AL Gore's first visit to Australia for 2 1/2 years started in controversy last night when the former US vice-president addressed a fundraising event for the Jewish National Fund.More than 1000 members of Australia's Jewish community attended the dinner, held at Sydney's Randwick Racecourse.
But the former presidential candidate was greeted by a small group of pro-Palestinian protesters gathered at the front gate to the racecourse, waving flags and calling for the federal Government to strip the fund of its tax-deductible charity status.
The Coalition for Justice and Peace in Palestine said the funds raised at the event would be spent supporting the construction of new Jewish settlements in disputed territories.
Jamal Daoud, interim convenor of the coalition, called on the Howard Government to put a stop to the Jewish fund's use of its status as a tax-deductible charity to support construction activity in the arid Bnei Shimon region in North Negev.
"We are concerned that tax-deductible money is going to finance illegal settlements in North Negev," Mr Daoud said.
"We want to send a clear message to the Australian Government that this is unacceptable."
Glen Barclay, an expert on Middle East politics at the Australian National University, said Mr Gore would have no choice but to accept such a speaking engagement with a Jewish organisation such as the JNF, especially if he still aspired to the White House.
"It would be political suicide for him to reject it," Dr Barclay said.
"Whether he has political or academic ambitions, he doesn't want to be the target of denunciation by the Jewish lobby."
The fund raised at least $66,000, selling tickets for $66 a person for the event, which was billed as "your once only chance to hear this firm friend of Israel".
The dinner was closed to the media at Mr Gore's request.
Police and private security officers guarded every entrance and the perimeter of the racecourse during the event.
Tomorrow night, Mr Gore, who lost the 2000 presidential race to George W.Bush and last visited Australia in May 2003, will speak about sustainable investment at the Association of Superannuation Funds of Australia's national conference.
A spokeswoman for the association said Mr Gore was not being paid for his appearance.
Since losing the election, Mr Gore has developed a cable network called Current TV, which lets viewers submit contributions over the internet and even decide what makes it to air.
He has also set up an investment consultancy, Generation Investment Management, with business partner David Blood.