SYDNEY, Australia — As the two major parties in Australia’s federal election vie for the title of Israel’s most ardent backer, most Jewish leaders believe that Australia’s longstanding, strong bilateral support for the Jewish state will not be jeopardized regardless of the outcome.
Along with support for Israel, Australia’s 110,000-strong Jewish community will consider perennial election issues such as the economy, refugees and Aboriginal affairs in Saturday’s race pitting Prime Minister Julia Gillard of the Labor Party against Tony Abbott of the Liberal Party.
Since voting is mandatory in Australia, Sabbath-observing Jews will be using early polling booths to cast their ballots this week.
Polls show a tight race between Gillard, whose bloodless coup two months ago toppled Labor leader Kevin Rudd, and Abbott, the conservative Liberal leader once known as the “Mad Monk” for making some brutishly candid remarks.
The Liberals have been trying to drive a wedge between Labor and the Jewish community, according to Philip Mendes, a Melbourne-based academic.
During the campaign Abbott, 52, has described his party’s bond with Israel as “unshakable.” Abbott, a London native who was educated at Oxford, charged Labor with occasionally abandoning the Jewish state at the United Nations and pledged to take action against the “vicious anti-Semitic message” of Hizb-ut Tahrir, a radical Islamist group banned in America.
The latter, said Mendes, is “another unapologetic appeal to Jewish voters.”
But Mendes, the co-editor of “Jews & Australian Politics,” said Labor’s record on Israel has been “superior to virtually every other Western social democratic government, including the recently deposed New Labour in the UK.”
In Labor’s first term in office, the party proposed a bipartisan resolution on Israel’s 60th anniversary in 2008, supported Israel during its showdown with Hamas in 2009, boycotted the Durban II UN anti-racism conference, opposed the the Goldstone report on the Gaza war and ramped up sanctions against Iran.
Michael Danby, a Jewish lawmaker and perhaps the most ardent Israel backer in the government, said Gillard “stood like a rock” during the Gaza incursion and that Labor “will not shirk its historic responsibility” to defend Israel against Iran.
But a diplomatic meltdown in relations with Jerusalem took place in May following an inquiry finding that there was “no doubt” Israel forged four Australian passports used in the assassination of a Hamas leader. In response, Rudd ordered an official from the Israeli Embassy in Canberra to leave the country.
Many Jews were “taken aback at how vehement Rudd was in his handling of the affair,” said a senior Jewish leader who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Indeed, Robert Goot, president of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, issued a statement at the time describing the expulsion as “an overreaction.”
In an attempt to heal the rift, Rudd hosted a kosher dinner with senior Jewish leaders at the prime minister’s residence in June. And Foreign Minister Stephen Smith told the Australian Jewish News last week that it was “business as usual” between Canberra and Jerusalem.
The Liberals, who in 2004 also ejected an official from the Israeli Embassy, have focused on Labor’s record at the United Nations during the campaign. Since coming to office in 2007, the Labor government has supported three controversial U.N. resolutions against Israel, prompting Jewish leaders to write to the prime minister last year expressing their disappointment.
Deputy Liberal leader Julie Bishop said this week that a Liberal government would return to the U.N. voting pattern of former Liberal Prime Minister John Howard, whose government was staunchly pro-Israel.
“I make no apology for my strong support of Israel,” Bishop said.
For her part Gillard, 48, ignored calls to boycott a visit to Israel in June 2009. In Jerusalem, Israeli leaders feted her for supporting the Jewish state during its Gaza military operation in the winter of 2008-09. Last December, she delivered a speech at a Jewish function in Melbourne and danced the hora with Jewish women.
But soon after she upstaged her boss and became Australia’s first female prime minister, two former Australian ambassadors to Israel accused her of an unbalanced position on the Middle East, with Ross Burns, Australia’s envoy in Tel Aviv between 2001 and 2003, blasting her for being “remarkably taciturn on the excesses of Israeli actions.”
Gillard hails from Labor’s left flank, which has been hostile to Israel in the past. Prior to her first visit to Israel in 2005, Jewish leaders were uncertain of her position on the Middle East.
This weekend’s election will likely see two Jewish lawmakers, Danby and Mark Dreyfus, re-elected for Labor. Joshua Frydenberg, a former adviser to Howard, is set to become the first Jewish Liberal member of Parliament since Peter Baume in 1991.
The Liberals need to win 17 more seats in the 150-member House of Representatives to regain power after less than three years of Labor rule.