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How the Far Left hijacked the Palestinian cause

By Philip Mendes and Nick Dyrenfurth - posted Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Last week the world marked the 20th anniversary of the Berlin Wall’s fall. Likewise, 35 years ago an event with global ramifications occurred. On November 13, 1974, the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat famously addressed the United Nations General Assembly. Carrying a gun and an olive branch, Arafat appealed to the Assembly not to let the olive branch fall from his hand.

Arafat’s speech signified that the Palestinians had moved in international eyes from being a group of stateless refugees to a legitimate national movement. Whether Arafat intended it or not, his statement also signposted two dichotomous political directions for the Palestinians.

One was the road to peace and reconciliation with Israel via mutual compromise and a two-state solution. This path would be encapsulated in the 1993 Oslo Accord which led to the establishment of the Palestinian Authority, and almost resulted via the American-auspiced 2000-01 negotiations to the creation of an independent Palestinian State.


The other was the unbending war of terror and violence reflected in suicide bombings and rocket attacks to achieve the destruction of Israel. This war has so far produced far more Palestinian than Israeli victims, and done little to advance Palestinian national aspirations.

Arafat’s speech coincided with both the end of the Vietnam War and the decline of communism as a viable economic model and indeed morally defensible ideal. These events prompted the far Left to search for a new apocalyptic cause. In Australia, a motley coalition of Trotskyists, Maoists and other tiny fringe groups opted to bring the plight of the Palestinian people and their need for a homeland to the attention of the Australian public.

Notably they did not endorse a compromise two-state solution which recognised the legitimate national claims of both Israelis and Palestinians. Rather, they simplistically constructed the Israeli-Arab conflict as an extension of the struggle between Western colonialism and the Third World, and recommended the elimination of the Israeli side of the conflict.

These anti-Zionist fundamentalists loved the gun not the olive branch, and they quickly captured the pro-Palestinian political agenda. In 1974 and again in 1975, the extremist-influenced Australian Union of Students (AUS), passed motions calling for the elimination of the State of Israel, and its replacement by a democratic secular state of Palestine. The latter term was a disingenuous euphemism for an ethno-religious Islamic Arab state given that most Palestinian Muslims are highly religious and overwhelmingly reject secular and democratic ideas.

The motions were overwhelmingly rejected by Australian students, but this did not deter the fundamentalists who were committed to excluding any alternative viewpoints (i.e. those supportive of two states) from progressive debates. A number of the former AUS leaders found a happy home in Melbourne-based community radio station 3CR which became notorious for banning (at least till the late 1980s) any Jewish groups who did not endorse the military destruction of Israel. Others found refuge in Bill Hartley’s hard left faction of the Victorian ALP which also called for Israel to be replaced by an Arab State of Palestine, and alleged that Jews controlled the Australian media.

The fundamentalist agenda cooled somewhat following the PLO’s implicit recognition of Israel in 1988, and particularly following the signing of the Oslo peace accord in 1993. However, the outbreak of the Second Intifada in September 2000 - the undeclared war of terror against the Israeli Green Line civilian population - quickly produced a renewal of the inflammatory rhetoric from the post-Cold War Australian far-left, desperate to find a new raison d'être and attract members to a now utterly discredited cause.


As the American writer Paul Berman brilliantly described in his 2004 book Terror and Liberalism, the mass wave of Palestinian suicide bombings in March 2002 (which killed 63 Israelis and injured hundreds) provoked an unprecedented wave of far Left sympathy. The higher the tide of violence perpetrated by the Palestinians the greater the fury and blame directed at the Israeli victims.

And the Australian fundamentalists followed suit. The March 2002 attacks provoked the Israeli invasion of the leading West Bank cities in an attempt to destroy the terror networks, and stop the carnage. Yet the first Australian petition for an academic boycott of Israel initiated by a small clique of Australian academics immediately after this invasion in May 2002 was directed at the victims of terror, not the perpetrators.

Another group of fundamentalists condemned Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s June 2009 visit to Israel, claiming that Israel was a state based on an exclusivist ethnic identity which institutionalised racism against Palestinian Arabs rather than espousing a universalistic citizenship. Regrettably online publications such as New Matilda and Crikey saw fit to publicise such ill-informed views.

The petition signatories seemed oblivious to the fact that over one million Arabs are currently citizens of Israel; that the Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza Strip overwhelmingly demand an Arab national state rather than a Jewish-Arab bi-national or multi-religious entity, and that most of the Arab states ethnically cleansed their previously large Jewish populations more than five decades ago.

None of this exposure of the infantile slogans of the fundamentalists obviates the need for Israel to promote rather than undermine the olive branch solution. More and more Israelis and Diaspora Jews understand that Israel will not only have to freeze existing West Bank settlements, but eventually dismantle at the very least all settlements lying to the east of the security barrier. Equally the Palestinians will have to make major concessions that facilitate peaceful neighbourly relations with Israel. This means finally accepting that the 1948 refugees will only return to the Palestinian State, and not to Green Line Israel.

The fundamentalists of course will never accept this win-win plan for peaceful compromise. Such is the nature of black and white revolutionary thought. But their all or nothing demands for a similarly coercive utopia have only brought ongoing tragedy to the Palestinians.

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A shorter version of this article was first published as “The Enemy Within” in The Australian on November 11, 2009.

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About the Authors

Associate Professor Philip Mendes is the Director of the Social Inclusion and Social Policy Research Unit in the Department of Social Work at Monash University and is the co-author with Nick Dyrenfurth of Boycotting Israel is Wrong (New South Press), and the author of a chapter on The Australian Greens and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict in the forthcoming Australia and Israel (Sussex Academic Press).

Dr Nick Dyrenfurth is the co-editor of Confusion: the Making of the Australian two-party political system (forthcoming with Melbourne University Publishing).

Other articles by these Authors

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All articles by Nick Dyrenfurth

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