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Dissent Among Australian Federal MPs on Israel Motion

Alan Ramsey provides an interesting write-up of Wednesday’s parliamentary motion ‘commemorating’ Israel (Blinkers off for the other side of story, SMH). “The whole affair”, he writes, “carefully orchestrated, carefully bi-partisan, lasted just 15 minutes.” Significantly, dissent came not just from a split Labor Party on this issue (most notably from MP Julie Irwin, pictured right, and others who absented themselves during the motion), but also came from the Opposition ranks, with Liberal (right-of centre party in Australia) MP Sussan Ley, pictured left, the only MP to speak up for the Palestinian people in Federal Parliament in this session. The motion was carried on voices and not put to a vote. Ramsey writes:

At 11.58am on Wednesday one half of the Australian Parliament “celebrated” the 60th anniversary of the state of Israel. More than a third of that one-half was absent, whatever their reasons. A number of MPs deliberately excluded themselves. Labor’s Kevin Rudd, as the host, did not. He spoke for eight minutes. “Celebrate” was the word Rudd used to begin his remarks. “Congratulations” was the word he used to end them. The Liberals’ Brendan Nelson spoke for seven minutes in supporting the Prime Minister. He concluded: “Shabat shalom forever.”

Nobody else spoke. The whole affair, carefully orchestrated, carefully bi-partisan, lasted just 15 minutes. The press gallery was almost empty.

So, too, were the two public galleries. About 100 invited guests, each wearing a security pass, filled the first three rows of the Speaker’s gallery upstairs and spilled into the fourth. These were the people who, after Rudd’s seven-part, 191-word motion had been “put and passed” without a vote, applauded enthusiastically. The only other person who spoke – or attempted to – was a middle-aged woman.

She got to her feet, in the seats behind the VIP guests, and held up a T-shirt, exclaiming, “What about UN resolution 242?”, as Rudd had begun speaking. Two attendants moved in quickly. Taking her by the arm, they escorted the woman outside, without fuss. Unlike what is still happening in Israel’s military occupation, after 41 years, of the Palestinian people of the West Bank and its siege of the Gaza strip, it was a very civilised eviction.

On this day, in the Australian Parliament, normal legislative business resumed at 12.13pm. The VIP guests upstairs in the Speaker’s gallery filed out. Most of the MPs downstairs drifted away to their offices. At 4pm the Israeli ambassador hosted a reception in the Parliament’s second-floor Mural Hall for invited guests only. Rudd and Nelson reappeared, as suitably Uriah Heepish as their midday speeches had been.

That night, back on the floor of the House of Representatives, the woman MP who took Tim Fischer’s southern NSW seat off the Nationals in 2001 and, in two elections, turned it into safe Liberal territory, did an extremely courageous thing.

Her name is Sussan Penelope Ley.

She is the daughter of a British colonial police officer who served in British-mandated Palestine in the 1930s, before the United Nations ceded half of it to become a Jewish state in May 1948. Born in Nigeria in 1961, Ley spent most of the first 13 years of her life in what was then the Trucial States, later the United Arab Emirates. Her family migrated to Australia in 1974. She has lived here ever since, working as an air traffic controller, a commercial pilot, a shearer’s cook, a farmer, and a senior taxation department official. She has a bunch of degrees, three children and is now a member of the Nelson shadow ministry.

What Sussan Ley did in Parliament on Wednesday night was speak for the Palestinian people. She was the only MP who did. In fact, the only MHR of the House’s 150, apart from the two leaders, to even raise the issue.

When Rudd and Nelson had spoken at midday I counted 53 Government MPs present, including six ministers, and 39 Coalition MPs. When Ley got the call 7½ hours later, at 7.38pm, to speak on the adjournment, there were five people in the public gallery, four Labor MPs and two Coalition MPs in the chamber, and one journalist in the press gallery. She was the fourth-last speaker before Parliament shut down for the day, after 11 hours, and she was allowed five minutes.

Here is an edited version of what she said:

“Today the Parliament passed a motion honouring Israel’s 60 years. My purpose tonight is not to diminish Israel’s achievements but to note the interests and legitimate aspirations of the people of Palestine.

“Israel has many friends in this country and in this Parliament. The Palestinians, by comparison, have few. Theirs is not a popular cause. But it is one I support, in part out of knowledge that the victors of World War II, including Australia, wrote a ‘homeland’ cheque to cover the sins of the holocaust and centuries of anti-Semitism in Europe, but it was the Palestinians who had to cash it.

“Israel has much to celebrate after 60 years. It has built a modern, accomplished and intelligent society, one whose scientific and technological expertise offers a great deal to the world. It has a robust democracy, a free press, a secular state with freedom of faith, and an unfettered opposition, regrettably rare in the Middle East. If there were peace between Israelis and Palestinians, one can only imagine the achievements of these two cultures today.

“Israel’s 40-year occupation of the Palestinian territories, its continued expansion of [illegal Israeli] settlements [on Palestinian land] and its refusal to allow the return of expelled refugees have caused deep resentment in the Arab world. Palestinian corruption in government and failure to abandon violence against civilians as a political tool have meant Israel does not feel secure behind secure borders. Sixty years have seen a great deal of bloodshed – Arab, Israeli and others, including 34 US soldiers killed by Israeli forces on the USS Liberty during the 1967 war. I do not find it helpful to engage in a forensic apportionment of blame; each side has legitimate grievances.

“The current blockade of Gaza, confiscation of Palestinian land, and the expansion of settlements must be mentioned in the context of today’s motion. Gaza is besieged, contained and on the brink of starvation. Rockets are fired into Israel every day, and Israel has a right to self-defence, but the crushing economic embargo feeds fury and resentment both in Gaza and the West Bank. [A total] 2679 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli [military] forces in the Gaza Strip since September 2000, [while] an Israeli human rights organisation reported 1259 of those were not participating in hostilities when they were killed, and 567 were minors …

“We ought not be naive or simplistic about the challenge faced by the Israelis in moving towards peace with a [popularly elected] counterpart, in Hamas, that is funded and supported by a foreign power [Syria] and which retains an explicit commitment to [terrorism] as a political instrument. But may I remind the House of the example of the Northern Ireland peace process [which succeeded] after a more than 40-year struggle.

“There are signs the Israeli people are developing a renewed hunger for peace. A recent Tel Aviv University poll indicates 64 per cent of Israelis believe the [Israeli] Government must hold direct talks with the Hamas government in Gaza towards a ceasefire. Military occupation, blockades and hostility against civilians in the name of security will result in [more] violence and terror. We must think what we can do [for] ordinary Israelis and Palestinians to give them some faith in the peace process …

“We are the leaders of our generation. We are accountable for results. If the principal protagonists and the rest of the world community hand Palestine on to the next generation as a twisted mess of grievance, hatred and retribution, then we have failed. The last two generations of leaders have failed to produce peace. Let us renew our efforts.”

Unlike earlier in the day, nobody applauded – though I wished I could have. Many Australians, too, had they been present, surely would have wanted to acknowledge such a speech of such honesty and sensibility, about the Israelis as much as it was about the Palestinians. Ley put the grovelling Rudd and Nelson to shame. The truth is there is no real debate in this country about the travesty of what is happening in the Middle East, and there are those in the community who, with their money and influence, do all they can to ensure no such open debate occurs, either in the national Parliament, in the media or anywhere else.

So why was the Rudd Government, in its first four months of office, doing what no Australian government or parliament had done, to acknowledge any of the decades of Israeli statehood since the Six-Day War in 1967 saw the Israeli military occupy the Palestinian territories of the West Bank and Gaza and ignore 40 years of mutual violence and barbarity as well as 40 years of United Nations resolutions, to withdraw?

The Howard government did not “honour” Israel’s 50th anniversary in 1998, nor the Hawke government the 40th anniversary in 1988, nor the Fraser government the 30th anniversary in 1978. Why the 60th in 2008 the instant a Labor Government comes to power?

When the Labor caucus met on Tuesday, as it does every week the Parliament sits, Sydney’s Julia Irwin asked Rudd this very question.

Why? Irwin never takes a backward step in her defence of Palestinian rights, but all she got from Rudd this time was waffle. He did not explicitly respond as to why 60 might be different from earlier decades when the Parliament had done nothing and neither had earlier governments. And no Labor MP supported Irwin in pushing it.

She was a lone voice in the Labor caucus as Sussan Ley was in the Parliament. How’s that for political ticker?

See also Not In Our Name: We the People Respond To Australian Parliamentary Motion On Israel At 60

5 comments on “Dissent Among Australian Federal MPs on Israel Motion

  1. Claude Rigney
    17 March, 2008

    Congratulations on ‘Blinkers off..’. Looks like Rudd and Ruddy Nelson have joined the ranks of the ultra-evangelicals, aka Christian Zionists. When Israel was founded in 1948 the Christian Zionists became certain that the Second Advent was about to happen and that anything they could do to effect the conversion of the Jews or their ingathering into the Holy Land would bring the ‘rapture’ , aka the consummation of all things, closer. In this connection Sally Lash a secularist Jew and Tel Aviv banker wrtes: ‘New Testament prophecies mandate that Jews convert or die before the rapture of the Christian Zionists can get under way. They obviously don’t count on being our best buddies in eternity.’ Rudd and Ruddy Nelson are playing a dangerous game by lionising Israel and courting the Christian and Jewish Zionist lobbies. The Jewish Zionists are not taking the ‘convert or die’ of the Christian Zionists seriously. Considering the nutters who occupy both halves of the Zionist cause it looks like ‘we could be headin’ for Armageddon’.

  2. Ann
    17 March, 2008

    Hi Claude,

    Thanks for the comment.

    Have you seen this video clip?

  3. Dr Paul Fidlon
    17 July, 2008

    Alan Ramsey is well known for his anti-Israel views — as are Julia Irwin and Tanya Plibersek and, now, Sussan Ley: they cannot be considered objective in their appraisal of Israel. Were they to speak up for Israel in Arab League countries, they would be arrested and imprisoned — or worse. Our anti-Israel MPs should consider themselves lucky to enjoy the privilege of freedom of speech in Federal Parliament.

  4. peoplesgeography.com
    18 July, 2008

    Alan Ramsey is one of my favourite Australian journalists. The other honourable fellow Australians you mention are also highly regarded here.

    It should be needless to say that a lot of us disagree with your own very partisan appraisal, Paul. If by “anti-Israel” you mean they are actually even handed on I-P and show a skerrick of understanding and outrage at the treatment of the Palestinians, then your opinion is not at all widely shared and could hardly be called objective, if that is what you are intimating.

    As for “speaking up for Israel”, I personally would love to be given a reason to do so, as would most Arabs I know whose countries you collectively impugn in your comment above (what about the dearth of Israelis speaking up for the Palestinians in Israel and how they are outcast in Israel, Paul? So much so that I can readily name half a dozen whom felt they had to live in exile: Ilan Pappe, Tanya Reinhart, Gilad Atzmon, Avigail Abarbanel, and many others).

    The Israeli state’s actions continue to appall and disgust all thinking people of conscience and until and unless it ends the military occupation of the Occupied Palestinian Territories, the criminal siege of the Gaza Ghetto and stops building illegal settlements to name but a few of its major crimes, it will not attract people “speaking up for it” in a region where it refuses to be a peaceful part of the neighbourhood.

    I agree with the hundreds of Jews who signed a letter in the London Guardian in April. The letter stated, in part: “We cannot celebrate the birthday of a state founded on terrorism, massacres and the dispossession of another people … We will celebrate when Arab and Jews live as equals in a peaceful Middle East.”

  5. Michael B
    21 July, 2008

    On freedom of speech and Israel, I’d like to add a few words.

    First, is there any merit in boasting about freedom of speech or condemning its supposed absence elsewhere if one’s response to any inconvenient observation is “you’re lucky to be able to say that”? Logically, asserting that someone is lucky to have the freedom to criticize Israel is not a rebuttal but an evasion – an evasion with the subtext “if it were up to me…”

    Implicit in Fidlon’s view is the notion that freedom of speech is a touchstone of civilization, a reliable indicator of the presence of every less delicate right. But if you were a patient dying in Gaza, would you not give up the right to speak about your pain in exchange for the possibility of medical treatment? If you were a Palestinian held for years without charge in an Israeli prison, would not the mere denial of free speech be a positive improvement? If you were a refugee in Lebanon, how much value would you put on your freedom of speech when even the voice of the UN is ignored? If you were a Palestinian living near the Wall or a settlement then would you not consider trading freedom of speech for freedom of movement, the freedom to earn a living from your own land, the freedom to live in your own house without fear of it being demolished at any time?

    Implicit also is the assumption that Israel, in contrast to those dreadful Arabs, actually allows free speech. Yet just last month, Salam Fayyad asked the EU not to upgrade its relations with Israel until Israel improved its human rights record. How did the Israeli government respond? With contrary arguments? No: they responded by withholding the PA’s taxes. This reprisal for words said clearly: Your speech is not free; your money is under our control and if you complain about us then we can make things even worse for you.

    Israeli Jews, of course, do enjoy a good measure of free speech. Some use it courageously to defend those less fortunate in this respect. Thus when Norman Finkelstein was deported earlier this year the Association for Civil Rights in Israel was able to say: “The decision to prevent someone from voicing their opinions by arresting and deporting them is typical of a totalitarian regime. A democratic state, where freedom of expression is the highest principle, does not shut out criticism or ideas just because they are uncomfortable for its authorities …”

    For Palestinians, naturally, it gets worse: a brutal police attack on a peaceful procession at Saffuriya; journalists reporting the reality of the occupation subject to treatment ranging from harassment through torture (Mohammad Omer) on up to murder (Fadel Shana, who filmed his own death). These examples and those above are all from just the past few months.

    Fidlon writes that “anti-Israel” (i.e., pro-human-rights) MPs should consider themselves lucky that they have the “privilege” of speaking out. Maybe they already do. Maybe they feel that with that good fortune comes a duty to speak out. Maybe Fidlon too should reflect on his luck not to have been born a Palestinian.

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This entry was posted on 15 March, 2008 by in Australia, Dissent, History, Israel, Justice, Occupation, Palestine, People and tagged , , , .

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-- Aldous Huxley

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