Foreign Minister Penny Wong departing from Adelaide Airport
Penny Wong is flying to the Middle East as the Hamas-Israel war drags on with no sight in end. Image by HANDOUT/DEPARTMENT OF FOREIGN AFFAIRS AND TRADE
  • international relations

War of words over foreign minister’s Middle East trip

January 15, 2024

The foreign minister is walking a diplomatic tightrope during her visit to Israel and the Middle East, with Jewish and Palestinian groups calling for her to take difference stances during a diplomatic blitz of the region.

Penny Wong is travelling to Israel, Jordan, the Occupied Palestinian Territories and the United Arab Emirates and will meet with regional counterparts.

Senator Wong will also meet with the Israeli families of hostages and survivors of the Hamas October 7 attacks as well as Palestinians impacted by Israeli settler violence in the West Bank.

Meeting the families and survivors of the attack would be important, the foreign minister said but didn’t address why she wouldn’t visit the massacre sites.

Palestinians search for survivors of the Israeli bombing in Gaza
 Penny Wong is advocating for Israel to allow food, fuel and medicine into Gaza. Image by AP PHOTO 

“Australia is not a central player in the Middle East, but we are a respected voice and I’ll be using our voice to advocate for a pathway out of this conflict,” she told reporters in Adelaide before her departure on Monday.

The foreign minister reiterated calls for Israel to respect international law and allow unimpeded and sustained humanitarian access so food, fuel and medicine could reach Gazans.

A sustainable ceasefire also required Hamas to lay down arms and stop using Gaza as “a platform for terrorism”, she said.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese says the Hamas attack on innocent civilians and the devastation in Gaza since October 7 are “of concern to the global community”.

“It’s appropriate that Penny Wong travel … to support the diplomatic efforts that will be required to have a durable peace,” he told ABC radio.

Opposition foreign affairs spokesman Simon Birmingham says the program will deprive the minister of fully appreciating the horrors committed and “appears half-hearted” without a visit to the massacre sites.

Jewish groups in Australia have also expressed disappointment.

Visiting the sites would have been an “important show of solidarity”, Zionist Federation of Australia president Jeremy Leibler said.

Jewish leaders Jillian Segal and Alex Ryvchin at a rally
 Alex Ryvchin says it’s an error of judgment for Penny Wong not to visit the site of massacres. Image by Dean Lewins/AAP PHOTOS 

Executive Council of Australian Jewry co-CEO Alex Ryvchin branded it “insulting and deeply concerning” and “a serious error of judgment”.

“It’s essential to understanding the depth of evil that Israel faces and the necessity of its war to defeat Hamas,” he said.

The Palestinian community wants Senator Wong to announce consequences for Israel breaking international law and hold Tel Aviv to account.

Australia Palestine Advocacy Network president Nasser Mashni pointed to Israel’s “indiscriminate bombing of Palestinians in Gaza, its blocking of humanitarian aid, and its expansion of illegal settlements”.

“Given she is not visiting the scenes of Israeli atrocities in Gaza, it is not appropriate for the foreign minister to visit a kibbutz,” he told AAP.

“That some Zionist lobby groups are outraged about this reveals the extent of their sense of entitlement to deflect attention away from Israel’s genocide in Gaza and to influence the way this government makes its foreign policy decisions.”

Senator Wong is also facing calls from within her party to take a tougher stance on Israeli settler violence in Occupied Palestinian Territories.

Labor MP Julian Hill has called for visa bans and making funding settlement activity illegal.

Australia condemned settler violence but wouldn’t speculate on solutions, Senator Wong said.

“Attacking Palestinians where they have a right to be is the wrong thing to do and certainly not conducive to ensuring there isn’t escalation,” she said, reiterating support for a two-state solution.

Senator Wong’s visit to Israel will be the first by a foreign minister since 2016.

It comes after Sunday marked 100 days since Hamas – designated a terrorist organisation by Australia – killed 1200 Israelis and took 240 hostage.

Israel has since bombarded Gaza with air strikes which local authorities say have killed more than 23,000 people and displaced 1.9 million, or 85 per cent of the besieged strip’s population.