Australia’s Evolving Debate on Israel and Palestine

Ahead of the August 17–19 Australian Labor Party National Conference, leaders within the Labor Party worked to ensure no motions were passed on areas that could embarrass the Albanese government; these “high-risk” areas included Israel-Palestine relations and AUKUS.

Following the Australian Labor Party’s 2021 decision to incorporate Palestinian statehood into their national platform, some speculated that at the 2023 conference, the left-leaning faction of the party would demand another Palestinian statehood resolution, potentially in exchange for not embarrassing Prime Minister Anthony Albanese on AUKUS—a pressing security deal that state-level branches of Labor are increasingly skeptical of. However, in the lead up to the conference, Foreign Minister Penny Wong and Prime Minister Albanese communicated that they did not want the conference to dictate Australia’s foreign policy and therefore seemed to oppose prescriptive party conference resolutions on both AUKUS and Palestinian statehood.

While ultimately the Labor Party avoided a damaging fight over Israel and Palestine at the conference, the tense debate ahead of the event reveals a deepening division within Australia over a once bipartisan issue.

The Israel-Palestine conflict has not always been a sensitive issue at the national level in Australian politics. Australia has a longstanding friendship with Israel. It was the first nation to vote in favor of the 1947 UN Partition Plan for separate Jewish and Palestinian states—a plan that Zionists supported and Palestinians opposed. In 1949, Australia established diplomatic relations with Israel, and it has continued to advocate for Israel’s existence and rights on the international stage.

As a result of the longstanding Australia-Israel friendship, the two countries have robust economic, defense, and people-to-people connections, including a Technological Innovation Cooperation Agreement, a memorandum of understanding (MOU) on cyber security, and an annual dialogue involving defense officials and senior parliamentarians.

Australia’s relationship with Palestinian leaders is not nearly as robust as its close friendship with Israel. Although committed to a two-state solution, a framework for resolving the Israel-Palestine conflict by having separate Jewish and Palestinian states, Australia does not currently recognize Palestine as a state. It still provides aid to the Palestinian Territories with a 2022-2023 estimate of AU$17.1 million (US$11.0 million) in bilaterally allocated aid, AU$20.0 million (US$12.9 million) allocated to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), and AU$28.7 million (US$18.5 million) in official development assistance (ODA). While these amounts are significantly less than the approximately US$300 million in aid the United States and the European Union each announced to provide to Palestinian people and territories in 2022-2023, it is still a notable contribution.

Recent Liberal Party prime ministers have strongly supported Israel. During Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s administration (2013-2015), his government’s representative to the United Nations (UN) withdrew Australia’s support for an order to stop “all Israeli settlement activities in all of the occupied territories.” In 2016, Prime Minister Malcom Turnbull’s government called a UN resolution condemning Israel’s settlements program in the West Bank and East Jerusalem a “one-sided [resolution] targeting Israel.” In 2017, Prime Minister Turnbull said that “militant Islamicist terrorism” was testing Australia and Israel’s shared democratic values, and in 2018, despite significant domestic backlash, Turnbull met with Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Australia to discuss the two countries’ growing relations. In 2018, Prime Minister Scott Morrison made Australia the third country, following the United States and Guatemala, to recognize West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. In 2019, Morrison called Israel the “beacon of democracy in the Middle East,” and dismissed notions that Israel was an apartheid state.

Recent Labor Party leaders’ stances on the Israel-Palestine conflict have varied but still leaned in Israel’s favor. Between 2007-2013, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd condemned the Iranian president over his criticism of Israel, led a bipartisan motion to celebrate Israel’s 60th anniversary, and called the Green Party’s boycott on Israeli products “just plain nuts.” However, he also criticized the Israelis for building in East Jerusalem and told Israel they must halt their settlement process. In the years since he was prime minister, Rudd has become a stronger supporter of Palestine; in 2017, Rudd said that the time had come to recognize Palestinian statehood.

Labor prime minister Julia Gillard was a staunch Israel supporter. She received the Jerusalem Prize in 2013 “in recognition of her outstanding contribution to strengthening Australia’s connection with Israel,” and she backed Israel in a UN vote for Palestinian statehood.

The current Albanese government has taken more explicit action in support of Palestinian statehood, sovereignty, and rights. In October 2022, the government reversed the previous Coalition’s recognition of West Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. It also supported a UN resolution that criticized Israeli settlement policy, announced plans to double UNRWA aid from AU$10 to AU$20 million, officially restarted using the term “Occupied Palestinian Territories” for the West Bank and Gaza, accused Israel of “systemic repression” of Palestinians, and vowed to strengthen objections to “illegal” Israeli settlements.  

Foreign Minister Wong acknowledged these changes, stating that Canberra is currently “rebalancing” its approach to Israel and Palestine. However, she also said Australia remains a great friend of Israel. Similarly, following his government’s shift to using the “Occupied Palestinian Territories” terminology, Prime Minister Albanese said his government remained “a strong supporter of Israel.”

Most Australian Jewish groups, however, do not believe Australia can simultaneously rebalance its policy and remain a strong ally to Israel. The Executive Council of Australian Jewry (an official peak national body representing the Australian Jewish community) called the decision to reverse the decision to recognize West Jerusalem as the capital of Israel a “gratuitous insult to a key economic and strategic ally.” The Zionist Federation of Australia, the other nationally elected representative body for Jewish Australians, called the Albanese government’s decisions “counterproductive.” However, there are smaller Jewish groups that welcome a more “balanced” approach to Israel-Palestine.

Palestinians in Australia are largely satisfied with the Albanese government’s new Israel policies. The de facto Palestinian embassy in Australia issued a statement in strong support of the Albanese government’s decisions regarding the Israel-Palestine issue. Australian-Palestinian academic and activist Fahad Ali was pleased that the Australian government reversed its recognition of the capital and recognized a too-often ignored Palestinian minority voice.

If there has been movement at the national level by the Labor Party government on these issues, some of that movement reflects broader trends and shifting attitudes toward Israel and Palestine. The Victorian Labor Party, a semi-autonomous branch of the Australian Labor Party based in the state of Victoria, has increased pressure on Albanese to recognize a Palestinian state in this parliamentary term. A Spring 2022 YouGov poll found most Australian people believe Palestine should be recognized as a state. A 2021 study of the Australian public showed 62 percent of the nearly 3500 respondents equally supported Israelis and Palestinians, while 11 percent were more favorable toward Israelis, and 19 percent to the Palestinians.

Voting trends also reflect this shift. An increasing number of young Australian Jewish people are voting for the Green Party, whose platform states that Israel is practicing crimes of apartheid; this new voting trend contrasts with older generation of Australian Jews who often view the Green Party as overly supportive of Palestinian rights.

Despite a longstanding Australian bipartisanship on the Israel-Palestine issue, a more sympathetic approach toward Palestine is most notable in the Labor Party. In contrast to the Labor Party’s 2021 National Platform that “calls on the next Labor government to recognize Palestine as a state,” the Liberal Party’s national plan for a Safe and Secure Australia does not mention Palestinian statehood, and it affirms the party’s commitment “to continue to stand against one-sided and provocative resolutions in the United Nations and elsewhere that aim to unfairly target Israel, or challenge its right to exist.” Thus unsurprisingly, Peter Dutton, leader of the opposition, has said Albanese’s new policy sends the “worst possible message” to one of Australia’s “closest friends and allies, in Israel.”

Ahead of the 2023 Labor Conference, the stakes were high for Australia because passing a resolution demanding Palestinian statehood would increase pressure on the Albanese government to follow suit. While using the term “occupied territories” and switching recognition of the Israeli capital aligns Australia’s Israel policy with that of other Western nations (such as the United Kingdom, New Zealand, and the European Union), officially recognizing Palestinian statehood would be a step further and would differentiate Australia’s Middle East policy from that of close allies like the United States, the United Kingdom, New Zealand, and Canada. It would also distinguish the Albanese government from previous administrations regarding Israel-Palestine policy and send a message that the Australia of today aligns itself with nations such as Indonesia, Mexico, Malaysia, South Africa, Thailand, Turkey, and Vietnam, all of whom have recognized Palestine statehood.

Instead of increasing pressure on the Albanese government to recognize Palestinian statehood, the 2023 Labor Conference saw no resolutions or amendments related to Israel and Palestine. Instead, the left and right wings of the Labor Party each delivered speeches on the Israel-Palestine conflict. Thus, while Australia’s policy on Israel and Palestine is increasingly more divisive, it is still in line with many of Australia’s wealthy Western allies.

Lily Napach is a former intern with the Australia Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Washington, D.C.

Lily Napach

Former Intern, Australia Chair