Today, former Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam died at the ripe old age of 98. He is considered one of Australia’s most controversial public figures, after he was dismissed as Prime Minister by Governor-General Sir John Kerr in 1975, after the “constitutional crisis” in which the Liberal-National opposition – who held control of the senate – refused to pass the appropriation bills.
His main achievements include abolishing national service, pulling troops out of Vietnam, giving extra pay to women, establishing free university courses, improving Aboriginal rights and establishing diplomatic relations with communist China.
On Israel, Whitlam was nothing to write home about.
It is generally agreed that, despite a solidly pro-Israeli record up until that point, the election of an ALP government under Gough Whitlam (December 1972-November. 1975) marked a sharp departure in Australian policy toward Israel and Arab-Israeli issues. The Middle East was not a matter of controversy during the campaign and did not feature in the platform of either major party. Whitlam, speaking to Jewish gatherings during the lead-up to the campaign, emphasized his fraternal ties with the ruling Israeli Labor Party and friendship with leaders such as Golda Meir and Yigal Allon, and received a majority of Jewish support.
In office, however, the Whitlam government moved farther from the United States and closer in its foreign policy to the nonaligned movement, where condemnation of Israel was the norm. Although Whitlam described this policy as “even-handedness and neutrality,” such neutrality was a far cry from the sort also proclaimed by his conservative predecessors.
The effects of this new policy became most apparent during the 1973 Yom Kippur War when Australia failed to condemn either the Egyptian and Syrian attacks that launched it or the Soviet airlift of arms supplies to the Arab combatants. However, once the United States began to airlift arms and supplies to Israel, the Australian UN representative, on instructions from Canberra, condemned both airlifts with a particular emphasis on America’s. Even before this, there had been repeated one-sided condemnations by Australia in the United Nations of all Israeli reprisals for terrorist and cross-border attacks, but silence about anti-Israeli aggressions.
In a meeting with predominantly ALP-affiliated Jews called to clear the air, Whitlam apparently became angered by hostile questioning. He equated Israeli responses with terrorism, said an Israeli reprisal raid on a PLO base in Lebanon had been “not only a mistake, but a crime,” and cited the growing Australian Arab community becoming “more articulate” as a reason to change Australian policy. Most controversially, he referred to those present as “You people”; asked about the failure to condemn the Arab attacks that had launched the war, he responded: “You people should realise that there is a large Christian Arab community in this country.”
Under Whitlam, Australia also voted for a resolution equating Zionism with racism at a UN women’s conference in Mexico, though it voted against the equivalent resolution in the UN General Assembly. Whitlam later approved the establishment of a PLO liaison office in Canberra and became embroiled in scandals involving the acceptance of Arab loans to Australia and the ALP. In the 1974 Khemlani affair, Australia sought to borrow $4 billion from dubious Arab sources, repayable as a lump sum after twenty years. Even more controversially, during the 1975 election campaign Whitlam secretly approved a scheme to obtain a substantial sum, often said to be $500,000, from the Iraqi Baath Party to help fund ALP campaign expenses. It later emerged that the man at the center of the Iraqi loans affair, ALP activist Bill Hartley, had also written to Yasser Arafat seeking PLO funds for the party. Approaches for funds also were reportedly made to Saudi Arabia.
Following his highly controversial dismissal by the governor-general and subsequent loss of an election in 1975, Whitlam continued to maintain that his stances were justified by the existence of the growing Arab community in Australia. He also criticized Australian Jewish leaders for having “blackmailed” him, and implied that Israel dominated U.S. foreign policy and that the international media was monolithically pro-Israeli.
Whitlam had also described ALP president Bob Hawke as ”a pro-Israeli fanatic,” the latter criticizing what he called Whitlam’s ”immoral, unethical and ungrateful” attitude towards Israel.
Another tidbit: In 1972, Whitlam was the keynote speaker at the Yom Ha’azmaut celebration in Sydney’s Town Hall, where he announced that he planned on become the first ever Australian Prime Minister to visit the State of Israel. he never did.
I salute Gough Whitlam’s contribution to Australia. While regretting his stance on Israel.