SYDNEY, Australia (JTA) – As Britain prepares for the post-Blair era, Australia appears to be heading toward the post-Howard era – a political shift that could have significant ramifications for Israel and the United States. Like Tony Blair, John Howard has served a decade in power. But unlike Blair, Howard has refused to stand aside before the next election, likely to be held in October. Howard conceded recently for the first time that his government risks “annihilation” by the Labor Party after a series of unfavorable polls. Labor needs to win 16 more seats to wrest power from the Liberals. If the polls are right, Israel will lose another ardent ally that supported its war against Hezbollah last year and helped overthrow Saddam Hussein. And George Bush will lose a second of his foremost allies as he enters the twilight of his presidency. But unlike Blair’s hand-over in the United Kingdom, Howard, who was in the United States on 9/11 and has staunchly supported Bush in the war on terror, would be replaced by a Labor Party that supports a phased withdrawal from Iraq. Most of Australia’s 100,000-plus Jews believe the Howard era has been a golden age. Testament to that fact is the bounty of awards the 67-year-old prime minister has received from Jewish organizations, including the Australia-Israel Chamber of Commerce, B’nai B’rith, the Jewish Communal Appeal, the Zionist Federation of Australia and the Jewish National Fund. He has garnered admiration from Jews in the United States as well. In 2004, the American Jewish Committee gave Howard its highest honor, the American Liberties Medallion, for his “unequalled friendship towards the United States and support for Israel.” Isi Leibler, a former leader of Australian Jewry who now lives in Jerusalem, described Howard as “undoubtedly Israel’s greatest champion amongst the statesmen of our time.” Philip Mendes, co-editor of “Jews and Australian Politics,” agreed. “In terms of unconditional support for Israel, Howard will probably go down in history as Israel’s greatest friend,” Mendes said. “At the very least he will rank alongside Clinton and other U.S. presidents.” Howard’s support for Israel has not gone unnoticed in Jerusalem, according to Philip Chester, president of the Zionist Federation. “The degree of appreciation in Jerusalem is absolutely enormous, from the prime minister down,” Chester said. “From every level of government there is recognition and acknowledgment.” Although it is too early to write Howard’s political epitaph, many here are wondering to what degree Howard’s competition, Labor’s Kevin Rudd, will support Israel. Professor Bill Rubinstein, the author of “The Jews in Australia,” told the JTA: “If Rudd wins, I suspect the general pattern will remain the same, probably at 95 percent of the support under Howard.” But Rubinstein warned that if a new conflict emerges in the Middle East, the 49-year-old party leader would be under “much greater pressure” to be critical of Israel. Members of Labor’s left flank have launched blistering attacks on Israel in recent years, including one member of parliament blasting Ariel Sharon as “a war criminal” and Israel as “a rogue state” in 2002. This sparked a major to-do with the Jewish community and in 2004 prompted Barry Cohen, a former Cabinet minister, to accuse his party of “rampant” anti-Semitism. But Labor’s Michael Danby, the only Jewish federal member, said Israel’s critics in parliament have largely evaporated. Danby said the intra-Palestinian violence in the Gaza Strip and Yasser Arafat’s refusal to accept any offers for peace “have led to an almost total collapse of Palestinian support in federal parliament.” He said Rudd “explicitly supported” Israel’s war against Hezbollah, and noted that one or two Labor Jews are likely to be elected in the upcoming elections. The Liberals have one Jew running – against Danby – in the area with the largest Jewish electorate in the country. But some fear that a Labor government would be unable to emulate Australia’s support for Israel at the United Nations. Labor’s last foreign minister, Gareth Evans, had a far more tense relationship with Jerusalem than his successor, Alexander Downer. In particular, critics cite Rudd’s view that Australia should have abstained from the 2004 vote on Israel’s security barrier. Instead, Australia voted with the United States, Israel and three tiny South Pacific islands against 150 nations – including Britain. But Danby said this was “one minor issue” at a time when the barrier was much more controversial. For all the plaudits that Howard, like Blair and Bush, has received for his support for Israel, some Jews are far less sanguine about his hard-line stance on asylum seekers, his refusal to say “sorry” to the Aborigines and his alleged pandering to the race-hate politics of former One Nation leader Pauline Hanson. Geoffrey Brahm Levey, an academic at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, was quoted in the Australian Jewish News about Howard: “About the only award Jewish organizations have not yet bestowed on him is Miss Universe.”
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Dan Goldberg is a former national editor of the Australian Jewish News. He currently writes for Haaretz as well as The Jewish Chronicle in Britain. He is also a TV producer and writer for an independent TV production company.