Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

Netanyahu down under

YOU ARE IN: Home Page > Topics > Australasia

Gareth Narunsky

 

Almost 100 years after the Australian Light Horse charge at Be'er Sheva paved the way for the events that led to the creation of the modern State of Israel, history was again made last month when Australia welcomed a sitting Israeli Prime Minister to its shores for the first time.

While consecutive Australian governments have been very supportive of Israel's right to exist and to defend itself, the current Turnbull Government has arguably been the most forthcoming, consistently defending the Jewish State and reaching out to build ties. Examples include the refusal of Foreign Minister Julie Bishop to pre-judge the legality of settlements and the unequivocal repudiation and criticism by both Bishop and Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull of last December's biased and counter-productive UNSC Resolution 2334, which even denied any Jewish rights to the Western Wall and the Jewish Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem.

Genuine affinity and warmth

On Feb. 22, the morning of Netanyahu's arrival, Turnbull published an op-ed in the Australian celebrating the ties between the two nations and praising Israel's success. "Israel is a miraculous nation. It has flourished despite invasion, conflict and an almost complete lack of natural resources, other than the determination and genius of its people," he wrote, "And yet in a region racked by war, it succeeds as the sole liberal democracy, a world leader in every field of science and technology, its culture of innovation the envy of the world." Turnbull also reiterated that Australia stands with Israel, writing; "My government will not support one-sided resolutions criticising Israel of the kind recently adopted by the UN Security Council and we deplore the boycott campaigns designed to delegitimise the Jewish state."

At a joint press conference with Netanyahu at Kirribilli House later that morning, Turnbull declared, "We have so much in common, shared values, democracy, freedom, the rule of law. Two great democracies, one very small in area, one vast, but each of us big-hearted, generous, committed to freedom. Prime Minister, you are so welcome here in Australia."

Netanyahu, after beginning with "G'day, mate", reiterated the common values shared by the two nations and spoke of "100 years of friendship of Australia to the Jewish people and their state." He called for increasing cooperation in the areas of innovation, counter-terrorism, and advancing Middle East peace. "In all these efforts we see you, Australia, as our partner," he said. He added that he "was delighted" to read the Australian leader's "warm words" in the Australian. "It has been absolutely consistent with the friendship that Malcolm Turnbull and his government has shown us, and that Australia has shown us over the years."

The mutual admiration continued at a lunch of business leaders hosted by Turnbull in Netanyahu's honour - where the two Prime Ministers again heaped praise on one another's countries - and at a Jewish communal event at Sydney's Central Synagogue on the Wednesday evening (co-organised by AIJAC), at which Turnbull again made clear his "absolute solidarity" with Israel against UNSC Resolution 2334.

Turnbull and wife Lucy Turnbull also accompanied Netanyahu and wife Sara Netanyahu on an official visit to Jewish day school Moriah College the next day.

Upgrading the relationship

The pleasantries are part of the story, though arguably the true story of the visit is the tangible actions on the ground that were undertaken to grow the Australia-Israel relationship, such as the signing of two bilateral agreements.

Turnbull said an agreement on "Technological Innovation and Research and Development" would "provide a framework for [Australian] scientists, engineers and businesses to create the jobs and industries of the future" while an agreement on air services would expand commercial and people-to-people links between Australia and Israel. Complementing the Air Services Agreement, the two Prime Ministers also presided over the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding between Qantas and Israel's national carrier, El Al, to deepen the relationship between the two airlines and deliver more benefits to travellers.

Current trade between Australia and Israel is valued at around A$1.2 billion per year. During a meeting with senior Australian government ministers on Feb. 23, Netanyahu said he'd like to see that number either doubled or tripled and called for companies in both countries to increase bilateral business. "Second thing is to see how Australia can be a gateway for Israeli companies and Israeli investments into Asia," he said, "And I think that is a very promising possibility."

A joint statement from the two leaders released later in the day encapsulated much of what of what was discussed and described the present and future of the Australia-Israel relationship in writing. To encourage trade, the leaders resolved to work towards concluding a Double Taxation Agreement which would remove tax impediments to bilateral economic activity and enhance the integrity of each country's respective tax system.

They also committed to explore opportunities for future collaboration in the areas of agriculture, water, energy and oil and gas, as well as in the field of environmental protection, including sharing of knowledge and experience between both countries. Australian Minister for the Environment and Energy Josh Frydenberg will visit Israel in the first half of 2017 to pursue this further.

The two leaders also agreed to negotiate an agreement on science and technology cooperation, in addition to strengthening ties in education and innovation, including through possible teacher, academic and entrepreneur exchanges in order to foster a collaborative culture of innovation. Further, they agreed to explore opportunities for bilateral cooperation in the field of cybernetics as well as promote global cybersecurity efforts that enhance an open, free and secure Internet.

Both countries re-stated their support for a directly negotiated peace between Israel and the Palestinians and Australia reaffirmed its support for a two-state resolution.

Importantly, they also agreed that Iran must fully implement its obligations under UN Security Council resolutions, and expressed concern about Iran's ballistic missile program, Iran's support for Hezbollah and the threat that the latter poses to regional security.

Both also reiterated their common resolve to combat terrorism in all its forms and manifestations and emphasised the importance of strengthening bilateral, regional and international cooperation required to meet this challenge.

On Feb. 24, Mr Netanyahu met with NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian to discuss technology ties. Following the meeting, Ms Berejiklian announced that following a successful knowledge-sharing program in 2016 which saw eight NSW start-ups travel to the Tel Aviv Landing Pad, a second delegation would make the trip to be mentored by Israeli experts and to meet investors. "Israel leads the world in start-up innovation and NSW leads the way here at home, so we are ideally matched to collaborate," Ms Berejiklian said.

Finally, Netanyahu met with Foreign Minister Julie Bishop on Feb. 26, just hours before boarding his flight back to Israel. In a statement released by his office, the pair discussed the dangers of the Iran nuclear agreement, Iran's aggressive conduct in the region, its support for terrorism and its ballistic missile program. "It was agreed to upgrade security, intelligence, economic, cyber and technology relations," according to the statement.

Shorten rebuffs party elders

Australian Opposition Leader Bill Shorten also warmly welcomed Mr Netanyahu to Australia, even as several Australian Labor Party elders demanded recognition of the "State of Palestine." On the heels of former Prime Minister Bob Hawke calling in the Australian Financial Review for the recognition of a Palestinian state - saying hopes for peace had been "trashed by the inexorable expansion of Jewish settlement in the West Bank" - former Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd also called for Australia to recognise Palestine, saying "it is time for Australia to draw a line in the sand on this matter, as 137 states already have."

When asked at his Kirribilli House press conference for a reaction to the two former Prime Ministers, Mr Netanyahu replied, "What kind of state will it be that they are advocating? A state that calls for Israel's destruction? A state whose territory will be used immediately for radical Islam?" Mr Rudd hit back through social media, stating, "the boundaries, internal security, external security, public finance and governance of a Palestinian state have been elaborated in detail in multiple negotiations with the US under the Clinton, Bush and Obama Administrations, most recently in the Kerry Plan. Mr Netanyahu knows these formulations like the back of his hand. Mr Netanyahu also knows he has torpedoed each of them".

Writing in the Australian on February 23, former ALP speechwriter Troy Bramston said the ALP elders were just the tip of the iceberg. "Shorten is walking a tightrope on the highly charged issue of Israel and Palestine. His steadfast backing of Israel is fast losing support inside the party he leads," he claimed. "The push within Labor to give diplomatic recognition to Palestine is snowballing. The campaign is being run from local branches, energised by the Left faction, inside the parliamentary party and by elders such as Hawke and Rudd."

Despite these waves within his party, Mr Shorten delivered a warm speech welcoming Mr Netanyahu at the business lunch on Feb. 22. Citing Australia's bipartisan support of Israel, Shorten condemned the anti-Israel boycott movement and antisemitism, called on the Palestinian leadership to recognise Israel's right to security and urged a return to direct negotiations towards a two-state outcome. At a meeting with Mr Netanyahu two days later, Mr Shorten again emphasised his support for the Jewish state, and very deftly made clear his and the ALP's view of settlements. "We expressed the view very clearly and unambiguously that where settlements and their expansion are a road block to peace, that's damaging to the peace process," he told reporters.

The true test for Mr Shorten will likely be at Labor's next federal conference, when the party is certain to examine its current policy, passed in 2015, of supporting a negotiated two-state outcome with the caveat that "if there is no progress to a two-state solution... a future Labor government will consult like-minded nations towards recognition of the Palestinian state." It is expected debate will focus on whether that impasse has been reached and recognition is warranted.

With Labor currently ahead in the polls, a shift in the party's stance followed by a change in government, could potentially complicate the major improvement in Australia-Israel relations foreshadowed by the Netanyahu visit.

Two states?

One notable aspect of Mr Netanyahu's visit is his apparent continuation - since his meeting with US President Donald Trump - of using language clarifying his commitment to the two-state formula envisaged by the international community - which he had not changed since 2009. He spoke more than once about Israel maintaining security control of "all the territories" in order to prevent the West Bank becoming another base of extremism and terror. At the press conference on Feb. 22, he said "I don't want to incorporate two million Palestinians as citizens of Israel. Nor do I want them as subjects of Israel. I want them to have all the freedoms to govern themselves, but none of the powers to threaten us."

Opposition to the visit

Given that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is such a politically-charged issue within Australia, it's no surprise that Mr Netanyahu's visit polarised public opinion in some quarters. A statement by the Australian Palestine Advocacy Network (APAN) signed by 60 "prominent" (most prominent for anti-Israel activism) Australians, "strongly opposed" the visit and said "the Australian Government needs to rethink its one-sided support for the Israeli Government." APAN President George Browning also penned several op-eds attacking Israel and laying all blame on the Jewish state for the impasse with the Palestinians.

The Australian Greens released a statement by the party's foreign affairs spokesperson Senator Scott Ludlam on Feb. 21 saying the Australian Government "should stand condemned" for its warm welcome to Mr Netanyahu. Clumsily, the statement accused Mr Netanyahu of ordering Operation Cast Lead in Gaza in 2008, even though he was not Prime Minster at the time.

Around 600 people attended an organised protest outside the Sydney Town Hall on the evening of Feb. 23. Speakers at the rally included NSW Greens state MP David Shoebridge, NSW State Labor MP Julia Finn and Palestinian advocate Randa Abdel-Fattah, while Greens Senator Lee Rhiannon and NSW State Labor MP Shaoquett Moselmane were also in attendance. Waving amongst the Palestinian flags were Hezbollah flags, a flag of the terrorist organisation Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, signs depicting Mr Netanyahu as Hitler and accusing Israel of genocide, and an Israeli flag with the Star of David replaced with a swastika.

After Mr Netanyahu cancelled a 2014 visit due to events that led to Operation Protective Edge and Israeli President Reuven Rivlin cancelled a visit of his own last year, expectations for this visit were high. In terms of outcomes, it is best summed up by Netanyahu's comment before he left Australia: "This has been a wonderful visit here. You people are amazing...I'd stay longer if I could."

Meanwhile, further opportunity to build on the success of this visit is expected to occur later this year, with Turnbull accepting an invitation from Netanyahu to visit Israel for the celebrations of the 100th Anniversary of the historic charge of the Light Horse at Be'er Sheva.

Like that historic cavalry charge, all the evidence points to Australia-Israel relations also surging ahead in the wake of Netanyahu's history-making visit.

 

Most recent items in: Australasia