Bill Shorten Labor Israel
(Image: AAP/Darren England)

Earlier this month Melissa Parke, Bill Shorten’s “star candidate” for the Perth seat of Curtin, stepped out of the race. 

Parke made the decision after comments she made about Israel to a meeting of pro-Palestine Labor activists at the United Voice headquarters in Perth. She had compared Israel’s settlements to China’s activity in the South China Sea, repeated disputed claims that “a pregnant refugee woman was ordered at a checkpoint in Gaza to drink a bottle of bleach”, and discussed Israel in relation to foreign influence on Australian policy-making (both at home and abroad).

“If we are truly concerned as a country about foreign influence in Australia we need to look not only at China but also Israel, whose influence on our political system and foreign policy is substantial,” she said.

Two days later, in her parting statement, Parke tried to explain both her remarks and the decision to leave: “I’ve had 20 years’ experience in international relations and law including living and working in the Middle East … My views are well known, but I don’t want them to be a running distraction from electing a Labor government”.

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Rolling controversy

Not a week after Parke left the race, Fremantle MP Josh Wilson copped flak for comments he made at Labor’s National Conference last December. He had said “[Israel] are going to turn Palestine into Swiss cheese”, and referred to it as “an apartheid state”.

Senator for Western Australia and Senate Deputy President Sue Lines made similar statements at the launch of WA Labor Friends of Palestine in March, alleging that an “Israel lobby” has been influencing her party’s policy on Palestine and the Middle East. “Sadly, Israel-Palestine is one of those areas where it’s hard for [Labor] to move forward,” she said. “The Israeli lobby is so powerful within the party and outside of the party and it really does impact on the sort of  movement we’ve been able to make in our policy.”

Alex Ryvchin, chief-executive of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry told WA Today he was saddened to heat “these sorts of dog whistles” coming from an Australian senator regarding a “supposed Israel lobby”. 

Bill Shorten was quick to distance himself from the comments made by Parke, Lines, and Wilson. Wilson and Lines both offered retractions, of sorts, with Lines saying that she supports the Labor Party’s policy.

An old problem

Last year the ALP moved closer to accepting Palestinian statehood, passing a resolution at its national conference which called on the next Labor government to support “the recognition and right of Israel and Palestine to exist as two states within secure and recognised borders”. This was a position already held by several Labor state governments.

But the Israel/Palestine question remains one of the sourest flashpoints within the ALP’s murky factional conflicts.

Back in 2014, Bill Shorten kicked up factional strife criticising the position the ALP had taken on the Israeli settlements since 2008 — that they were all illegal in accordance with international law. Contradicting the party’s official party line, Shorten stated that “some” were illegal. This was around the time Bob Carr made his infamous statements about the “pro-Israel lobby” and its supposed hold on the party and then prime minister Julia Gillard.

This is not a new internal conflict for Labor and, like much of the party’s factional chicanery, the conflict doesn’t so much hinge on the content of the comments made or the beliefs held, but rather that there is conflict at all.

“United Labor”

This election Shorten is running with the motif of a “united Labor”, as if he is a Care Bear with a picture of John Curtin on his belly. With this in mind, it’s not surprising Parke, Wilson and Lines seemingly had the choice to drop out or shut up. This election is looking so tight that to alienate one special interest group of community may prove to be fatal.

Special interest groups like AIJAC (Australia/Israel and Jewish Affairs Council) naturally lobby both sides of politics, and like any other group put pressure on politicians to alter policy or clarify a comment. To speak of an “Israel lobby” or to allude to unverified Israeli war-crimes is to throw away votes that cannot currently be thrown away. 

Labor holds the inner-city Melbourne seat of Macnamara, for instance, by a margin of 1.2%. MP Michael Danby is retiring, with candidate Josh Burns running in his stead. Danby counted on the support of Macnamara’s Jewish community and it’s a support that Josh Burns, and Labor, cannot afford to lose.

The resignation of Parke and the chastising of Wilson and Lines is not a paranoiac’s story of a Jewish cabal, but rather a neat little parable as to how delicate the negotiations of power are in this election. For Shorten, there is not a fear of division — the division has long existed — but a fear of acknowledging of that division.