On Meet the Press on Sunday, presenter Paul Bongiorno put it to the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, that the “Israel lobby and the opposition are very unhappy you were rolled on Australia’s vote in the United Nations giving the Palestinian Authority observer status”.

The fact is that there are no Israelis in Australia who lobby for Israel. Presumably, what Bongiorno intended to say was that there are Jewish Australians who support Israel.

However, if it is proper to use the term “Israel lobby” then, presumably, it should be legitimate to refer to an entity called the “Lebanon lobby”. This would cover Australians of Muslim Lebanese background who are highly critical of Israel.

The decision of the Labor caucus, with the support of a significant number of cabinet ministers, to overturn Gillard’s decision to vote “no” to the proposal that the Palestinian Authority be given overseer status at the UN is historic. First, it represents a significant break with Labor’s support for Israel, which goes back to the late 1940s when Ben Chifley was prime minister and Bert Evatt was the minister for external affairs.

Second, it is rare for a prime minister to be rolled by her caucus colleagues in a situation where only two cabinet ministers (Stephen Conroy and Bill Shorten) were prepared to offer their support. Third, the leaking of details of the deliberations of cabinet and caucus was staggering in its intensity. Both Fairfax Media and News Limited publications had the full story dumped on them. Moreover, The Australian’s Troy Bramston (who has close contacts with Labor) delivered an almost blow-by-blow description of the encounter.

Gillard’s position has been presented by large numbers of the Canberra press gallery as “dead wrong” – in the words of Malcolm Farr on Insiders last Sunday. However, the position adopted by Gillard, Conroy and Shorten was in no sense extreme. It was consistent with the social democrats in President Barack Obama’s administration in the United States, with the political conservatives in Stephen Harper’s government in Canada and with the stance of the Czech Republic.

As it turned out, caucus accepted Gillard’s compromise position that Australia should abstain on the UN vote – an approach that was also adopted by Britain, Germany and the Netherlands. According to reports, the key players in convincing Gillard to go from a “no” to an “abstain” stance were the Foreign Minister, Bob Carr, and Labor
heavyweights Bob Hawke and Gareth Evans. During his time as foreign minister in the Hawke and Keating government, Evans was an occasional critic of Israel.

In the extensive leaking which followed Gillard’s forced backdown, Labor frontbenchers and backbenchers alike appeared to brief journalists that a reason for the decision turned on the need to appeal to the Muslim vote in potentially marginal seats, particularly in western and south-west Sydney. Australian Bureau of Statistics data indicates that there is a high concentration of Muslims in such seats as Blaxland (held by Jason Clare), Watson (Tony Burke), Reid (John Murphy), Werriwa (Laurie Ferguson), Parramatta (Julie Owens), Barton (Robert McClelland), Fowler (Chris Hayes), Banks (Daryl Melham), McMahon (Chris Bowen) and Greenway (Michelle Rowland).

In recent times it has been fashionable for critics of Israel – on both the left and the right – to refer to the Jewish vote. In fact, the total number of Jews in Australia would not exceed 130,000. According to my contacts in the Muslim community, the total number of Muslim Lebanese in Australia is more than 400,000. In other words, the political weight of the Australians of Muslim Lebanese background far exceeds that of Jewish Australians. Then there are other Muslim minorities in addition to other Arab groupings.

Labor’s problems in western Sydney do not turn primarily on the government’s Middle East policy. In normal political times, Labor would be expected to hold its seats in this area. It’s just that times are not normal.

The fact is that Tony Abbott has a certain appeal in western Sydney where energy costs are hitting voters hard, unemployment is higher than in the inner-city and some voters regard Gillard as having lost control of Australian borders. And then there is the region’s social conservatism.

Some voters, including Muslims, are attracted by Abbott’s social conservatism. The fact that he is married with adult children is not a minus. Also social conservatives of all faiths – Christian, Hindus and Muslims alike – tend to support the Coalition’s opposition to same sex marriage.

It is Labor’s fragility on economic and social policy in western Sydney that has ignited a sense of urgency among Labor MPs. The determination to overturn Gillard’s approach on Palestine was a manifestation of this. However, domestic politics is not a proper guide to foreign policy.

Gerard Henderson is executive director of The Sydney Institute.