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What matters in Wentworth?

Peter Rodgers
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Published: 7 May 2019

Last updated: 4 March 2024

How much is Australia’s relationship with Israel, and its support for the Jewish state, a factor in the 2019 federal election in Wentworth? The result of the October 2018 by-election suggested it was much less important than Scott Morrison and his enthusiastic Liberal candidate, Dave Sharma, would have liked.

In the dying days of that campaign Morrison floated the idea of Australian recognition of Jerusalem, Sharma fancifully arguing that it was “very much within the context of [promoting] a two-state solution”.

The fact that Sharma lost to Kerryn Phelps showed that many Wentworth voters saw Morrison’s announcement as the cheap political tokenism it was. But seemingly incapable of owning up to a seriously dumb idea, Morrison’s response was more tokenism, engineering a “policy shift” which involved formal Australian recognition of West Jerusalem as the Israeli capital and opening a “Trade and Defence Office” there (doing precisely what is anybody’s guess) while keeping the Australian embassy in Tel Aviv.

The Israeli embassy in Canberra offered the obligatory polite praise, a marked contrast to the derision which greeted the announcement, both in Australia and Israel. Senior Israelis, including the speaker of the Knesset, mocked the very notion of “West” Jerusalem, and the right-leaning Jerusalem Post editorialised about the absurdity of Australian recognition of “the heretofore unknown entity of West Jerusalem”.

If such a fundamentally pointless gesture in October 2018 went unrewarded, has anything changed? The Jewish Independent sent the three main candidates: Dr Kerryn Phelps, Dave Sharma and Labor’s Tim Murray, the following four questions:

  1. What role do you think Australia’s relationship with Israel and its policies towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will play in the electoral contest in Wentworth?

  2. What do you consider as the best approach for Australia to take towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

  3. Is a two-state solution still possible? If yes, what can Australia do to help bring it about? If no, what is the solution?

  4. What should the Australian government be saying about violence and Israeli settlements?

All three candidates advised that they would offer a substantive response. At publication deadline, Phelps and Murray had done so. Burnt by his previous involvement in the embassy issue, Sharma perhaps sees little mileage, or votes, in the issue anymore.

Phelps commented that with more than 10 per cent of voters in Wentworth being Jewish, “Australia’s relationship with Israel is always an important factor in any federal election”. As the first Jewish  woman in the House of Representatives, she had “been proud to put forward the views of the Jewish community”. With anti-Semitism and hate speech on the rise, it was “vitally important to maintain Jewish voices in the Parliament”.

Murray took a rather different track, arguing that as both major parties were strong supporters of Israel, Australia’s relationship with Israel and its policy towards the Palestinian conflict “will not be a major determinant in how people vote in Wentworth”.

Phelps said she had historically believed in a two-state solution, although this was looking increasingly unlikely “given the lack of viable leadership among Palestinians”. She supported the principle of two states for two peoples as the only one on which a just and sustainable peace between Israel and Palestine could be built. She believed that “the proposed unconditional, unilateral recognition of a Palestinian  state is not an acceptable solution until Palestine acknowledges Israel’s right to exist and formally agrees to end the conflict”.

Murray argued that Australia was well placed to play a role in the resolution of the conflict, “should it be called upon to do so”. The best approach for Australia was “to support Israel in international forums against often immoral attacks but at the same time advocate for a democratic Palestinian state alongside Israel”. Two states were “not only possible but vital … the only solution”. Australia, as a mid-level power with good relations with many counties in the Middle East, could “use its good offices to persuade both sides to reach a lasting peace”.

There is a level of disconnect between both Phelps’s and Murray’s comments and the on-the-ground reality. To see the increasing unviability of a two-state solution as reflecting only or mainly the problem of Palestinian leadership is half the story. The other half is the determination of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to bury forever the two-state idea.

Condemning terrorism “in all forms”, Phelps commented that Australia should play a support role in the negotiations “but always emphasise Israel’s right to exist and defend itself”. Murray noted that both the Labor and Liberal parties opposed violence as a means of resolving the conflict and there was no question that “Israel has the right to defend itself from external aggression”. The question of Israeli settlements would be central to negotiations between the parties, he said. Phelps did not comment specifically on settlements.

If Israel hovers as an issue in Wentworth, climate change appears to be at the front and centre of many minds. Sharma seems keen to distance himself from some of the  Neanderthal thinking on climate change within the Liberal Party which is, after all, currently led by a man who displayed a chunk of coal in federal parliament (suitably treated so his hands wouldn’t get grubby).

Sharma and several younger Liberal parliamentarians spruik themselves as “modern Liberals” and have been campaigning with posters that do not have “Liberal Party” on them. Precisely what modern Liberal means is anyone’s guess, although it’s probably aimed at badging him as less of a party hack and more his own man in the battle against Phelps.

Sharma has spoken of the need for the Liberal Party to do more to tackle climate change, arguing that Australia must put itself in a "credible" position to convince other countries of the merits of stronger international action. He has even suggested that his diplomatic experience could be useful in convincing US President Donald Trump to re-join the 2015 Paris Agreement, though that seems as foolish a brag as the idea that Australian recognition of West Jerusalem might somehow help to exhume the two-state solution.

Sharma no doubt is conscious of the strong climate change credentials of his two main opponents. Phelps has called for a transition to 100 per cent renewable energy, 50 per cent by 2030, and a ban on new thermal coal mines and fracking. Murray has spoken of the need for carbon pricing through a trading scheme, a position that could put him at odds with Bill Shorten.

We don’t know what voters in Wentworth—Jewish or non-Jewish—will do on May 18. On recent form, they appear to value serious action to deal with climate change a lot more than empty political gestures over Jerusalem. We should all be thankful for that.

Photo: Image: Wentworth candidates Kerryn Phelps and Dave Sharma. Credit: ABC News/Kevin Nguyen


About the author

Peter Rodgers

Peter Rodgers is a former Australian Ambassador to Israel who has written two books on the Middle East, Herzl’s Nightmare: One land, Two peoples, and Arabian Plights: The future Middle East. He is a former journalist and winner of the Australian Journalist of the Year Award.

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