Friday 25 November 2011

The Greens and Palestine: confronting the "inconvenient truths" of the party's right of return policy

In March last year, 35 prominent Jewish Australians signed a petition renouncing their automatic right of return to Israel, labelling such a right a “racist privilege” while Palestinians, ethnically cleansed from Israel in 1948, are denied their rights of return under international law.
This goes to the heart of the problem of finding a solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict. Palestinians are the largest refugee group in the world, and constitute the most protracted and long-term refugee problem – around 7 million of the 11 million Palestinians are refugees, 5 million living in refugee camps in Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and elsewhere, under the supervision of the UN agency set up in 1951 specifically to deal with this population: the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNWRA).
The Australian Greens pride themselves on determined and principled defence of the rights of refugees. Green politicians and activists can righty take credit for focussing attention on the inconvenient truths of the rights of asylum seekers under international law, and in the process, helping to shift Australian public opinion over the appalling abuse of rights under current Federal Government asylum seeker policies. The Greens national website gives prominence to the fact that asylum seeker are not illegal, citing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Palestinian refugees who in May marched on the border with Israel, during the annual Nakhba commemoration, were not illegal either. Yet 14 paid for this right with their lives, shot by Israeli troops, in an extreme version of a Tony Abbot, “turn back the boats” exercise.
The right of return is the other side of the coin of seeking asylum. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights expresses this in a single sentence: “Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and return to his country”. This is reinforced under the International Covenant on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Alongside this is the even more explicit Palestinian “right of return” under United Nations General Assembly resolution 194 of 1948, which was accepted by the new Israeli state as a condition of its entry into the UN. This resolution states that Palestinian “refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date, and that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return and for loss or damage to property.”
The Australian Greens position.
There is an emerging strategy by the Greens national parliamentary leadership, following on from the national furore over support in the Greens for the BDS campaign against Israel, to try and present a “small target” over the Israel Palestine conflict. This has involved a limited “cherry-picking” from the Greens national policy, focussing solely on the question of the “two-state solution” and by extension, support for the Palestinian Authority’s UN bid for recognition of a Palestinian state. But the Greens also have a policy on the “right of return” and the national leadership is bound to assert it. It calls for: “a just and practical negotiated settlement of the claims of the Palestinian refugees that provides compensation for those who are unable to return to their country of origin, Israel or Palestine”.
The insertion of the term “practical negotiated settlement”, is an example of the usual caveat that finds its way into a political party platform but does not absolve the Australian Greens interpreting this provision in line with international law. As has been pointed out above, this is less equivocal. Any “negotiated practical” outcomes cannot bargain away the right of return, and the alternative of compensation has to be offered as an option. In terms of who is defined as a refugee under international law, a guide is provided by the UNWRA definition: persons living in Palestine from the 1 June 1946 to 15 may 1948 together with “descendants of fathers fulfilling this definition”.
In this context there also needs to be a refutation of any notion of “trade-off” between Palestinian refuges and those Jews who moved to Israel from the Middle East and North Africa after 1948. While of these Jews were drawn to the new Israeli state, and others encouraged to do so by Zionist activists, there is no doubt that many were forced to flee from Arab states in the aftermath of the foundation of the State of Israel. The forced transfer of populations, whether Palestinian or Middle Eastern Jews, would today rightly be described as crimes against humanity under the Fourth Geneva Convention. One crime cannot be traded against another and the right of return of Palestinians is not diminished by the unwillingness or inability of Israeli Mizrahis to return to their countries of origin. Their right to do this, and be offered the option of compensation, is valid, in its own right. It needs to be put onto the Arab states, especially in the context of the human-rights based Arab Revolution, that they have responsibilities in this regard no less than Israeli responsibilities towards Palestinian refugees. Similarly, the willingness or otherwise of Arab states to grant proper settlement and citizenship rights to post-1948 Palestinian asylum seekers does not negate the Palestinian right of return.
In confronting this issue then the Australian Greens would be well advised to take up Bill Clinton’s 1992 Presidential campaign reminder that it was “the economy stupid”. For the Australian Greens approach to the resolution of the Israel-Palestine conflict “it’s the right of return, stupid”. This has consequences for the other part of the Greens Israel-Palestine policy: the two-state solution.
The right of return and the two-state solution.
A right of return by Palestinians confined to just the 22 percent of historic Palestine, with nothing more than a token right of return to Israel, will not be acceptable to them or comply substantially with international law. This means that Israel will have to potentially absorb a considerable Palestinian population, substantial altering its demographics. On the other side of the fence any Palestinian state is likely to contain a sizeable number of Israeli Jews. The need to resolve the illegality, and land-grabbing, of the West Bank Jewish settlements aside, there are likely to be a considerable number of Israeli Jews remaining, perhaps being offered Palestinian citizenship. Indeed there is a strong argument that the settlements have effectively killed off a two-state solution, guaranteeing a bi-national state as the only effective resolution to the conflict.
Further, a Palestinian state on 22 percent of Palestine will not be economically viable and combined with a degree of Israeli dependence on the Palestinians, as a labour source, is likely to see the two states economically integrated. This of course would bring to the fore cross-border class tensions between a dominant Israeli, and subordinate Palestinian, capitalism on the one hand and potentially common class interests of Palestinian and Israeli workers and economically marginalised on the other.
All this begs the question why not just cut to the chase and have a bi-national state (which this writer supports), which is increasingly likely to end up as the default position. Nonetheless, a two-state solution may give a much sought after national identity to both Israeli and Palestinian peoples in resolving the conflict, but will inevitably encompass a bi-ethnic, cross-border, political, economic and social reality.
The Greens' political problem
Many in the Australian Greens have been focussing on the search for a “static”, electorally acceptable, policy which will keep the pro-Israel foreign policy and political establishments off their backs, and keep at bay their bete noir and staunchest critic, Federal MP Michael “Yankee Doodle” Danby (as Wikileaks reveals, he has communicated regularly with the US Embassy). The unfolding of the Arab revolution and the associated Palestinian resistance will at best render this strategy irrelevant. A good example of this was the debate over the BDS in the Senate in July where the Greens sole response, assertion of a two-state solution, ignored the then unfolding drama of the blocking of the Gaza Peace flotilla. In this context the Greens need to engage with the unfolding dynamics on the ground.
The right of return as a core Palestinian demand has been restored with the recent developments within the Palestinian resistance, which lay emphasis on a human rights-based approach (see extensive discussion of these developments by various commentators on Al Jazeera, at The Electronic Intifada, and elsewhere). This is typified by the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign, which has shifted focus from the final geo-political outcome of the Israel-Palestine conflict to the immediate reality of Israel’s violation of international law and human rights norms as regards the occupation, the right of return, and discrimination against Arab-Israelis. This is in the context of a shift in the nature of Palestinian resistance from armed struggle to wider civil resistance, with non-violent actions such as the BDS and protests against the separation wall. These civil resistance techniques are not new to Palestinians; this kind of action has been brutally suppressed down the years under both Israeli and British colonial administrations. But they are being re-energised through the rights-based resistance and the wider Arab revolution, as well as through a growing international support in such activities as the BDS and Gaza Peace flotillas.
This rights based civil resistance represents a “bottom up” approach to the Israel-Palestine conflict, emphasising that Israel has here-and-now obligations under international law which do not wait upon a final political settlement. This is an alternative to the bankrupt “top down” approach taken by the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority in recent years, under pressure from the Western powers, which has been exposed by the publication of the Palestine Papers. It is also an alternative to the static and authoritarian policies of Hamas in Gaza and come from frustration at the inability of Hamas and Fatah to resolve differences and give democratic and accountable political leadership to the Palestinian resistance. The Fatah-led bid at the UN for the recognition of a Palestinian state (problematic though it is for many Palestinians) is in large measure a response to this groundswell and to the wider Arab revolution to which it is linked. There is also great potential for links to growing Israeli opposition to the policies of the right-wing Netanyahu government, through the universalities of a rights-based agenda, notwithstanding difficulties in such areas as debates over the BDS and issues like the Palestinian right of return.
The political outcome of the Israel-Palestine conflict will need to involve two peoples sharing the one land. And there is also a wider historical symmetry between the Jewish and Arabic peoples as the common victims of Western imperialism and racism, an important narrative that is largely absent from the debate. There is a lay-line of human suffering that runs through the death camps of the Holocaust and the demolished Arab villages of the Nakhba; a timeline of Western imperialism and racism that extends from World War One, and its aftermath in both Europe and the Middle East, to the West’s backing of the “solution” of the Israeli colonial project. But since 1948 it has been the Palestinian people who have been expected to pay the price of this imperialism and racism. Palestinians, including refugees, have shown their determination not to pay this price.
Many in the Australian Greens have become frustrated with this situation, and the perceived excessive dominance of the issue in recent party debate. But it is history that has placed the Israel-Palestine conflict, and the Middle East generally, at the centre of world politics. The Greens must decide whether to be relevant in this issue, and engage dynamically with the Palestinians in their struggle, the wider Arab revolution of which it is part, and with the developing opposition within Israel. This struggle will intensify in the medium term as Israel, the US and their allies reject the UN Palestinian bid. Following through with support of the bid and its rejection will confront the Greens with the need to engage further with these dynamics on the ground. This would inevitably bring the Greens into further conflict with the pro-Israeli stance of Australia’s foreign policy establishment. The Greens must avoid the temptation to adopt a static, small-target approach for reasons of electoral safety, and follow-though, showing the same determination as in the asylum seeker debate, and confronting the inconvenient truths of the conflict, such as the Palestinian right of return.

Tuesday 2 August 2011

Gathering on the frontier: racism and Australia's alliance/s with the US and Israel

As I foreshadowed in an earlier blog, the Australian American Leadership Dialogue (AALD) s meeting in Perth this month. The climax will be a Gala Dinner on August 13, co-convened by mining magnate and AALD member Hugh Morgan, and attended by both Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott. Perth is an appropriate setting for this secretive, “private” talk-fest, reinforcing the alliance between two nations whose dominant foreign policy ideologies have been shaped by their histories as colonial settler societies. Perth is at the centre of Australia’s current new frontier mineral boom, with a new round of the dividing of indigenous inhabitants, buying off some and marginalising others - as the battles over the James Price Point gas hub, and with Andrew Forrest’s Fortescue Metals Group, illustrate. This sense of a go-ahead booming Australian economy at odds with the natural environment and an inconvenient indigenous past also has another frontier dimension, the fear of foreign (asylum-seeker) invasion, primarily directed at the north-western coastline.
There is a resonance here in the coming together of these two allies, whose dominant national identities and ideologies have been shaped by the frontier experience, with a recent analysis of the same kind of synchronicity between the US and Israel. Wring for Al Jazeera in May, Cambridge academic Tarak Barkawi described US support for Israel, including an implicit support for the Israeli settlers in the “Wild West Bank” as “their own preferred reflection of themselves”. Americans, he argues:
See a lone, devout and free people on the edge of a vast continent full of dusky, hostile natives. Like the European colonists who settled North America, the destiny of this free people is to build a “city on the hill” on virgin land, a beacon of freedom and civilisation in a tragic world
This bond he argued was sealed by the events of 9/11.Both societies see themselves as embattled and united against the savagery of terrorism.
This kind of analysis can also be applied to the US-Australia alliance and the emerging, triangulated relationship between the two countries and Israel. In Australia’s case this has also been sealed in the post 9/11 world with john Howard’s backing of the US war on terror, a position essentially continued by the Labor Government. Gillard in particular has taken this forward in the unashamed prejudice in favour of Israel in its conflict with the Palestinians. A bi-partisan (Labor and Coalition) position on this was re-enforced in the first week of the new Senate with the government and opposition uniting to declare Israel a “good friend” of Australia while explicitly rejecting a proposal to accord the same status to the Palestinian people.
This episode is merely the latest expression of an evolving Australia-US alliance, now more emphatically linked to Israel, which has its foundations in racism.
Empire and Race.
Australia’s alliance with the US didn’t begin with World War II or the post-war ANZUS Treaty but in a crisis of confidence in the British Empire linked to race. Britain’s desire to enter into an alliance with Japan in the Pacific before World War I raised fears in Australia that in order for Britain to appease Japan, the White Australia policy would come under pressure. Hence Prime Minister Alfred Deakin’s invitation, behind London’s back, to President Theodore Roosevelt to include Australia in the tour of the Great White Fleet in 1908. The fleet was a floating double entendre: so-named because the ships were painted white but also clearly understood as a projection of US white power in the Pacific. This was in the face of an emerging Japan, and Roosevelt’s own problems in dealing with anti-Japanese immigrant sentiment on the US west coast, and the more generalised home-grown racism in the era of the entrenching of Jim Crow.
World War I saw Australia re-cement its relationship to the British Empire as its principal protector, but when Australia turned again to the US after the Japanese attacks on Pearl Harbour and Singapore, General Douglas MacArthur publicly affirmed a “consanguinity of race” between the two countries. This was moderated by US realism in terms of its national interest, which held back from the establishment of a permanent US-Australia alliance until the Korean War when the US agreed to ANZUS as an inducement to Australia to agree to the peace treaty with the new US ally, Japan. The conservative Menzies government was during this time, motivated by an ideological fear of communism melded with the traditional Australian racial fear of Asia, and sought to balance its new American friend with the old empire loyalties to the British.
It was the Vietnam War, which marks the beginning of the “real” alliance with the US. Australian fear of the Red and Yellow Perils from the north melded with racist US assumptions about Vietnamese “gooks”, “dinks” and “slopes”, linked to the home-grown racism on display in America in the death throes of Southern segregation and the challenge of the civil rights movement. The extraordinary military holocaust visited on the people of Indochina by the US and its allies could only be justified by a view of the lives Vietnamese as worth considerably less than those of Westerners, building on the old imperial views of Asian peoples as inferior.
From Saigon to Tahrir Square
America’s defeat in Vietnam, and the successes of the civil rights movement at home saw the focus of US imperial racism shift in the 1970s, courtesy of the 1973 Israel-Arab war, the 1979 Iranian revolution, and the impacts on the west of the resultant oil shocks. Attention now turned to the troublesome “sand niggers” and “towel heads” and what followed were decades of US foreign policy manipulations, favouring the state of Israel and confounding the politics of Middle-Eastern and Central/South Asian states. This included the US backing Iraq in its war with Iran in the 1980s before turning on Iraq after the 1990 invasion of Kuwait. It included Ronald Reagan’s backing of the mujahedeen against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, helping lay the groundwork for the development of al-Qa’eda and the Taliban. And it included the carrying out classic divide and rule policies among the Arab states, aligning itself with authoritarian regimes such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, among others. What also followed from the 1970s was a continued, conflated, orientalist view of peoples from Middle-Eastern/South-Asian/Islamic backgrounds in US popular culture. Hollywood was happy to play along with its crude characterisations, particularly of Arabic peoples. The movie The Hurt Locker was a recent and egregious example of this, with Iraqi Arabs portrayed as stupid, cruel and child-like, with its central, telling, paternalistic relationship between an American, bomb-disposal, soldier-adult, and Iraqi-Arab child.
Australia bought in to this racial construction by falling behind the US in the first Gulf War at the beginning of the 1990s, followed up by participation in the ongoing military blockade of post-war Iraq which, along with Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship, immiserated the Iraqi people, taking the lives of thousands. This softening up laid the groundwork for the post-9/11 invasion of Iraq. And of course Australia has fallen in to line behind the US in its disastrous Afghanistan war. Australia’s commitment is based on orientalist views of the Afghan people as needing to be tutored in democracy and civilisation by outsiders. This racial construction is further reinforced by the asylum seeker “threat” from “dusky hostile natives” from countries including Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan; countries that have been on the receiving end of US (and Australian) foreign and military policies.
All this carried over into Australian governments’ backing of the US-Israel relationship, and a strengthening of direct relationships between Australia and Israel. Prime Ministers Bob Hawke, John Howard and Julia Gillard have been unashamedly pro-Israel. As with the Vietnamese at the time of the Vietnam War, this basically boils down to a view that an Israeli life is worth more than that of a Palestinian. Gillard underscored this view in her official response as Acting Prime Minister to the Israeli invasion of Gaza in early 2009. It was further underscored by the Australian government’s opposition to adoption of the UN Goldstone report on the Israeli invasion of Gaza and the recent bi-partisan Senate vote mentioned above. These developments in an Australia-US-Israel triangulation since the 1990s have been marked by the parallel development and strengthening of the secretive, “backdoor” diplomatic forums underpinning this triangulated alliance structure: the Australian American Leadership Dialogue and its offshoot, the Australia Israel Leadership Forum,
This then is the background to the meeting of the AALD in Perth. But it comes at a time of revolutionary upsurge in the Middle East and North Africa, associated with the growing support for Palestinians through the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign and the moves for the UN to recognise a Palestinian state. The potential threat of these movements is profound. The US defeat in Vietnam shattered the assumptions of Western (and specifically US) military and cultural superiority. The shift in focus to the Middle East and South Asia in the aftermath of Vietnam was in many respects an attempt by the US to restore that superiority. The Arab Spring, and the political and military failures in Iraq and Afghanistan again challenges this superiority and the racist and orientalist assumptions underpinning it, and places the colonial, settler cultures of the US, Israel and Australia under existential strain.
So in Perth on August 13, as the AALD dinner guests gather, there will be a great degree of backslapping, and self congratulation, not least among the coterie of hand-picked, mainstream media hacks in attendance. But there will be a little nervousness in the laughter, and the wagons on the frontier will be circled a little tighter.

Saturday 9 July 2011

Week One in the New "Green" Senate - Gaza flotilla abandoned; Palestinians thrown overboard.

The first week of a new Senate has just passed, with nine Green Senators, and much media attention on the “balance of power” and the “new political era”.

And it was a crowded agenda before the winter recess with issues like climate change and treatment of animals in live exports taking up the focus among other issues. But one issue, which the Greens assisted in throwing overboard, was the Greek blockade of the Gaza peace flotilla, and the plight of the Palestinians - in the context of a parliamentary attack on the BDS position of the NSW Greens and Marrickville Council. Unlike Indonesia-bound cattle, the plight of the Palestinians barely rated.

The principal attack, in the form of a National/Liberal motion in the Senate (supported by Labor) provided an opportunity for the Greens to show some concern for the blockading of the Gaza flotilla (involving a number of Australian activists, among them former NSW Green MLC Sylvia Hale). After all this outrageous Greek government piracy (under pressure from Israel and its Western allies) was an urgent human rights issue of the moment, occurring as the new the Senate met, with no further opportunity to raise this in the parliament until after the winter recess. Even if the Liberals hadn’t delivered up an opportunity to raise this, the Greens could have found a way to highlight it. But as it was, they bunked off from the opportunity that was presented, effectively conspiring with Liberal and Labor to shut down debate on the Palestinian issue.

Here’s how it happened (July 5 Hansard p 38).

Queensland Nationals’ Senator Ron Boswell moved the following resolution to attempt to embarrass The Greens in the light of the debate over Israel and the BDS:

That the Senate –

(a) condemns the boycott of Israel instigated by Marrickville Council – part of the Global Boycott Divestments and Sanctions – banning any links with Israel organisations or organisations that support Israel and prohibiting any academic, government, sporting or cultural exchanges with Israel;

(b) acknowledges that Israel is a legitimate and democratic state and a good friend of Australia; and

(c) denounces the Israel boycott by Marrickville Council and others, and condemns any expansion of it.

Bob Brown, on the behalf of the Greens responded with an amendment that would have effectively replaced the motion with this:

That the Senate recognises the rights of the people of Palestine and Israel to live together as self-governing states based on the 1967 borders.

That was it. Brown made no attempt to explain the amendment (though there did appear to be Senate procedural restrictions on debating the issue – an appalling thing in itself).

Even so, if we set aside the bald “two-state” solution presented by Brown (it is Greens policy, though contested as the only possible solution to the conflict), his amendment could have said a lot more about the plight of the Palestinians and offered support to the Gaza Peace flotilla. This could have been followed up by public statements outside the Senate, and press releases on the Greens website. Alternatively, the Green Senators could have made use of other parliamentary procedures during the week such as adjournment motions or “matters of public interest”. One Liberal Senator used this latter procedure (July 6 Hansard p 30) to mount an attack on the BDS campaign. As it turns out the Green Senators chose to say nothing, either in the Senate or later outside. It was left to Independent Senator Nick Xenophon to express some support for the Palestinians in his amendment, which would have retained the original Boswell motion (which Xenophon voted for) but added:

(d) notes:

(i) the detrimental effect of the Israeli and Egyptian blockade in Gaza on the Palestinian people living in Gaza, and

(ii) that Australia is a good friend of the Palestinian territories and its people.

Xenephon sought, and was granted, leave to speak to his amendment, something that Brown didn’t do. Both Brown’s and Xenophon’s amendments went down, with the Greens voting for both, and then voting against Boswell’s original (well at least that was something!).

That Labor lined up behind the Liberals, effectively endorsing the implicit racial prejudice behind the resolution (especially with the rejection of Xenophon’s proposed reference to Australia as a “good friend” of the Palestinian people), is shamefully predictable. But the new Green caucus didn’t come out of this looking much better.

Of course it would have been great if Green Senators had taken the opportunity to defend the BDS, or at least the right of elements of the Greens to advocate it, but even setting this aside in the light of the unresolved debate within the Greens, the opportunity to rally support for the Gaza flotilla and highlight Israel’s occupation was not taken up. The simple restatement of the two-state solution asserted the false symmetry that obscures the reality of the power imbalance between Israel and the Palestinians and masks the “inconvenient truth” of the brutality of Israeli occupation and dispossession.

It would be interesting to know about the debate in the Green party room and the dynamics of the relationships between Green senators as far as this issue is concerned, given that some Green Senators have good track records in advocating on behalf of the Palestinian people. Lee Rhiannon for example has been outspoken in her support for the Gaza flotilla. There may have been an argument that the Greens should not rise to the bait of Coalition, and Labor, determination to use the parliament to wedge the Greens on the Israel-Palestine question (there were also attacks by a Liberal and Labor MP on Bob Brown and Lee Rhiannon in the House of Representative - Hansard July 4 - though also an extraordinary speech over the health impacts of the Israeli blockade and occupation on the Palestinian women of Gaza and the West Bank by Labor MP Maria Vamvakinou). Nonetheless, the need to give urgent support to the Gaza flotilla activists, and an ongoing voice to the Palestinian people, during this crucial, four-day parliamentary window, required that the Green caucus show courage and rise to the occasion. Instead it was paralysed and silent.

This sadly seems to be a result of the Green Fear and the pall of silence descending on the Greens, in the aftermath of the recent savage McCarthyite campaign against NSW Greens and the BDS policy. In the Victorian Greens, which is leading the charge against NSW on the BDS question, the issue is being dealt with as a procedural matter relating to toeing the federal policy line. Victorian Greens are paranoid about debating the issue itself. In my own local branch (great people and hard-working Green activists) it was made quite clear that a proposal by me that Vic Greens organise a membership seminar, with speakers for and against, to debate the substance of the BDS issue, would not be supported.

In the Senate, this episode also highlights a danger for the Greens as the caucus expands and encompasses a wide range of opinions, the BDS and Israel being one of the more contentious issues. This is the danger that the Greens will replicate the caucus cretinism of the Labor Party where all debate is stitched up and closed down behind party room doors. Labor Senator Doug Cameron highlighted the impact on the ALP of its strict caucus rules, creating MPs who functioned like “zombies”.

The Green rank-and-file need to make it clear to elected Green representatives that they are not to go down this path. The rights, and responsibilities, of MPs and Senators to get up in the parliament and advocate differing points of view, representing the different Green party tendencies, must be asserted, even if this affronts the political and media establishments’ (and certain Green leaders’) notions of how “united”, “sensible” and “constructive” mainstream parties should behave. When it comes to the Israel-Palestine question and issues like the BDS, there will be other opportunities. We have the right to expect that Senators overcome the Green Fear and use the Senate platform to speak out.

Saturday 25 June 2011

'Dialogue' for Perth in August: time for the Greens to get off the fence

Perth in August, and who’s that who’ll be sneaking into town? Why the Australian American Leadership Dialogue, the annual secret gathering of politicians (former and current) public servants, business leaders, academics, journalists and other worthies that has become one of the most significant “private” foreign policy bodies, providing a discursive and cultural underpinning for the US-Australia Alliance.

The Dialogue will be meeting at the Stirling naval base south of Perth and in Perth itself (at a venue not yet publicised) in the second week of August. It tries to operate out of the limelight and you will find no details of this upcoming meeting on its website where past meetings are only recorded by brief notation. The organisations founder, former business and NGO entrepreneur, Phil Scanlan, has proudly boasted about the ability of the Dialogue to keep its deliberations secret in accordance with the “Chatham House Rules” format.

Scanlan, appointed by the Rudd Labor government to the plum post of Australian Consul-General in New York, in 2009, initiated the Dialogue after conversations with US President George H W Bush during his 1992 visit to Australia. It alternates its annual meetings between the US and Australia. There is also a related West Coast Leadership Dialogue, providing a Pacific focus and sponsored by Stanford University and the University of California, San Diego, as well as a Young Leadership Dialogue which also meets annually in the US and Australia by turn. The last Young Leadership Dialogue was held in Canberra in May. It was addressed by both Julia Gillard and Tony Abbot, with Abbott’s comments about refugees seeking out Australia’s “Anglo” values leaked, apparently breaching the Dialogue’s impregnable wall of silence.

To understand the significance of the Dialogue in Australia’s diplomatic and security set-up we can turn to the recent comments of one of its participants and boosters, The Australian’s Paul Kelly.

The 9/11 decade has seen a truly dramatic deepening of the Australian-American alliance and personal concord. The furious domestic splits over the Iraq war and public rage towards George W. Bush are washed away with little cultural or strategic downside while Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard compete to be as pro-American as John Howard. Who would have believed?

At home, the Left was the big political loser from this decade. With Barack Obama in the White House, Labor has rarely been more pro-American as Gillard helps with Obama's war in Afghanistan and tells America it can still be great. The once notorious anti-American Labor Left is broken and silent. Through the decade, Australia's institutional bonds with the US surged with a free trade agreement, closer intelligence links, tighter military ties and stronger private networks typified by the US Studies Centre, the Australian-American Leadership Dialogue and the Lowy Institute, let alone Rudd's addiction to kissing Hillary Clinton.

The worry in Australian politics is that the Greens may also be drawn into this post-9/11 silence when it comes to confronting the truths of the US-Australia Alliance. The ambivalence of Greens policies in this regard, and the remarkable refusal of its federal parliamentarians to criticize the Alliance during last-year’s Afghan War debate, are disturbing signs. Indeed it is not inconceivable that Green politicians have been, or may be, invited to participate in the Dialogue. They should certainly tell the Green membership if this is the case. If any have been approached, one can only hope they said no.

Kelly’s defence of the Dialogue points to one of its most alarming aspects, its duchessing of the Australian media. Dialogue critics Antony Loewenstein and Scott Burchill have highlighted the effects of participation of journalists in these meetings as part of their critiques of the wider failures of the media when it comes to critical reporting on the relationships between Australia and the US, and Israel. Foreign editors of the Murdoch and Fairfax press and former ABC journalist and MP Maxine McKew, have been participants in the Dialogue and last year, Chris Uhlmann, now co-host of the 7.30 Report, travelled to Israel with Fairfax and News journalists, and politicians from the major parties, at the invitation of the Australia Israel Leadership Forum, a pro-Israel body modelled the Dialogue. The ABC apparently relaxed its rules to allow Uhlmann to attend and It would be interesting to know if ABC journalists are going to attend the Perth gathering, Key Fairfax and News journalists will no doubt line up again.

This unprofessional and unethical behaviour is something that the journalism profession, and their union, the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance, needs to take up. This issue also needs to be confronted by academics, and the National Tertiary Education Union. Some academics are also Dialogue participants and the event has been hosted at universities. Secretive forums such as this is are in contravention of the openness of research and debate that is supposed to be at the heart of a university’s function.

But the Dialogue needs to be opposed on a more fundamental level as re-enforcing a relationship with the US that is essentially aimed at tying Australia to US military, economic and cultural imperialism. The Perth meeting may present opportunities for protest by antiwar activists and Western Australia has a good history in this regard. It is also an opportunity for protests by BDS campaigners given the close relationship between the Australia-US Alliance and support by both countries for Israel.

Hopefully the WA Greens would be to the fore in this. Nationally the Greens have an important role here and need to overcome their ambiguities over the US-Australia Alliance. As mentioned, these ambiguities are reflected in their policies, which are, in some ways, implicitly hostile to the Alliance, without explicitly saying so. They were also reflected in the parliamentary Afghan War debate where the Australian and US assumptions justifying military operations were challenged, but the Alliance itself not criticised.

With new Green Senators coming into office, the national parliamentary group needs to start probing the relationship between the major parties and the Dialogue, and the expenditure of public money involved in supporting this “:private” diplomatic initiative (hosting it at a naval base for example). The privacy of these types of initiatives is a furphy. The Dialogue is part a back-door means of carrying on diplomatic and security business beyond the normal scope of public accountability (difficult enough through official institutions, as the recent Wikileaks debate has shown). There is a parallel between “private” institutions like the Dialogue and the growth or private security and para-military organisations like Xe (Blackwater).

But over and above this the Greens to get off the fence, and come out clearly and publicly in opposition to the US-Australia Alliance. Confronting and criticising the role of Australian American Leadership Dialogue, and its secretive Perth deliberations, is a good starting point.

Saturday 11 June 2011

More deaths in Afghanistan - the Greens must confront Australia's war culture

The Greens attempt to challenge Australia’s Afghan war policy in parliament last year has by and large sunk without trace. In spite of recent polls showing overwhelming public opposition, Australia’s Afghan commitment rolls on, with the recent deaths of more Australian soldiers. And the war continues to claim the lives of Afghan civilians.
For the major “war” parties, and the military, political and media elites who support Australia’s war culture, it has been “as you were” since the parliamentary debate. For the Greens the debate reached an inevitable dead-end, based as it was around the limited argument that only parliament should approve foreign troop deployments. With the major parties supporting the Afghan commitment such a vote would make no difference to the current situation. While the recent military deaths has seen the Greens national parliamentary leadership renew calls for Australian troop withdrawals, a new, more assertive, strategy is called for.
Prime Minister Julia Gillard in her 2010 Christmas message remembered those Australian troops killed during 2010, - “they died for us” - and this sentiment has been re-enforced through the passing of another ANZAC Day, and the positive spin it places on the notion of “sacrifice”. But as playwright Alan Bennett put it in The History Boys, memorialising war is about forgetting its truths: “it's not lest we forget, it's lest we remember”. So what are the Greens to do in the face of the national amnesia underpinning Australia’s war culture?
Firstly they need to overcome their own timidity, reflected in an Afghan war debate in which no criticism was made of the Australia-US alliance, a crucial part of the war culture, and in which some Green MPs, in spite of their criticisms of the war, felt the need to fall in and march to an unqualified “we support out troops” cadence. This begs the question, support the troops doing what? The answer to this requires a little more historical depth and political courage. The Greens need to confront the war culture head on.
A starting point is to challenge Prime Minister Gillard’s assertion that troops killed in Afghanistan “died for us” and point out that in reality they have been sacrificed in the “national interest” of keeping the US on side in the US-Australia alliance, and that their names have been added to the more than 100,000 Australians killed in war in the past century, overwhelmingly lives thrown away in the interests of our British and American “great and powerful friends”. It is difficult to say this in the face of the grief felt by families of recently killed Australian troops but it has to be said. The sacrifice of tens of thousands of Australians in wars has not been noble. It has not been for “freedom” or for “us”. It has been a tragic waste. It is a sad reflection on Australia’s war culture that old soldiers from the great wars of the twentieth century, in their final years, have often lamented the futility of war, while young thrill-seekers continued to line up at the barracks gate.
While soldiers may have fought bravely and committed heroic deeds, fighting for their lives and looking out for each other, their deaths, and the, physical and psychological maiming of thousands more, has not been heroic but tragic. And we should particularly remember the lives lost in countries in which the Australian military forces have fought – the hundreds of thousands who have died in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. Their deaths remain unmourned, and the responsibility that Australian governments, military leaders, and ordinary soldiers, must to one degree or another bear for the role they have played in their deaths, has gone unacknowledged.
Even the Second World War, often seen as the “good war” because of its confrontation with fascism and the (only) direct threat to, and attacks, on Australia, had bad origins. These lay in the unfinished business of a disastrous post-World War One “Peace” Treaty; and the rivalry in the Pacific between the new empires of Japan and the US and the decaying colonial powers, Britain, France and the Netherlands. Australians were justifiably fighting to defend their country and oppose Japanese imperialism, as well as participate in the wider struggle against fascism. But their sacrifices were soon betrayed, as old empires were re-installed in Asia, laying the foundation for new wars, and a new waste of lives.
Australian historians debate the contested meanings of the ANZAC legends, and the recent upsurge in commemoration and remembrance at Gallipoli, the Western Front, and on the Kokoda track. It is by no means certain that young people in particular come away from these events uncritically supporting Australia’s participation in the wars of empire. But there is no doubt that the War Party: the pro-war leaderships of Australia’s two major governing party blocs and their attendant war machine, seeks to use these public commemorations to reinforce a positive view of Australia’s war culture, linked in to a populist “Aussie, Aussie, Aussie, Oi, Oi, Oi” nationalism, and overlaid with hypocritical and mawkish official expressions of sorrow for the lives of the fallen.
For the Greens, taking on this war culture will not be easy. Green policy already lays the foundation for this with its support for “the right of ADF personnel to conscientiously object to particular military actions”. But this needs to be more than a clause slumbering away on the Greens national policy manifesto. Federal Green MPs need to start publicly asserting this as both the right, and duty, of Australian military personnel. For example the Greens could encourage Australian troops to stay in their bases (defend themselves if they have to) and refuse to go out on patrols or other activities until the government brings them home. This goes to the heart of opposing the war culture of uncritical service to military alliances, challenging Australian soldiers in Afghanistan and elsewhere to accept a degree of moral responsibility for choosing to fight or not.
This is a complex question. Australian soldiers serve in the armed forces under threat of draconian disciplinary punishments. Equally complex are the reasons why young people choose to sign up to be part of the military, ranging from patriotism and military careerism through to na├»ve adventurism and economic conscription. So Greens need to be understanding of the pressures placed upon serving personnel. Responsibility for Australia’s war policy and culture ultimately lies with those at the top – the political and military leaderships. Nonetheless soldiers need to reflect on their own situation. This particularly applies to those serving in the special forces units, the aggressive arm of the military that is most implicated in civilian deaths and potentially in war crimes and human rights abuses. Let’s face it; you don’t get to be in the special forces unless you really want to be there.
Thus the statement that we must “support the troops” needs to be qualified. Yes support them in the circumstances where they find they have little choice but to obey their superiors. Yes support them if they suffer injury, physical or mental, as a result of their war service. Yes support them by demanding that they be brought home to their loved ones, and yes support them, most particularly, if they choose to conscientiously object to their war service. But we also need to make clear that this is not support for the war in which they fight, not for any re-writing of history to justify a sacrifice in lives as part of a disastrous war culture, and in the service of empire, and not for actions by soldiers that put Afghan civilians at risk and violate human rights.

Green Fear - staying out of the 'no-go zone' of Australia-US-Israel relations

This piece appeared as a guest post on Left_Flank. You can check it, and the Left_Flank blog, out here:

Here is the text:

Marrickville Council may have backed off supporting the Israel BDS campaign but by highlighting the plight of the Palestinians, the Council’s initiative in this area, and the pro-BDS stance of the NSW Greens, has ensured that this will only be the beginning of the debate, not least of all within the Greens themselves. The Australian Greens may pride themselves on confronting the “inconvenient truths” of climate change but when it comes to exposing the inconvenient truths of the plight of the Palestinian people (as the BDS campaign does), some in the party are ducking for cover.

Led by elements in the Victorian Greens and the national Green leadership, the move is on to force NSW Greens to back away from its BDS policy. There are those who genuinely feel the BDS campaign is counterproductive, imperilling the achievement of peace between Israelis and Palestinians, those who are afraid the issue will divide the party, and at its most basic level, those who fear a loss of votes. For many in the party, the BDS campaign is trouble, and that is enough. The Victorian Greens are trying to limit the debate to the question of process – the extent to which NSW is out of step with national policy and decisions. There is resistance to discussing the merit of the BDS issue itself.

But the Great Fear emerging among some in the Greens is wider than the BDS. It is the fear of the political cost involved in breaching the “separation wall” and entering the “no-go zone” established by the major political parties, the defence and foreign policy establishments, and elements in the mainstream media. That no-go zone is any attempt at realistic or insightful criticism, or analysis, of the Alliance between Australia and its best mate Uncle Sam, and as part of that deal, any principled criticism of the actions of Uncle Sam’s best mate, Israel.

The demonstration of this lies not just with the inner-party reaction to BDS but the Afghan War debate in parliament last year. That five Green senators and one Green MHR could get up in the parliament and not criticise the Australia-US alliance, the whole reason Australia is in Afghanistan, was somewhat bizarre.[i] Notwithstanding some good political points made in the speeches, this was akin to holding a debate about global warming and not mentioning carbon. The speeches in some respects were not at odds with continuing support for the US Alliance, with the Iraq and Afghan wars, like Vietnam before them, seen as “mistakes” imperilling the alliance’s effectiveness.

To understand what the Greens are up against, we need an appreciation of the entrenched nature of the Australia-US-Israel relationship, which has protected it from critical analysis in Australian politics and sections of the mainstream media. Historian Peter Edwards has pointed out that the Australia-US alliance “has become a political institution in its own right comparable with a political party or the monarchy”[ii]. It has certainly become a part of Canberra’s constitutional landscape, with Australia’s military-intelligence complex clustering around the Australia-American memorial at Russell and holding down one of the points of the parliamentary triangle.

Following US policy in privileging Israel in its conflict with Palestinians is part of this architecture. This was demonstrated by the Australian government falling into line and helping the blocking in the UN of the Goldstone Report on the 2008-9 Israeli invasion of Gaza, an egregious act in no way justified by Goldstone’s recent reservations, repudiated by his report’s co-authors.[iii] And this stance was earlier demonstrated by Australia’s official response at the time of the Gaza assault, by then Acting Prime Minister Julia Gillard, which singled out Hamas for criticism but made no comment on the disproportionate use of force by Israel.[iv] To Gillard and the Labor government, following the US on Gaza meant accepting Uncle Sam’s realpolitik, and underlying racial prejudice: a Palestinian life is not worth that of an Israeli. And of course not a peep out of the Australian government when the US recently used its veto to protect Israel from criticism in the UN Security Council over West Bank settlement expansion.

Support for both the US Alliance, and the US’s pro-Israel stance, is reinforced by Australian participation in the closed door, “Chatham House Rules”-based Australian-American Leadership Dialogue and Australia-Israel Leadership Forum.[v] Participation of politicians past and present in these secretive dialogues, aimed at providing discursive and cultural support for US foreign policy, and for Israel, is predictable. But it is shameful that Australian academics and journalists participate in contradiction with the ethics of transparency and open debate that are supposed to be at the core of their professions.

The McCarthyite campaign of ignorance and vilification, directed at NSW Greens over the non-violent BDS campaign, shows the fate that awaits those who seek to breach this “separation wall”, and for some the Greens, seeking to enter the no-go zone has too high a political cost. But there are those in the Greens, in NSW in particular, who are unlikely to back down, as demonstrated in Marrickville Mayor Fiona Byrne’s courageous, dignified and principled stance, along with two Green councillors, in resisting her council’s retraction of support for BDS.

The “blue” within the Greens is just beginning, but the Palestinians are unlikely to wait for the Australian Greens or anybody else to decide what’s good for them. The remarkable Arab Awakening is influencing the Palestinian territories, most recently in pushing Hamas and Fatah into some sort of agreement. It is unlikely to stop there, promising a new popular uprising against Israeli occupation and blockade. This may spread to the Palestinian population within Israel itself, and who knows, maybe also to those non-Arab Israelis who are resisting what Israeli academic, and BDS supporter, Neve Gordon has labelled the “proto-fascist mindset” of the Israeli government.[vi] Indeed it could even begin within Israel. If and when this uprising comes, it is likely to be a game-changer.


[ii] Peter Edwards, “Permanent Friends: Historical reflections on the Australian-American Alliance”, Lowy Institute, 2005:

[iii] “Authors reject Goldstone rejection remarks”;

[iv] Media Release, Acting Prime Minister; and “Julia Gillard refuses to Condemn Israeli Attacks”;


[vi] “BDS campaign wants Israel to abide by international law”;