After a year of ferocious debate, the New South Wales Greens decided on December 4 to retreat from supporting the global pro-Palestine Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign.
It does not mean the NSW Green Party has abandoned all support for the Palestinian struggle for justice, but it marks a setback for the left inside the Greens and the pro-Palestine movement in Australia.
NSW Senator Lee Rhiannon said the decision was unanimous. It followed the recommendations of a special committee set up in the wake of the ferocious campaign against the NSW Greens during the state election campaign in March.
In December 2010, the NSW Greens backed the 2005 Palestinian civil society movement’s call to isolate Israel until it complies with international law and the universal principles of human rights as one plank of its pro-Palestine policy. It was reaffirmed at its May meeting. It was the only state Greens branch to do so.
The 2010 motion called on Australians and the government to “boycott Israeli goods, trading and military arrangements, and sporting, cultural and academic events as a contribution to the struggle to end Israel’s occupation and colonisation of Palestinian territory, the siege of Gaza and imprisonment of 1.5 million people, and Israel’s institution of a system of apartheid ...”
Soon afterwards, the Marrickville Council voted 10 to two to support a pro-BDS policy. Moved by the Greens, two out of three ALP councillors also supported the policy. Among other things, it committed the council to “report on any links with organisations and companies that profit from or support the Israeli military occupation of Palestine with a view to Council divesting from such links and imposing a boycott on any future such links or goods purchases”.
It was the first council in Australia to take such a stand.
But, in Australia, like other Western countries, the Israel-Palestine issue has become something of a weather vane issue for the political establishment, with public expressions of anti-Palestinian bias being one of the corporate media’s measures of “responsibility” for a candidate seeking office.
In the US, Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich has gone as far as claiming the Palestinian people do not exist. Australian foreign minister Kevin Rudd has said support for Israel is in his DNA. Rudd is nonetheless considered more sympathetic to Palestine than others in the Australian government.
In the lead up to the March 2011 state elections, where Greens Marrickville Mayor Fiona Byrne had a chance of winning the Labor-held Marrickville seat, a campaign by Australia’s noisy Zionist (pro-Israel) lobby to discredit Byrne and the Greens was given full support from the corporate media — particularly News Ltd — the ALP and the Liberal-National Coalition.
That two ALP councillors had also supported the BDS motion on council was ignored in what became a systematic and very personal attack on Byrne and the Greens in the inner west Sydney seat.
As well as Byrne, Greens councillors Marika Kontellis and Cathy Peters were left to defend the NSW Green’s policy during the heat of the campaign.
Just after the NSW elections, Greens parliamentary leader Bob Brown demanded the NSW party drop its support for BDS and fall into line with national Greens policy. He was joined by Greens Marrickville councillor Max Phillips and later by fellow Greens councillor Peter Olive, who successfully moved to overturn Marrickville council’s support for the BDS.
This followed another campaign by ALP and "independent" (in reality, Liberal) councillors against the BDS, including inflating the “costs” to rate payers of council’s support for BDS.
The Green’s vote in the March state elections in Marrickville increased by about 7%, and Byrne lost the seat by just 676 votes. But Bob Brown put the loss down to the NSW Greens’ “own shade of foreign policy” and a bigger section of the NSW Greens decided the BDS policy had to go.
BDS had become an electoral liability in the eyes of the right wing of the Greens. And, in a party with an emphasis on electoral politics, this argument for why BDS had to be dropped carried a lot of weight — even among even some of those sympathetic to the BDS movement.
Rhiannon said that while there have been a variety of views among Greens members on BDS “there was strong and united commitment to continue our work for Palestinian human rights”.
The new NSW policy, which is in line with the national Greens policy, says the Greens “support non-violent community actions designed to pressure the Israeli state to respect international law and human rights norms with the aim of ending the occupation of the West Bank and the blockade of Gaza, finding a just solution for Palestinian refugees and ending discrimination against Arab citizens inside Israel”.
In effect, the new policy allows Greens members to take part in BDS actions, but it shields MPs (or prospective MPs) from having to advocate for such a policy or such actions. It aims to protect Greens from the pro-Israel lobby.
The Greens' policy still expresses support for Palestinian rights. But the NSW Greens’ abandonment of BDS is a retreat.