Australia/Israel Review

Editorial: Special friendship in the spotlight

Feb 26, 2020 | Colin Rubenstein

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The special friendship between Australia and Israel has been in the spotlight in recent weeks, especially with the historic visit of Israeli President Reuven Rivlin to Australia in late February. 

Rivlin’s trip followed on from Israeli PM Binyamin Netanyahu’s highly successful visit here in February 2017 and then Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s return visit to Israel, together with numerous bipartisan colleagues, for the Battle of Beer Sheva centenary in October of that year. 

Rivlin’s visit sends a clear message that Jerusalem cherishes the irreplaceable and long-standing friendship between our two countries and is very willing to continue investing in that bond. 

And Israel does indeed have much to be grateful for with respect to the unique Australia-Israel relationship – going all the way back to the invaluable efforts of Australian Foreign Minister H. V. “Doc” Evatt in steering the Partition Plan resolution through the UN in 1947. 

The current Morrison Government has certainly continued the principled international stances which have helped deepen and underpin Australia-Israel relations over the many years since then. 

This has been most evident recently in Australia’s intervention against a dangerous and politicised decision at the International Criminal Court (ICC), and our leadership in confronting the gross bias at the UN Human Rights Council. 

Australia’s opposition to the bid by the ICC to investigate alleged war crimes in what it falsely insists is the “State of Palestine” was not a one-off gift to Israel. Rather, it was a principled stance consistent with Australia’s longstanding, bipartisan support for a peace between Israel and the Palestinians based on the paradigm of two states for two peoples arrived at through bilateral negotiations. 

Australia joins Brazil, Hungary, Austria, Germany and the Czech Republic in filing “amicus brief” opinions to oppose the ICC’s assertion it has jurisdiction over the “State of Palestine”. The US is not an ICC member, but has also made its opposition clear. 

And politicised it is. Palestine is clearly not yet a state under the recognised criteria of international law as codified by the Montevideo Convention of 1933. The ICC’s reasons for treating it as a state  – which can then request the ICC investigate war crimes on its “territory” – basically boil down to relying on UN General Assembly (UNGA) resolutions saying Palestine is a state. But not only does the UNGA lack the legal power to make any such determination, it is a completely politicised body dominated by non-democratic states pursuing their narrow political interests – which includes an automatic majority for virtually any conceivable anti-Israel proposal. 

As the late Israeli diplomat Abba Eban rightly said about the UNGA, “If Algeria introduced a resolution declaring that the earth was flat and that Israel had flattened it, it would pass by a vote of 164 to 13 with 26 abstentions.”

Australia’s principled stand on the ICC investigation serves the cause of peace and justice in two major ways:

Firstly, by reminding the Palestinian Authority that the only possible route to gain genuine statehood is through direct negotiations with Israel. Trying to use the automatic pro-Palestinian majority in many UN bodies to impose statehood without negotiating a compromise peace with Israel will not work. 

Secondly, the ICC needs to be reminded that its current pathway of politicisation is likely to severely undermine the ICC’s legitimacy as a global purveyor of impartial justice.

Canberra’s principled stand before the ICC is in keeping with Australia’s moral leadership in other problematic international diplomatic forums. 

Hillel Neuer, the director of the important and respected NGO UN Watch, recently said Australia has been effectively serving as “leader of the free world” at the UN Human Rights Council. As a current member, we have been leading the charge in calling out bias, injustice and cronyism in that deeply problematic body. 

The latest outrage from that outrageously biased body is an unprecedented “blacklist” of companies doing business in the West Bank – something which is completely legal. It’s a witch hunt that recalls Nazi-era boycotts of Jewish people.

Israel should be very grateful that Australia has been taking the principled route rather than following the numbers on these issues – and, almost certainly, President Rivlin has conveyed these sentiments to Australia’s leadership. 

Meanwhile, Australia’s relationship with Israel is demonstrably highly beneficial to both sides. In areas such as technology, defence, water efficiency, environment and business partnerships, it has never been better. Perhaps nothing symbolises this soaring future more than El Al’s trial of nonstop flights between Australia and Tel Aviv, starting in April. 

Of course, there is one large and very significant fly in the ointment on the criminal justice front. 

Rivlin is expected to be a sympathetic messenger to convey the painful and entirely justified frustration of Australians in general, and the Australian Jewish community in particular, at the completely unacceptable delays affecting the extradition of accused child sex offender Malka Leifer. 

With Israel’s third election in the past 11 months looming on March 2, Rivlin came to Australia in his ceremonial capacity, but will return to Israel needing the wisdom of Solomon to help negotiate an end to Israel’s year-long political impasse. 

Almost universally liked and respected, Rivlin will be looked to after the election to somehow find a magic formula allowing Israel’s deadlocked political factions to produce something the country has not seen in over a year but desperately needs – a functioning government coalition. 

Hopefully, President Rivlin will have returned to Jerusalem from his important Australian sojourn rested, energised and inspired to succeed in this extremely difficult yet immensely important task. 

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