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Australian Government Under Fire for New Tilt Toward Palestinians

The Australian government’s sharp tilt toward the Palestinians in the Middle East conflict has brought it under heavy fire from opposition leaders, the Jewish community and the mainstream Australian press.

Prime Minister Paul Keating, clearly on the defensive, tried to justify the change of policy, which permits high-level dialogue with the Palestine Liberation Organization, previously banned.

In his first speech to a Jewish organization since replacing Bob Hawke in December, Keating told the 35th biennial conference of the Zionist Federation of Australia that “the Palestine Liberation Organization has played a more positive role in encouraging the peace process over the past six months.”

He added that “the restoration to our earlier policy of contact with the PLO is consistent with our long-established aim of encouraging the forces of moderation rather than extremism within the PLO.”

The prime minister did not address another key change in Australia’s policy, which is to state support for the “right of return” of Palestinian refugees to Israel. But he reiterated his government’s opposition to Israeli settlements as “an obstacle to peace.”

Keating spoke three days after Foreign Minister Gareth Evans expressed Australia’s strongest-ever condemnations of Israel’s human rights record during a two-day visit to Israel.

Opposition leader John Hewson, who also addressed the conference, called the renewal of contact with the PLO “extraordinary.”

“Just as the PLO has not earned a place at the negotiating table in the Madrid peace process, so too it has not earned a place in bilateral relations with Australia,” Hewson declared.

Hewson called the Keating government’s attitude to Israeli settlements unfair. The opposition parties “do not believe it is fair to expect Israel to make unilateral concessions that compromise its security,” he said.

‘POLICIES MADE ON THE RUN’

A senior government member and former minister, Clyde Holding, criticized Evans, arguing that no Australian parliamentarian is in a position to give advice to a country which has lived with terrorism since its beginning.

Representatives of the Labor Friends of Israel organizations in the five Australian states criticized Evans’ “policies made on the run.”

Editorials in the mass-circulation daily The Herald-Sun and the major national newspaper, The Australian, blasted the changes in government Middle East policy.

The Australian observed that “the Australian government is now less sympathetic than Egypt to Israel’s problems.” The Herald-Sun maintained that “by publicly supporting the PLO, Australia makes the job of moderate Palestinians more difficult.”

Isi Leibler, co-chairman of the Governing Board of the World Jewish Congress said, “Sen. Gareth Evans’ latest critique of Israel is ill-conceived, ill-timed and leaves one at a complete loss as to what he hoped to achieve.”

Leibler argued that raising the “non-issue” of a return of Palestinian Arabs to Israel “can only serve to alienate Israel and seriously undermine the delicately poised peace talks currently under way.”

The Executive Council of Australian Jewry branded the policy changes as counterproductive.

Council President Leslie Caplan said Evans “exhibited an extraordinary double standard by criticizing Israel and praising for its moderation the totalitarian regime in Iran within 24 hours.”

The president of the Zionist Federation of Australia, Mark Leibler, attacked Evans as “provocative and one-sided.”

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