It was always understood that Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s visit to Australia was going to be making history. After all, it was the first such visit by a sitting Israeli Prime Minister in Israel’s 69-years.
What actually transpired, however, was indeed something profoundly historic for the two countries. While always long-distance friends, as a joint statement noted, “anchored in our shared values, commitment to democracy and mutual interest in a rules-based international system”, the countries have now boldly laid the cornerstone of a visionary partnership towards a prosperous shared future.
The cornerstone of that vision can be found in that remarkable joint statement issued by Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Netanyahu. While in the past, Australian collaboration with Israel on matters such as technology, innovation and trade had been advanced in a somewhat piecemeal fashion, the Turnbull-Netanyahu understandings have dramatically upgraded Australian-Israeli ties in a comprehensive, concrete and coordinated way.
The thirteen-point statement formalises what champions of the Australia-Israel relationship have always known to be true: Closer ties between Canberra and Jerusalem are in Australia’s national interest.
The joint statement, really a declaration of principles, did not materialise overnight but is the culmination of many years of policy reviews, strategic studies, experimental incubators and relatively small-scale investment and commercial exchanges.
In it, for example, we see the Turnbull government acting upon recommendations by the non-partisan government-funded Australian Strategic Policy Institute to upgrade cyber-security and defence relations with Israel, as contained in the report “The Wattle and the Olive”, published in October 2016.
Other strategic recommendations adopted from that report were coordination on confronting threats in the Middle East and combating terrorism in general. Here, again, Australia and Israel reached an emerging consensus on the continuing threat from Iran, identifying mutual interests in holding Iran accountable to its obligations under UN Security Council Resolutions and concerns about Teheran’s ballistic missile program – as well as addressing the destabilising threat to Middle East security of Iranian proxy, Hezbollah.
Similarly, the joint statement builds on the success of Australia’s start-up “Landing Pad” in Tel Aviv in its push for dramatically expanded collaboration and cooperation between the two countries in research, development, education and academia.
During the visit, Netanyahu, Turnbull and Australian Labor and Opposition leader Bill Shorten stressed the crucial importance of more direct interaction between the two countries through streamlined lanes of travel and business. With the statement’s pledge to remove trade barriers, Prime Minister Netanyahu’s expressed hopes to “double or triple” trade between Israel and Australia can be viewed as more than just wishful thinking.
Meanwhile, the exciting Memorandum of Understanding signed between national flagship carriers El Al and Qantas, expected to lead to long-anticipated code-sharing and coordinated flight connections to and from Israel through Asia and South Africa, bodes well for the future.
In addition, with the planned introduction of economical long-range Boeing Dreamliner aircraft to airline fleets, the once-fanciful prospect of non-stop flights between Australia and Israel no longer seems far-fetched.
Both Israel and Australia understand that a secure Israel at peace with the Palestinians and strategic allies in the region is a mutual interest, but reassuringly neither Prime Minister Turnbull nor current leaders of the Labor party subscribe to the misguided view that Israel can somehow achieve peace on its own.
During the visit, Turnbull, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, Shorten and Shadow Foreign Minister Penny Wong each stressed the need for the Israeli-Palestinian dispute to be resolved through direct, bilateral negotiations.
For his part, Turnbull commendably went further, criticising what he identified as the “one-sided”, recently passed, UN Security Council Resolution 2334, while Shorten wisely confined his opposition to construction in Israeli West Bank settlements to cases “where settlements and their expansion are a road block to peace” (apparently implicitly drawing a distinction between settlements inside and outside of settlement blocs.)
Both Shorten and Wong astutely resisted pressure from the pro-Palestinian faction within Labor, who had enlisted support from former Labor Prime Ministers Bob Hawke and Kevin Rudd, calling for Labor to unilaterally recognise a Palestinian state.
Such a foolish and counterproductive move, it should be obvious, would not only harm Australia’s relations with the United States but also the people it claims to want to help – by discouraging the Palestinians from resuming Palestinian negotiations to end their conflict with Israel, which is in their own interests if they genuinely want a state alongside Israel.
Netanyahu’s compelling retort to the Labor elders was that a Palestinian state created under current conditions and without peace would be dedicated to the destruction of Israel and risk a takeover by Hamas, or worse.
Moreover, contrary to the assertions of many critics, Netanyahu made abundantly clear in interviews that he does not want a one-state outcome but endorses complete Palestinian self-determination, provided that Israel has overriding security control over the area.
“I want the Palestinians to be able to govern themselves and to have all the freedoms to do so, but not the freedom to destroy the Jewish state,” he summarised, and stood by his position that he would rather concentrate on the “substance” of what a two-state agreement acceptable to both sides would look like, rather than focus on labels.
The announcement at the conclusion of the joint statement that Prime Minister Turnbull will visit Israel for the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Be’er Sheva later this year was a fitting footnote to Netanyahu’s visit – an event that will justifiably be remembered as a watershed event in Australia-Israel relations.
How appropriate that the current bilateral charge by Australian and Israeli leaders into a mutually beneficial and visionary future will be taking place amidst the backdrop of commemorations for the legendary charge by our celebrated Light Horse to liberate the Holy Land from Ottoman misrule and facilitate the miracle that is the modern State of Israel today.