Paul Bongiorno
Peter Dutton’s play at weaponising Israel–Hamas war

Australia’s security chiefs are keeping a nervous eye on reactions to the escalating human disaster that is the Israel–Hamas war. Their worries come at a time when the political debate over Australia’s response is becoming more fractious.

Journalists in Canberra were told in an off-the-record briefing that while there was no intelligence prompting concerns of an imminent terrorist threat here, a lone wolf attack motivated by ideological or religious extremism could not be ruled out. Nor can the prospect of a sleeper cell being activated.

One of Labor’s three Jewish MPs, Josh Burns, who holds the Melbourne seat of Macnamara, says there is a growing hostility to the Jewish community as the war progresses. “The community is really on edge,” he says. “I have never seen it this bad.”

It is in this context that Peter Dutton has decided there is political advantage in breaking the united front the major parties have so far adopted on the latest crisis in the Middle East.

In an incendiary interview on Sky News last weekend, he attempted to paint Prime Minister Anthony Albanese as an apologist for Hamas. He accused him of weak leadership for failing to pull into line senior ministers after their expressions of sympathy for grieving Palestinians.

Dutton falsely accused the leader of the House, Tony Burke, whose Western Sydney electorate has a significant Muslim population, of not condemning Hamas and of using a soft form of words. This was a reference to Burke condemning what he called “competitive grief” and an “immature debate” that argues that expressing sympathy for Palestinian deaths somehow denies the pain of Israeli and Jewish families.

Dutton said that “to his great shame” Burke was playing to his constituency when he “should be playing to the national interest”. Talk about the pot calling the kettle black. It poses a question as to what constituency Dutton is playing to. Senior Labor people believe he is dog whistling to latent Islamophobia, fanned whenever Islamist terrorist groups such as Hamas strike.

Dutton also accused Albanese of selling out Australia by abstaining from a United Nations motion calling for a humanitarian ceasefire in Gaza. He said the prime minister had “failed the test” by not joining the United States and Israel in voting against the motion.

Instead, our UN ambassador and permanent representative, James Larsen, joined 45 other countries, including Britain, Germany, India and Canada, in abstaining because the motion failed to mention Hamas.

The UN vote, including the abstentions, left the US isolated from its major allies. As Larsen told the assembly, Australia agreed with the central proposition that the humanitarian situation was dire and the widespread human suffering was unacceptable.

The Greens had a diametrically opposed view to Dutton’s. Their leader, Adam Bandt, said it was “shameful that Labor refused to join most of the world in calling for a ceasefire to stop this humanitarian catastrophe unfolding”. The Greens have stridently eschewed any sympathy for Israel in this conflict, which poses more of a challenge for Labor electorally than it does for the Liberals in key Sydney and Melbourne sets.

However, Peter Dutton’s weaponisation of this human disaster is a cynical caricature of the government’s response. From day one Albanese and his foreign minister, Penny Wong, have not resiled from condemning the barbarity of the Hamas slaughter of 1400 Israelis – men, women, children and babies – and the abduction of more than 200 hostages.

Two weeks after the Hamas attacks, Dutton showed better statesmanship, working with Albanese on a comprehensive 16-part parliamentary motion standing with Israel and recognising its right to defend itself while noting “all sides are suffering as a result of the attacks by Hamas and the subsequent conflict”.

When asked about Australia’s stance, Albanese keeps referring back to the parliamentary resolution, which gained overwhelming support in both houses, the Greens being the notable dissenters. Of particular relevance was the clause that noted “Australia’s consistent position in all contexts is to call for the protection of civilian lives and the observance of international law”. Early Wednesday morning Albanese finally got to speak with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who, according to Israeli media, updated him on the situation. But there was no briefing note from Albanese’s office on what the two discussed.

On Monday, Penny Wong gave her most direct assessment of the situation, following weeks of television coverage of destruction in Gaza and a mounting death toll. Asked whether she believed bipartisanship had broken down on Israel, she agreed and said it was not a “good time for Mr Dutton to be playing politics”.

Wong said it was a dreadful, tragic conflict. She was criticised by some for saying civilians on both sides had been “murdered” but quickly added there were still Israeli hostages held by Hamas.

The foreign minister said “when Israel’s friends urge Israel to protect civilian life, as we have, it is critical that Israel listens”. She said the UN vote showed “the international community will not accept continuing civilian deaths”.

So keen was Wong to get this message out she released a full transcript of her interview after the ABC had edited it down for time reasons. Far from being out of step with our main strategic ally, as Dutton wrongly claimed she was, Wong is very confident she is in lock step with the Biden administration.

While Wong cited the UN vote, she was very aware Washington was increasingly concerned. Not only had President Joe Biden flown to Israel to warn Netanyahu not to let rage lead him to overreact but he had since singled out “extremist settlers” for attacking Palestinians on the West Bank and said “it has to stop”.

This week Biden called for Israel to “immediately and significantly increase the flow of humanitarian assistance to meet the needs of civilians in Gaza”. The day before the Wong interview, the White House released a statement warning Israel “must” defend itself in a way that was “consistent with international humanitarian law”.

If Dutton is hoping to replicate his success in politicising the Voice by breaking ranks on the Middle East, two developments should give him pause for thought.

The Morgan poll, which last week suggested he was on a winner for opposing the referendum, dramatically flipped this week. Labor reverted to a six-point lead, on a two-party preferred basis. The pollster suggests it was due to Albanese’s successful Washington trip.

The other development was the statement released by six former prime ministers, four of them Liberals, in harmony with the Albanese government’s approach. Dutton’s hero, John Howard, was one of the signatories. The only holdout was Paul Keating, who was unwilling to authorise the statement put to him by the Zionist Federation of Australia. Keating was particularly irked by the Sunday Herald Sun pre-emptively reporting he would sign it.

The statement that was eventually released was rewritten by Malcolm Turnbull with input from the other former prime ministers, especially Kevin Rudd. Rudd, now ambassador to the US in Washington, ran the statement by Penny Wong and she approved his public endorsement of it, a sure sign it is in line with Australia’s official position.

The Australia Palestine Advocacy Network accused the former prime ministers of allowing themselves “to be used as a tool in a campaign by the pro-Israel lobby”. The network’s president, Nasser Mashni, said they did it knowing “Israel ignores current and historical violations of international law”.

The statement condemned the October 7 terrorist attacks and called for the immediate release of all hostages. It also called for Israel to offer support and protection to Palestinians in its conflict with Hamas.

“We believe we speak for the vast majority of Australians, of all faiths and of none, when we say we stand in solidarity with Jewish Australians at this time,” the statement said. “Likewise, we stand too with the Australian Palestinian community whose families are dying and suffering in this terrible conflict. They too deserve our love and support. Our nation’s success depends on us not allowing conflict overseas to turn Australians against each other.”

The statement accused Hamas of launching its attack in the hope of provoking a reaction from Israel that would kill innocent civilians. “The Hamas terrorists have no more interest in the safety of Palestinians than they do of Israelis. They want Israel to invade and bomb Gaza. They want to be able to point to thousands of Palestinian casualties from Israeli military action. Their mission is to promote hatred – hatred of Israelis, hatred of Jews, hatred of Palestinians, hatred of Muslims.”

Albanese says, “It’s important to recognise that Israel has a right to defend itself, but how it does it matters.” Biden agrees and has earmarked a further US$14.3 billion in military and other assistance to Israel. Australia has upped its humanitarian aid to Gaza to $25 million and is urging a pause in hostilities so much of it can get through.

In war there are no winners. Little wonder Trade Minister Don Farrell says Dutton’s comments are unhelpful. “He’s seeking to get political advantage from this terrible conflict and that’s not the direction we should be heading in.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 4, 2023 as "Peter Dutton’s dogfight for advantage".

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