause was losing ground at a rate of knots. For months the media, politicians and even sections of the Australian Greens hammered the decision by the NSW Greens, and the Greens-dominated Marrickville Council, to support the BDS. And the shrill outrage over a series of small but noisy BDS-related protests outside Max Brenner chocolate shops could only have added to the sense that there was little support for the Palestinian people. After a bitter debate Marrickville Council retracted its BDS commitment, and the NSW Greens dropped clear support for the strategy. This was the context in which the Australian Greens party room issued an appalling statement on Gaza that seemed to apportion blame equally on both sides — a context I wrote about in a previous blog post.

Yet the reality of the horror Israel was unleashing rapidly opened up the cracks in this apparent national (and global) consensus. Kevin Ovenden has written eloquently on both the international balance of forces during the war and in the wake of the ceasefire, so I will concentrate mainly on the local here.

First there were Labor’s Doug Cameron and the Greens’ David Shoebridge and Lee Rhiannon breaking from Gillard’s immediate backing of Israel. But it was the Greens who were hit with the biggest turmoil, as the party was flooded with calls and emails from members and supporters demanding a stronger pro-Palestinian stance. Within days the party was putting a much harder position to both the NSW and federal parliaments, and Christine Milne argued explicitly against equating the two sides. The NSW Greens organised a sizeable contingent to Sydney’s pro-Gaza rally the following weekend, at which Rhiannon spoke. Of course, the official Australian Greens’ position remains deeply problematic, frozen by the unresolved internal ructions, but the party’s shift is a measure of both pressure from without and the remaining left-wing sentiments that cohere the party despite its accommodation to the mainstream in recent years. That is why it was correct for the focus to be on connecting activism to putting pressure on the Greens (and Labor Left) to represent that movement in the sphere of official politics, thereby legitimising widespread popular sentiment (a sentiment that is driven by growing negative views of Israel internationally, see graphic below).

But with the ceasefire in operation the biggest political shock was to come: Gillard rolled by her cabinet, the charge led by the NSW Right’s foreign minister Bob Carr, on the issue of observer status. Gillard, reflexively pro-US in projecting her authority, had not seen how her position was now isolated by a combination of factors. Among these was payback expected by international supporters of Australia’s successful bid for a seat on the Security Council, but what must have been most salient was Israel’s weaker position in the wake of the Arab Spring. If, as Richard Seymour suggests, the Gaza War was an attempt by Israel to test the waters of its own politico-military authority, and simultaneously reassert it, then it has well and truly found that authority (although not its military capability to wreak havoc) undermined. Of course this is also the outcome of a much longer-run process where Israel, and its closest allies, have become more isolated through a combination of the Zionist entity’s near-lunatic bellicosity towards Iran, its continuing expansion of illegal settlements and the daily suffering caused by occupation and blockade — more recently exacerbated by insecurity over Egypt’s upheavals.

It is important to understand how much Australian domestic statecraft is tied to this country’s alliance with the North American superpower, so much so that even as Australia’s economic ties to China become much more central Gillard was keen to wave the US alliance in China’s face during the Obama visit late last year (provoking this angry response from Beijing). But with Gillard’s own authority so weak that the media are willing to seriously report trivial and suspect allegations of “corruption” buried for over two decades — and so weak that until recently it looked like one of the most unpopular opposition leaders in Australian history would lead his side to a crushing landslide (now only a decisive win) over the government — she was unable to mobilise even this traditional connection to the US in her favour on Palestine. The fact that most of her backers in the ALP Right, hardly known for their pro-Palestinian sympathies, were willing to do this further reinforces the weakness of her position. All this just as some were calling Labor’s recent lift from its opinion poll nadir a real “recovery” (rather than a reflection of problems on the conservative side with Abbott unable to disassociate himself from Liberal premiers attacking public services).

The Gaza War has not only exposed Israel’s problems, but those of its key international allies. Interestingly, despite Egyptian president Morsi’s significant win in brokering a ceasefire, his subsequent manoeuvres have underlined the precariousness of his domestic position, with complex and potentially fraught realignments rapidly taking shape within the revolutionary movement there.

Despite its apparent remoteness, and the apparent pro-Israel consensus in Australian politics, the Palestinian issue has even upset the balance of political forces here. This reflects both the way that Palestine is such a central flashpoint within an unstable global order, and how Australian politics is in much greater flux than can be read off from the apparently good economic news Gillard and Swan are so keen to remind us of. Understanding that context must be key to the strategic outlook and tactical decisions needed to rebuild a genuine politics of social resistance here.

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