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Howes on being a ‘critical friend of Israel’ and union embrace of boycott

The Middle East “quagmire” is largely “the fault of Israel”, according to Paul Howes, national secretary of the Australian Workers Union (AWU).

In an interview with Crikey, the author of Confessions of a Faceless Man said that he was a “critical friend of Israel” and the ongoing building of illegal settlements in the West Bank was “mad”.

An investigation into Australian’s union embrace of the Palestinian issue, the growing popularity of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement and the pro-Israel stance of Howes and the AWU has discovered deep divides between the AWU and many other mainstream unions.

Following Britain’s biggest union decision earlier this year to boycott Israeli companies, Australian unions are also signing up to target firms that profit from Israeli colonies in the West Bank.

The unions include the Electrical Trades Union, the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union and the Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union. The move was condemned by The Australian and Howes last month. “We don’t believe that it’s in the interests of Palestinian or Israeli workers to seek to divide them in the peace process,” he said to the Murdoch paper.

Howes told Crikey that he opposed BDS because he supported a two-state solution and believed “Israel was a vibrant democracy”. But he included this: “If I thought BDS could solve the problem (the Middle East conflict) I would back it but I know it will have no effect on the ground in Palestine. The analogy with apartheid South Africa is wrong because BDS had no effect there until Western states, including the US, boycotted the country.”

Meanwhile, increasing numbers of Jewish writers overseas are expressing public concern over the direction of Israeli politics.

Gideon Levy, in Israeli daily Haaretz, says that “your beloved Israel is addicted to occupation and aggression”. Bradley Burston in the same paper claims that Americans are “emotionally divesting” from the conflict. This Washington Post report cites the fact that ultra-orthodox Jews are reproducing at such high rates that a more pro-settler mindset is gaining a foothold in the country and reducing its secular footprint.

More illegal structures are being built in East Jerusalem, yet barely any of this seems to enter the Australian discussion. Recent studies indicate the Jewish Diaspora here is “most closely tied to Israel” compared to every other Diaspora community.

This mindset has resulted in very few major figures speaking out against Israel’s occupation or ongoing siege of Gaza. I spoke to countless union officials and leaders across the country and most refused to talk on the record about these matters, the AWU and Howes.

Why? Perhaps it indicates an awareness of Howes’ media reach, his likely longevity in the Labor Party and union movement — he was recently voted one of the most powerful people in Australia in the Australian Financial Review.

But Howes is a contradiction. He is a man of the Labor Right, who is pro gay marriage and pro-refugees, supportive of nuclear power and the US alliance, mildly open to climate change and vehemently pro-Israel.

Howes told Crikey that he opposed Israel’s attack on the Gaza flotilla, Israeli discrimination against Palestinians, settlement expansion and the blockade of Gaza and acknowledged that he displeased Zionist audiences when he told them these views. He constantly said that he was optimistic about Middle East peace under US President Barack Obama and was hopeful  Washington wouldn’t allow the situation to deteriorate further.

I asked Howes why his union was so active in pro-Israel activity, what his members thought about it and who was paying for it all. “Most AWU members probably don’t care about Israel but we are a democratic union and I’ve received virtually no criticism for our stance. I’ve received one letter about it and it was backing our position.”

A union source told Crikey that the AWU was run like a business with little member discussion about important issues, so any serious disagreement of the union’s Israel policy could be ignored. It is impossible to determine how much AWU members’ money is spent on pro-Israel advocacy.

In his younger days, when Howes was in the Trotskyite Democratic Socialist Party, he said he “may have been anti-Israel” but the issue barely came up. “I strongly believe that Israel has the right to exist but it has no right to occupy other’s lands.” He took comfort from the fact that “most Israelis oppose colonies” but I asked if this was truly the case when settlements continued to expand at an unprecedented rate. It was because of Israel’s political system, Howes countered, that allowed “fringe” parties too much power.

Howes has placed pro-Israel campaigning at the centre of his union’s business. At the 2009 national conference, an Israeli trade union leader praised the AWU’s stand against boycotts. Howes himself gave a speech recently at the Zionist Federation of Australia conference in Melbourne where he vehemently opposed BDS but barely said a word against the occupation and implied that Palestinian workers were against BDS. In fact, the opposite is true, with the vast majority of Palestinian civil society groups agreeing in 2005 to a cultural and academic boycott of Israel.

Zionist advocacy is conducted in the AWU by a handful of major figures: national communications co-ordinator Andrew Casey in Sydney, and national organising and campaigns co-ordinator Daniel Walton, who just returned from a Zionist lobby-paid trip to Israel. Several union sources told Crikey that Casey and Howes spend considerable time trying to pressure other local unions not to join the BDS movement.

Howes said he spoke regularly to union leaders in Australia and overseas and the vast bulk of them who do back BDS are doing so “because of constant Palestinian activist pressure” rather than actual belief in the ideology behind it.

Indeed, although the Australian Manufacturing Workers’ Union recently signed up for BDS, national secretary Dave Oliver, when contacted by Crikey, refused to comment beyond simply acknowledging the union’s “support for BDS at the national council”. I have been informed that Oliver is concerned about talking publicly about BDS for fear of upsetting Howes.

Howes, who acknowledged many times during our interview that he “didn’t know that much about the issue”, told me that he spends “0.1% of my time on Israel” and fully backs the TULIP (Trade Unions Linking Israel and Palestine) campaign that links some Israeli and Palestinian workers and “challenges the apologists for Hamas and Hizbollah in the labour movement”.

Supporting TULIP  makes sense for Howes when he told me that the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in the Middle East — he included Hamas, Hizbollah, Islamic Jihad and al-Qaeda — “must be fought”. I challenged him to acknowledge that none of these groups are alike — for example, Hamas and Hizbollah have major electoral support — and conflating all Islamist organisations into one evil entity is the classic and deliberate mistake made by neo-conservatives since September 11.

Other union leaders do not share Howes’ liberal Zionist and rose-coloured view of the Middle East. The CFMEU’s John Sutton told Crikey that his union backed BDS and Palestine because of its history of supporting “left causes”. Israel was moving further to the right, he said, and he rejected allegations that he was anti-Semitic or anti-Israel. “I don’t back full BDS, just boycott of settlement products”, Sutton told me. “I back a two-state solution and UN resolutions.” He hoped the ACTU would follow the CFMEU’s embrace of BDS but knew Howes was desperate to avoid the major union body backing a partial BDS motion.

NSW CFMEU’s state secretary and political aspirant Andrew Ferguson told Crikey that the views of the AWU and Howes were “not relevant” to the BDS campaign. Ferguson’s union “has a large non-English speaking and Arabic membership, many of whom are pro-Palestinian”. He told me that Andrew Casey, AWU’s Jewish communications man, “reinforced Howes’ view on the Middle East”. Ferguson said Howes “has a strong point of view” on the Middle East and “he pushes that legitimately”.

It’s not a view shared by departed Labor politician Julia Irwin. She spoke exclusively to Crikey in August about the Zionist lobby’s infiltration of the ALP. When asked about Howes last week, Irwin said that her former Labor colleague Michael Forshaw, currently chair of the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade, “often argued that his union [the AWU] had long and binding ties with the [Israel union] Histadrut and this was the basis of his support for Israel”. The reason behind the affection for Israel felt by Howes was no different.

Irwin also expressed concern that ALP Jewish backbencher Michael Danby would likely become chair of the Defence and Foreign Affairs Committee next year, potentially upsetting Arab states with his hard-line Zionist views. She exclusively told Crikey that Minister for the Arts, Simon Crean, “who fought off a determined challenge from Jewish influences in the Victorian ALP to retain pre-selection”, was furious with the potential Danby position but Danby had “done his homework”, being close to the architects of Rudd’s deposing.

When I asked Howes about the only Labor MP who spoke publicly for the rights of the Palestinians, he said that Irwin had “gone as far as her abilities would allow”. He claimed that there were several other ALP parliamentarians who were critical of Israeli policies but he couldn’t name one who said anything on the public record.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the long interview with Howes was a discussion about what was actually happening in Israel and Palestine. He was not like Canadian leader Stephen Harper, who this week said that Israel must be supported no matter what. “Unless Israel moves soon [and ends the occupation], disaster awaits”, Howes told me. “I don’t give a blank cheque for Israel.”

However, one of his columns in this year’s Sunday Telegraph was a complete backing for the Israeli assassination of Hamas figure Mahmoud al-Mabhouh and the use of Australian passports in the hit. He argued that Israel, along with “moderate” Arab states and Australia, were engaged in a war “fighting Islamo-fascism” and the extra-judicial murder of untried “terrorists” was a “small victory”.

But Howes wanted to stress that even he had limits. “If Israelis become hell-bent on ethnic cleansing [of Palestinians] I’ll know, and my support won’t continue.” Although it is true that the ALP has a long tradition of blindly backing the Zionist state, Howes said that he regularly condemned Israeli actions “but The Australian and Australian Jewish News only report my pro-Israel comments”.

He denied having any ALP career ambitions but argued that “being critical of Israel isn’t an impediment to career progression” in the party.

Although Howes has long spoken warmly towards Israel, his planned upcoming Zionist lobby trip to Israel will not happen, along with Labor front-bencher Bill Shorten and ALP politician David Feeney, due to the presence and tensions with Kevin Rudd, according to comments by Howes on ABC in Melbourne on 11 November. Howes told me that he realised deeper involvement in the issue was required when former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd issued a motion to congratulate Israel on its 60th anniversary in 2008. “I thought it was highly inappropriate [for some union leaders and pro-Palestinian activists] not to praise Israel’s achievements. The activists had to be challenged.”

On the day of Rudd’s motion, a large advertisement appeared in The Australian condemning the move and accusing Israel of ethnic cleansing. Howes responded at the time: “In a de facto manner, Julie Irwin and some trade union people can be perceived to be supporting the lot of Islamic Jihad and Hamas through the action they have taken here.”

But union head Andrew Ferguson indicated to Crikey that he had recently noticed a small shift in the ability of the Zionist lobby to “convince Australian unions of the Israeli position”. Although he said the ALP was a “conservative party and never backed a pro-Palestinian position”, there was more questioning within ALP ranks and less fear of being accused of backing terrorism and Hamas for simply speaking out.

Demographic shifts in Australian society, Ferguson stressed, were changing perceptions of Palestine. As Israel moves further to the right, younger members of the ALP [such as Muslim and Arab members] and the general public were moving the Labor movement in a different direction. “In 10-15 years time,” he said, “we will see a real shift” towards more critical perspectives on Israeli actions.

Crikey has obtained a motion that was passed at the Brisbane South ALP regional conference (and other regional conferences) in late October, which signals growing anger within Labor ranks. It stressed support for a two-state solution but called for an end to Israel’s “separation wall” through the West Bank, an end to the siege on Gaza, cessation of West Bank colonies and a fair outcome for Palestinian refugees.

It was then sent to the ALP National Executive for action and shows frustration that the Gillard Government and Labor leadership are willing to simply mouth the official US policy on the region. Howes had no criticism of Gillard’s position on the Israel/Palestine conflict.

But Ferguson warned me not to under-estimate the power of Zionist lobbying and money on mainstream politicians to be seduced by the Zionist narrative. Witness the upcoming largest Australian parliamentary delegation ever to visit Israel organised by Melbourne-based, Zionist lobbyist Albert Dadon. They will be accompanied by journalists from most major Australian media companies.

Antony Loewenstein is an independent journalist and author of My Israel Question and The Blogging Revolution.

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  • 1
    davidk
    Posted Thursday, 11 November 2010 at 4:10 pm | Permalink

    Israel is an aparteid state. Palestinians do not enjoy the same rights as Israelis. Very simple.

  • 2
    Sophie Black
    Posted Thursday, 11 November 2010 at 5:03 pm | Permalink

    Ed: This story originally cited national occupational health and safety unit director Dr Yossi Berger in Victoria in relation to Zionist advocacy conducted in the AWU, this reference has now been removed due to inaccuracy.

  • 3
    Norman Hanscombe
    Posted Thursday, 11 November 2010 at 5:15 pm | Permalink

    The debate on Israel is as big a quagmire as the confrontation itself. How does one deal with a situation in which:

    1] The U.N. (because of collective guilt about what had happened to the Jewish people) decided someone must make it up to them, and establishing a Jewish State was the way to do it.

    2] When the grossly outrageous boundaries were drawn up for Israel and Palestine, it was decided the honour of being the ‘someone’ who had to pay would be given to the Arabs.

    3] When the Arabs, unimpressed that their lands should be distributed in an indefensible manner to newly arrived Jews, simply because of an alleged millenia-old real estate deal they’d reached with God, understandably were upset, and went to war for their homes which may not have been given to them by God, but their people had occupied for quite some time.

    4] Anyone feel there’s an obvious answer to the problem, even for such a talented knife wielder as Howes?

  • 4
    Frank Birchall
    Posted Thursday, 11 November 2010 at 9:41 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for the detailed piece, Antony. I simply can’t make sense of Howes’ position on Israel — he seems to want to have 5 bob each way (to quote an old aphorism) but the bottom line appears to be ignorant support of the utterly disgraceful West Bank and East Jerusalem settlements. He should be ashamed.

  • 5
    SoAnyway
    Posted Friday, 12 November 2010 at 11:57 am | Permalink

    It’s bizarre that the Union movement spends so much time and energy debating Israel that it should be devoting to the interests of Australian workers. There are plenty of rogue states to go after, after all. You’ve got to wonder why they choose just Israel. Very small BDS groups are also exerting a lot of pressure, possibly because so many of them are unemployed or retired, and have all the time in the world. I’d like an investigative journalist to attend a few of their meetings, and see what a small handful of cranks these “movers and shakers” really are. You’ve always got to wonder why so many Anglo Australians are projecting their own guilt about living on expropriated Aboriginal land onto Israel. Colonists in glass houses, throwing stones at the traditional scapegoats…

  • 6
    SoAnyway
    Posted Friday, 12 November 2010 at 11:59 am | Permalink

    Forgot to add I admire Paul Howes for taking a balanced, middle path and resisting far left pressure.

  • 7
    davidk
    Posted Friday, 12 November 2010 at 4:37 pm | Permalink

    @ Soanyway
    I most certainly accept the wrongs done to the aborigines of Australia. I do not project my guilt, such as it is, onto anyone. The fact the Jews have been hard done by in the past is the very reason one might have expected them to act more honourably in this instance. It’s the hypocrisy of their position I abhor. If you were to take a brief look through the history of the last millenia I think you will find it is the perception the west has of the destiny of the land of Israel that has instigated more bloodshed than many other causes ie the various crusades and the ongoing arab responses to same. This is not wholly the fault of the Jews, but they might try a little harder to find a balanced solution and stop provoking further discord by continuing to build settlements and treating the palestinians as second class citizens.

  • 8
    Kevin Herbert
    Posted Friday, 12 November 2010 at 6:23 pm | Permalink

    FRANK BIRCHALL: totally agree with your comments.

  • 9
    Kevin Herbert
    Posted Sunday, 14 November 2010 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

    SOANYWAY; so Israel should not be criticised by the Australian union movement..is that what you’re saying?

    You sound like those archetype diaspora Aussie Zionists who use the puerile reasoning that ” Isare may be doing bad rhings, but so are other countries”.

    Do you realise just how silly that sounds.

    Julia Gillard when asked to comment on the IDF’s alleged war crimes in Gaza in 2009, attempted to deflect the question by responding that: “Bad things happen around the world each day”.
    At that precise moment, thousands of Australian voters began briefing against her, including a large part of her own party. Gillard is identical to you & your fellow far right Zionists: ie. no judgement, no substance. She’ll be gone shortly.

    Finally, the BDS movement in Oz is run by decent Aussies from all backgrounds, and including leading members of the Aussie Jewish community. Deligitimisation doesn’t wotrk for Zionist anymore..the game’s up globally for Israel, which is sliding towards a disaster of its own making.

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