The short-lived boycott of Israel by Marrickville Council has been an interesting study of how distant foreign policy issues can sometimes intersect with local politics. The council and its mayor, Fiona Byrne, would never have envisaged the attention they ended up getting from what they would have regarded as a worthy but probably futile gesture.
After all, many other councils – especially in the gentrified inner areas of Sydney and Melbourne – have similarly ”warned the Tsar” by adopting causes in conflict with Canberra’s official policy. They have flown the Tibetan or West Papuan flag, hosted East Timorese resistance leaders, damned the Burmese junta. Why not support Palestinians?
The difference is that Israel is a democracy, at least within its pre-1967 borders, and is open to argument; indeed in its domestic politics it’s riven by argument. By jailing a former president for rape and putting a recent prime minister on trial for corruption, it has shown a strong ethos of impartial justice. This suggests engagement, not boycotts, is the way to apply pressure about the continued occupation of the West Bank and control of access to Gaza, and the Jewish settlements. We have argued that Israel, propelled by a rightwards drift in its politics and the rise of ultra-orthodox religious groups, is making the goal of a two-state peace settlement ever more elusive. Formal exclusion could entrench this kind of thinking.
Given the interconnections of the global IT industry, it also emerged that a boycott of every commercial interest linked to Israel could be quite costly to the council budget. Councils have a right to pursue ethical purchasing; they should work out the potential costs first.
But this was not just about Israelis and Palestinians. It was about clobbering the rising electoral power of the Greens on the head. Byrne came very close to unseating the former deputy premier Carmel Tebbutt, the most acceptable face of NSW Labor in what was previously an extremely safe Labor seat. The issue was a convenient one to portray the Greens as wacky zealots likely to steer Australia into causes that offend old friends and wider national interests.
Whatever the merits of this particular exercise, it is equally unrealistic to expect local governments to stick to garbage and potholes, as if this is all residents care about. If war is too important to be left to the generals, foreign policy involves more than foreign ministers and diplomats. If Marrickville wants to take a stand, it must be ready for the flak.