The Hawke Years, 1983-1991

May 17, 2019 by  
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The man who defeated Fraser in the March 1983 election was already well known for supporting Israel and other “Jewish” causes such as Soviet Jewry.

Bob Hawke with Israel’s Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir

Former trade union leader Bob Hawke had developed a strong affinity for Israel during a 1971 (and subsequent 1973) visit to the country, forming good relations with officials from the Histadrut trade union movement, along with what has been called a “platonic love affair” with Golda Meir. Both Jerusalem and a visit to the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum profoundly moved him.

Following the visit, Hawke became involved in pro-Israeli activity. He attacked Whitlam for his policies during the 1973 war, delivered speeches and wrote a booklet arguing Israel’s case, and fought anti-Israeli segments of the ALP and union movement. He also became an internationally recognized champion of the campaign to free Soviet Jews.

Although Hawke’s ardour for Israel cooled somewhat after the Israeli Labor Party was defeated by the right-wing Likud in the 1977 election, he came to office with both Jewish and non-Jewish Australians well aware of his pro-Israeli history. Nevertheless, Israeli-Australian relations proved more complex and disputatious during the eight years of Hawke’s prime ministership than might have been expected.

Hawke formulated an original plan for peace in the late 1970s whereby Israel would withdraw to the 1967 boundaries but would have the right if attacked from the vacated territories to counterattack and permanently retain any land it recaptured. Throughout his political career, Hawke aspired to play a mediating or peacemaking role in the Middle East.

The Middle East policy of Hawke’s government, at least until about 1988, largely mirrored that of the Fraser years though with perhaps some more receptivity to Palestinian and Arab approaches, especially regarding the role of the PLO. During the election campaign, Hawke reiterated what had essentially been the Fraser government’s policy in the early 1980s: support for Israel’s right to “secure and recognized boundaries” but also for the “right of the Palestinians to their independence and the possibility of their own independent state.”

In September 1983, shortly after taking office, the Hawke government announced changes in Australian policy including support for the establishment of an Arab League office in Australia and allowing Australian ambassadors to meet PLO representatives “in their range of political contacts.” However, when Jewish leaders met Hawke to express concern, they were reassured that the Arab League would not be allowed to use any office to engage in activity relating to a boycott of Israel or firms trading with Israel; that there was no change in Australia’s policy of not recognizing the PLO as long as it denied Israel’s right to exist; and that Australia would continue to avoid supporting one-sided UN resolutions proposed by “those countries seeking to delegitimize Israel.”

In December 1983, Hawke had a confrontation over Israel with Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi during a British Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in New Delhi. He successfully insisted on changes to a clause in the final communiqué calling for the withdrawal solely of Israeli forces from Lebanon, demanding that it call for all foreign forces to leave, especially Syria’s.

The Hawke years also saw the first visit by a serving Israeli president to Australia and, reciprocally, the first visit by a serving Australian prime minister to Israel. President Chaim Herzog’s visit took place in November 1986; Hawke made a three- day trip to Israel in January 1987. Herzog’s visit was ceremonial but successful. “Australia,” he said, “has stood by our side on many occasions in the difficult years preceding the establishment of the State of Israel and since its establishment.” Welcoming him, Hawke said that the “friendship between our countries goes back to the foundation of the modern state of Israel.”

Hawke also had a positive visit and was welcomed by Israeli newspapers recalling the role of Australian soldiers in Palestine during both world wars. He clearly continued to feel a connection and again was emotional after visiting Yad Vashem. Israeli leaders asked for Australian help in reaching out to Asian and Pacific nations, and for progress in establishing direct air connections to Australia. At his final press conference, Hawke reiterated Australian policy on the need to resolve the Palestinian problem and expressed hope that mutual Israeli-PLO recognition might soon be achievable.

Australia’s UN voting during the Hawke government was somewhat less pro-Israeli than during the Fraser years. Australia preferred more to vote with the majority of Western nations on Middle Eastern issues, whereas the Fraser government had been more willing sometimes to be in the minority.

One major achievement at the United Nations in this period was the Hawke government’s role in the successful campaign to rescind the 1975 “Zionism is racism” resolution. Australia began intense involvement in this effort in October 1986 when Hawke introduced a motion to the Australian parliament deploring the resolution and calling for its annulment. With bipartisan support, this passed almost unanimously. The U.S. Congress followed suit shortly afterwards. Throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s, Australia made it a priority in its routine relations with neighbouring Pacific and Southeast Asian nations to solicit their support for repealing the resolution, finally achieved in December 1991.

However, the late 1980s also saw increasing Australian-government criticism of Israel, especially concerning its handling of the First Intifada and its refusal to countenance talks with the PLO after its 1988 declaration, which Australia (and the United States) accepted as constituting recognition of Israel. On the former point, Foreign Minister Hayden, visiting Israel in February 1988, said Israel’s “sometimes arbitrary and violent” handling of the crisis caused “profound distress” and added, “I must be honest: Australia cannot agree with this.” Hawke in parliament proposed passing a bipartisan resolution expressing concern about Israeli policies in the territories.

In April 1989, Australia’s UN ambassador, Dr Peter Wilenski (who was Jewish) delivered a very one-sided condemnation of Israeli policies in the territories and even apologized to the Saudi ambassador for Israel’s alleged mistreatment of people seeking to pray at the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. In March 1990, the Hawke government issued a Middle East policy statement that for the first time insisted that East Jerusalem was part of the West Bank, something that had always been ambiguous in Australian statements previously.

Matters changed somewhat following the outbreak of the Gulf crisis prompted by Iraq’s August 1990 invasion of Kuwait. Hawke quickly backed U.S. and UN action to reverse the invasion and committed three Australian naval vessels to the military coalition. Contacts with the PLO were also frozen in the wake of Arafat’s backing of Saddam Hussein. Hawke also firmly opposed linkage, the argument advanced by Iraq and some commentators that Israel should withdraw from the West Bank and Gaza as part of a deal for Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait.

However, probably Australia’s greatest contribution to the war effort was through use of the Nurrungar and Northwest Cape communication bases, run jointly with the Americans. These provided real-time data on Iraqi missile launches, and crucial satellite communication links. After the war, it was confirmed that Australia had provided Israel with top-secret information from Nurrungar warning of the Iraqi Scud launches against Israel, based on satellite infrared detections. Attacked for this after the war by left-wing groups opposed to the bases, Australian defence minister Senator Robert Ray said, “Essentially the [antibases] coalition accuses me of allowing the Australian-American facilities at Nurrungar to be used to give early warning time to citizens of Israel that missiles are coming. If I am guilty of that…that is my proudest moment in politics.” The parliament also passed a resolution deploring the Iraqi missile attacks on Israel.

The above is an extract from A Distant Affinity: The History of Australian-Israeli Relations written by Dr Colin Rubenstein and Tzvi Fleischer in 2007

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