Julia Gillard has been forced to withdraw Australia’s support for Israel in an upcoming United Nations vote after being opposed by the vast majority of her cabinet and warned she would be rolled by the caucus.
As a result, Australia will abstain from a vote in the United Nations General Assembly on a resolution to give Palestine observer status in the UN, rather than join the United States and Israel in voting against the resolution as Ms Gillard had wanted.
In a direct rebuff of her leadership, Ms Gillard was opposed by all but two of her cabinet ministers – Bill Shorten and Stephen Conroy, both of the Victorian Right – during a heated meeting on Monday night.
She was then warned by factional bosses she faced a defeat by her own backbench when the caucus met on Tuesday morning.
The Minister for Foreign Affairs, Bob Carr, who met Ms Gillard before cabinet, drove the push to oppose the Prime Minister.
The former Labor foreign minister Gareth Evans briefed Labor MPs on Monday, warning they would be on the wrong side of history if they stood with the US and Israel against the rest of the world.
Ms Gillard had wanted to vote no while the Left faction, which is pro-Palestinian, wanted to vote for the resolution.
The Right faction, which would usually support Ms Gillard, backed an abstention, in part due to the views of its members that the government was too pro-Israel, and also because many MPs in western Sydney, who are already fearful of losing their seats, are coming under pressure from constituents with a Middle East background.
Senior sources have told Fairfax Media that in cabinet on Monday night, at least 10 ministers, regardless of factional allegiance and regardless of whether they were supporters of Kevin Rudd or Ms Gillard, implored the Prime Minister to change her view.
At one stage there was a heated exchange between the Environment Minister, Tony Burke, and Senator Conroy, the Communications Minister.
One source said Ms Gillard was told the cabinet would support whatever final decision she took because it was bound to support the leader but the same could not be said of the caucus.
”If you want to do it, the cabinet will back you but the caucus won’t,” a source quoted one minister as telling the Prime Minister.
After the meeting, Ms Gillard received separate delegations from the Left and the Right factions.
There was to be a motion put to the caucus by the ACT backbencher Andrew Leigh calling for Australia to back Palestine in the UN vote.
The Left was going to support it. Normally, the Right would have voted against it and defeated it. But the Right conveners, including Joel Fitzgibbon, are understood to have told Ms Gillard the Right was not going to bind its members on the vote and she would lose heavily. Members of the NSW Right and others would support the motion.
”She had no choice after that,” said one MP.
Ms Gillard told the caucus meeting that her personal view was to vote no because she believed the UN vote, which will pass easily with the overwhelming support of UN member states, would hurt the peace process because the US has threatened to withdraw funding for the Palestinian Authority.
But she conceded that after sounding out ministers and MPs, Australia should abstain.
The Israeli government is understood to be furious but an embassy spokesperson declined to comment.
The opposition foreign affairs spokeswoman, Julie Bishop, said the decision to abstain was disappointing because the Coalition backed a no vote as ”the path to peace and reconciliation”.
A statement by the Minister for Foreign Affairs Senator the Hon. Bob Carr today is detailed below.
PALESTINIAN UN OBSERVER STATUS
Foreign Minister Bob Carr today announced Australia will not stand in the way of enhanced status for Palestinians in the United Nations.
Senator Carr said the member nations of the UN are expected to vote on the Palestinian observer status resolution on Thursday, November 29 (New York time).
“We will not stand in the way of the Palestinian delegation enjoying an equivalent status to the Vatican as a non-member observer state,” Senator Carr said.
“When the Question of Palestine resolution comes forward later this week, Australia will abstain.”
“This is a message of hope to Palestine.”
“This would not have been possible without the strength and leadership of the Prime Minister who heard the views of everyone in the caucus.”
Senator Carr said Australia strongly supports a negotiated two-state solution that allows a secure Israel to live alongside a secure and independent future Palestinian state.
“In the meantime, our vote sends a strong message of support for Palestinian nationhood,” Senator Carr said.
“I expect it to be warmly received by Palestinians around the world, but especially those in the Palestinian territories.”
“We urge both sides to return to negotiations in good faith.”
Senator Carr will be meeting with members of the Palestinian community in Sydney on Friday night.
This draft resolution, if passed by a majority of UN member states, will accord non-member Observer state status in the UN to the Palestinian Authority.
It reaffirms the rights of the Palestinian people to self-determination.