Blinkers off for the other side of story

Sydney Morning Herald
15 March, 2008
By Alan Ramsey

At 11.58am on Wednesday one half of the Australian Parliament "celebrated" the 60th anniversary of the state of Israel. More than a third of that one-half was absent, whatever their reasons. A number of MPs deliberately excluded themselves. Labor's Kevin Rudd, as the host, did not. He spoke for eight minutes. "Celebrate" was the word Rudd used to begin his remarks. "Congratulations" was the word he used to end them. The Liberals' Brendan Nelson spoke for seven minutes in supporting the Prime Minister. He concluded: "Shabat shalom forever."

Nobody else spoke. The whole affair, carefully orchestrated, carefully bi-partisan, lasted just 15 minutes. The press gallery was almost empty.

So, too, were the two public galleries. About 100 invited guests, each wearing a security pass, filled the first three rows of the Speaker's gallery upstairs and spilled into the fourth. These were the people who, after Rudd's seven-part, 191-word motion had been "put and passed" without a vote, applauded enthusiastically. The only other person who spoke - or attempted to - was a middle-aged woman.

She got to her feet, in the seats behind the VIP guests, and held up a T-shirt, exclaiming, "What about UN resolution 242?", as Rudd had begun speaking. Two attendants moved in quickly. Taking her by the arm, they escorted the woman outside, without fuss. Unlike what is still happening in Israel's military occupation, after 41 years, of the Palestinian people of the West Bank and its siege of the Gaza strip, it was a very civilised eviction.

On this day, in the Australian Parliament, normal legislative business resumed at 12.13pm. The VIP guests upstairs in the Speaker's gallery filed out. Most of the MPs downstairs drifted away to their offices. At 4pm the Israeli ambassador hosted a reception in the Parliament's second-floor Mural Hall for invited guests only. Rudd and Nelson reappeared, as suitably Uriah Heepish as their midday speeches had been.

That night, back on the floor of the House of Representatives, the woman MP who took Tim Fischer's southern NSW seat off the Nationals in 2001 and, in two elections, turned it into safe Liberal territory, did an extremely courageous thing.

Her name is Sussan Penelope Ley.

She is the daughter of a British colonial police officer who served in British-mandated Palestine in the 1930s, before the United Nations ceded half of it to become a Jewish state in May 1948. Born in Nigeria in 1961, Ley spent most of the first 13 years of her life in what was then the Trucial States, later the United Arab Emirates. Her family migrated to Australia in 1974. She has lived here ever since, working as an air traffic controller, a commercial pilot, a shearer's cook, a farmer, and a senior taxation department official. She has a bunch of degrees, three children and is now a member of the Nelson shadow ministry.

What Sussan Ley did in Parliament on Wednesday night was speak for the Palestinian people. She was the only MP who did. In fact, the only MHR of the House's 150, apart from the two leaders, to even raise the issue.

When Rudd and Nelson had spoken at midday I counted 53 Government MPs present, including six ministers, and 39 Coalition MPs. When Ley got the call 7 hours later, at 7.38pm, to speak on the adjournment, there were five people in the public gallery, four Labor MPs and two Coalition MPs in the chamber, and one journalist in the press gallery. She was the fourth-last speaker before Parliament shut down for the day, after 11 hours, and she was allowed five minutes.

Here is an edited version of what she said:

"Today the Parliament passed a motion honouring Israel's 60 years. My purpose tonight is not to diminish Israel's achievements but to note the interests and legitimate aspirations of the people of Palestine.

"Israel has many friends in this country and in this Parliament. The Palestinians, by comparison, have few. Theirs is not a popular cause. But it is one I support, in part out of knowledge that the victors of World War II, including Australia, wrote a 'homeland' cheque to cover the sins of the holocaust and centuries of anti-Semitism in Europe, but it was the Palestinians who had to cash it.

"Israel has much to celebrate after 60 years. It has built a modern, accomplished and intelligent society, one whose scientific and technological expertise offers a great deal to the world. It has a robust democracy, a free press, a secular state with freedom of faith, and an unfettered opposition, regrettably rare in the Middle East. If there were peace between Israelis and Palestinians, one can only imagine the achievements of these two cultures today.

"Israel's 40-year occupation of the Palestinian territories, its continued expansion of [illegal Israeli] settlements [on Palestinian land] and its refusal to allow the return of expelled refugees have caused deep resentment in the Arab world. Palestinian corruption in government and failure to abandon violence against civilians as a political tool have meant Israel does not feel secure behind secure borders. Sixty years have seen a great deal of bloodshed - Arab, Israeli and others, including 34 US soldiers killed by Israeli forces on the USS Liberty during the 1967 war. I do not find it helpful to engage in a forensic apportionment of blame; each side has legitimate grievances.

"The current blockade of Gaza, confiscation of Palestinian land, and the expansion of settlements must be mentioned in the context of today's motion. Gaza is besieged, contained and on the brink of starvation. Rockets are fired into Israel every day, and Israel has a right to self-defence, but the crushing economic embargo feeds fury and resentment both in Gaza and the West Bank. [A total] 2679 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli [military] forces in the Gaza Strip since September 2000, [while] an Israeli human rights organisation reported 1259 of those were not participating in hostilities when they were killed, and 567 were minors

"We ought not be naive or simplistic about the challenge faced by the Israelis in moving towards peace with a [popularly elected] counterpart, in Hamas, that is funded and supported by a foreign power [Syria] and which retains an explicit commitment to [terrorism] as a political instrument. But may I remind the House of the example of the Northern Ireland peace process [which succeeded] after a more than 40-year struggle.

"There are signs the Israeli people are developing a renewed hunger for peace. A recent Tel Aviv University poll indicates 64 per cent of Israelis believe the [Israeli] Government must hold direct talks with the Hamas government in Gaza towards a ceasefire. Military occupation, blockades and hostility against civilians in the name of security will result in [more] violence and terror. We must think what we can do [for] ordinary Israelis and Palestinians to give them some faith in the peace process

"We are the leaders of our generation. We are accountable for results. If the principal protagonists and the rest of the world community hand Palestine on to the next generation as a twisted mess of grievance, hatred and retribution, then we have failed. The last two generations of leaders have failed to produce peace. Let us renew our efforts."

Unlike earlier in the day, nobody applauded - though I wished I could have. Many Australians, too, had they been present, surely would have wanted to acknowledge such a speech of such honesty and sensibility, about the Israelis as much as it was about the Palestinians. Ley put the grovelling Rudd and Nelson to shame. The truth is there is no real debate in this country about the travesty of what is happening in the Middle East, and there are those in the community who, with their money and influence, do all they can to ensure no such open debate occurs, either in the national Parliament, in the media or anywhere else.

So why was the Rudd Government, in its first four months of office, doing what no Australian government or parliament had done, to acknowledge any of the decades of Israeli statehood since the Six-Day War in 1967 saw the Israeli military occupy the Palestinian territories of the West Bank and Gaza and ignore 40 years of mutual violence and barbarity as well as 40 years of United Nations resolutions, to withdraw?

The Howard government did not "honour" Israel's 50th anniversary in 1998, nor the Hawke government the 40th anniversary in 1988, nor the Fraser government the 30th anniversary in 1978. Why the 60th in 2008 the instant a Labor Government comes to power?

When the Labor caucus met on Tuesday, as it does every week the Parliament sits, Sydney's Julia Irwin asked Rudd this very question.

Why? Irwin never takes a backward step in her defence of Palestinian rights, but all she got from Rudd this time was waffle. He did not explicitly respond as to why 60 might be different from earlier decades when the Parliament had done nothing and neither had earlier governments. And no Labor MP supported Irwin in pushing it.

She was a lone voice in the Labor caucus as Sussan Ley was in the Parliament. How's that for political ticker?

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