by Dan Oakes and Dylan Welch - The Age - 29 June 2010
A FORMER Australian ambassador to Israel has accused Prime Minister Julia Gillard of being silent on the ”excesses” of Israel, and has questioned why her partner has been given a job by a prominent Israel lobbyist.
In a letter to The Sydney Morning Herald, Ross Burns, who was ambassador in Tel Aviv between 2001 and 2003, said Ms Gillard had been ”remarkably taciturn on the excesses of Israeli actions in the past two years”.
He questioned Ms Gillard’s stance given that she led an Australian delegation to Israel last year for the inaugural meeting of the Australia Israel Leadership Forum. ”It looks a bit funny when you go on this tour to promote bilateral relations, but you don’t seem to have any reservations about the issue that was number one on the horizon,” Mr Burns said.
He also questioned the propriety of Ms Gillard’s partner, Tim Mathieson, being employed as a real estate salesman by the founder of the Australia Israel Forum, Melbourne property developer Albert Dadon.
Mr Dadon is close to prominent pro-Israel Labor MP Michael Danby, who was influential last week in the coup that installed Ms Gillard as Prime Minister.
Ms Gillard disclosed her partner’s appointment to Mr Dadon’s Ubertas Group in a letter to the registrar of MPs’ interests in December, saying the job had started the previous month. A spokeswoman for Ms Gillard said at the time that she did not expect any perceived conflict of interest to arise from the job.
But Mr Burns said in his letter the perception that Ms Gillard’s support for the Australia Israel Leadership Forum was linked to Mr Mathieson’s job was unavoidable. ”Happy coincidence? In this new world of ‘whatever it takes’ ALP federal politics, is this a new benchmark in ‘jobs for the boys’?” Mr Burns wrote.
The first meeting of the Australia Israel Leadership Forum last June came six months after Israel launched its military offensive in Gaza in December 2008, in which more than 1300 Palestinians and 13 Israelis were killed.
Ms Gillard, who was acting prime minister when the invasion took place, put out a statement at the time criticising Palestinian group Hamas for firing rockets into southern Israel, but pointedly declining to criticise Israel for causing civilian casualties.
”Clearly the act of aggression was engaged in by Hamas which commenced shelling with rockets and mortars into Israel,” Ms Gillard said at the time. ”That is what breached the ceasefire, and Israel responded.”
Former prime minister Kevin Rudd and Foreign Minister Stephen Smith have since expressed unease at the subsequent blockade of Gaza by Israel.
“She went there for a couple of days of talks and I don’t think made any critical comment about the blockade of Gaza or treatment of Palestinians in general,” Mr Burns said.
“And now we learn from both Rudd and Smith that there were concerns within the Australian Government about the blockade, that we didn’t agree with the blockade. Well, we never said so at the time, and she didn’t say so,” Mr Burns said.
Mr Burns was supported in his criticism of the government’s attitude towards Israel by another former Australian
ambassador to Tel Aviv, Peter Rodgers, who served in the Israeli capital from 1994 to 1997.
Mr Rodgers told The Age last night that under successive governments, Australia’s approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict had become increasingly unbalanced, and that this was unlikely to change under Ms Gillard’s stewardship.
“There’s been a marked swing away from the old attempt to be evenhanded on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, to a much more determined pro-Israeli position, and I think Gillard is part of that,” he said.
The criticism by Mr Rodgers and Mr Burns comes after The Age revealed on Saturday that Ms Gillard’s partner had been utilising controversial relaxed foreign real estate ownership regulations – introduced by the Rudd government two years ago – to market a residential skyscraper in Melbourne that hasn’t been approved for development yet.
Yesterday, the state opposition raised questions about Mr Mathieson’s role in another Ubertas project, claiming Planning Minister Justin Madden late last year approved the company’s plans for a 50-level tower at 350 Williams Street in Melbourne only after lobbying by him.
“Justin Madden has approved a huge building that will overshadow the Flagstaff Gardens simply due to the lobbying by Julia Gillard’s spouse, who works for a company owned by a Labor mate,” Opposition planning spokesman Matthew Guy said.
“The minister should have never been anywhere near the approval of this project for a rolled gold labor mate,” he said.
But a spokeswoman for Mr Madden said he had not talked to Mr Mathieson about the project at any point. She accused the opposition of “blindly slinging mud”.
Ubertas has now gone back to Mr Madden’s department seeking approval for an additional 35-level tower on the site, which is currently occupied by the offices of labour law firm Holding Redlich.
Mr Madden’s spokeswoman said the approved 50-level tower had been designed to avoid overshadowing the Flagstaff Gardens. She said it would only overshadow the entrance to the Flagstaff underground train station
on the corner of William and Latrobe streets.
Neither Mr Dadon nor Mr Mathieson returned calls from The Age about the project earlier this month.
The Age sought comment from Mr Danby and Mr Dadon for this article, but received no response.