GOUGH Whitlam, the prime minister who shines brightest in Labor’s pantheon, had an “immoral, unethical and ungrateful attitude” towards Israel, his nemesis Bob Hawke allegedly said.
That revelation about Australia’s 1972-75 PM and Hawke, whose 1983-91 prime ministership was one of the most supportive of Israel, comes from a welter of diplomatic cables posted online this week by WikiLeaks, in what it calls the Public Library of US Diplomacy.
Among some 1.7 million documents dated 1973-76, there are around 11,000 cables from the US embassy in Canberra and its consulates in Sydney and Melbourne.
They reflect one of this country’s most turbulent periods since federation. There was the constitutional crisis that unseated Whitlam in 1975, the Vietnam War, Indonesia’s invasion of East Timor in 1975, and the Yom Kippur War of 1973, which marked a turning point in Australian-Israeli relations.
It was after that conflict, when Arab nations hiked oil prices, that Whitlam pronounced Canberra’s “even-handed” policy towards Israel and the Arabs, a substantial shift from the support for Israel previous governments had shown.
The “even-handed” policy caused widespread dismay within Australia’s Jewish community in the mid-1970s. But according to WikiLeaks, it irked Hawke, a close friend of Israel, even more deeply than was known.
The then ALP and Australian Council of Trade Unions president, reportedly a confidante of the US embassy, told Americans the prime minister had an “immoral, unethical and ungrateful” view of Israel, which impeded Hawke’s efforts to fundraise for the ALP within the Jewish community. According to the cables, Hawke had referred to “Whitlam’s ‘unprintable’ even-handed ‘unprintable’ Arab policy”.
The cables indicate Hawke thought Whitlam had “caved in” on the Middle East for “commercial reasons”. Hawke had also lamented the PM promising he would be the first Australian national leader to visit Israel “but never got closer than Rhodes”.
Hawke reportedly pressured Whitlam to consult with Jewish leaders after the “even-handed” pronouncement, but the meeting “was pro forma and completely unsatisfactory and humiliating for Jews”.
The ALP president allegedly told US diplomats in 1974 if his party did not reflect his own strong backing of Israel, he would resign, but he held the presidency for another four years.
As for Whitlam, he reportedly considered Hawke “a pro-Israel fanatic” who “hit the roof” over an abortive ALP plan in 1976 to take a $500,000 donation from Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party in Iraq.
The cash injection was to have replenished Labor’s finances after it spent big on Whitlam’s failed bid for re-election in 1975, following his government’s sacking by governor-general Sir John Kerr.
Clyde Holding, then Victorian ALP leader, is mentioned in the cables as a key figure in establishing Labor Friends of Israel, which Hawke saw as a hedge against Whitlam.
Michael Danby, Holding’s successor in Melbourne Ports, told The AJN this week his admiration for Whitlam was tempered by his policies on Israel.
“Like Bob Hawke, I was not happy with some of the attitudes adopted by the Whitlam government towards Israel. I say this despite my great admiration for Gough Whitlam and the many great things he achieved. Fortunately, Bob himself later became Labor leader and prime minister and established Australia as one of Israel’s best friends and closest supporters.”
Hawke was overseas and was unavailable for comment.
This article was originally published in The Australian Jewish News.