By Yehonathan Tommer
Julia Gillard’s visit to Israel last month was a success, though it barely made a splash in the local Israeli media. The Deputy Prime Minister’s meetings with Israeli leaders were described as a “substantive exchange” and these are expected to stimulate an overall upgrading of diversifying bilateral ties.
This was Ms. Gillard’s second visit to Israel, having first spent a week in Israel in November 2005 as head of an AIJAC Rambam study visit, which included Brendan O’Connor (ALP, Gorton, currently Minister for Home Affairs), Kelvin Thompson (ALP, Wills), Roger Price (ALP, Chifley) and Michael Danby (ALP, Melbourne Ports). The current visit, her first in her capacity as Deputy Prime Minister, was initiated by the Australia-Israel Cultural Exchange (AICE) as part of a new Australia/Israel Leadership Forum.
Ms. Gillard was accompanied this time by Federal Labor politicians Michael Danby and Mark Dreyfus (Issacs, Vic.); and by opposition figures including former Federal Treasurer Peter Costello (LP, Higgins, Vic); Shadow Attorney General Senator George Brandis (LP, Qld); Coalition Scrutiny of Government Spokesman Senator Guy Barnett (LP, Tas) and Shadow Minister for Education Christopher Pyne (LP Sturt, SA).
Julia Gillard: ties rooted in ‘conversation and honesty’
In a dinner address to a major gathering at the King David Hotel, the Deputy Prime Minister delivered a robust affirmation of Australia’s “historic support and continuing strong friendship” for the State of Israel before and since its creation, and stressed that Australian governments and armed forces have materially contributed to Israel’s defence and security over the years.
Australia and Israel share a common culture of democratic freedom and friendship “whose true roots lie in conversation and honesty,” she said. Both should be mustered in “the difficult task of achieving a lasting settlement of the Israel-Palestinian conflict and in recognising what each nation still has to learn from the other.” In this way, “the exchanges and differences become more valuable and better appreciated and imbue the relationship with a newer and deeper trust.”
The visiting Australians also met with Palestinian Authority Foreign Minister Riad Malki and head of the Palestinian negotiating team Saeb Erekat in the West Bank town of Ramallah.
In a joint press conference in Ramallah with PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, Gillard said official Australian government policy supported a freeze on settlement activity. But she stressed that the exact nature of a settlement freeze should be resolved in the context of a peace process dialogue.
“The position of the Australian government has been clear, that we do support a freeze on settlement activity, for there to be discussions, obviously. We believe that those discussions are assisted in circumstances where there is a freeze on settlement activity and the Palestinian people, the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli government can have discussions about the long term arrangements leading to a two state solution, with secure borders,” Gillard explained.
Asked by a reporter what action should be taken if Israel does not halt settlement construction, Gillard implied that a settlement freeze should be seen as a means to the larger goal of “a real dialogue that leads to progress” in the peace process.
Responses were “very positive,” noted Australia’s Ambassador to Israel James Larsen. Bilateral relations have progressively expanded and diversified, he added, but “if we don’t have a real exchange of ideas, we’ll end up with a very stale relationship.”
Ms. Gillard’s participation in the forum was “proof that she valued the exchange of ideas,” Ambassador Larsen said, adding that she also had “a series of fruitful (private) meetings and exchanges on matters of substance” with Israeli leaders.
A senior Israeli foreign ministry official endorsed that assessment, which continues a tradition of warm, and essentially tension-free bipartisan support that has marked Australian ties with Israel throughout the region’s stormy contemporary history.
Greg Sheridan, the foreign editor of the Australian, saw opportunities for upgrading bilateral strategic ties in areas like manpower and training, defence doctrines and concepts of deterrence and counter terrorism. Australian forces operate out of Gulf bases and their activities in the Middle East arena, he said, could benefit from Israeli know-how and experience.
Senator Brandis told AIR that Israelis are well informed about Australia and know its capabilities and potentials. “The bilateral relationship is going in the right direction and should continue in a linear fashion.”
After Prime Minister Netanyahu’s Bar Ilan speech “Israelis and Palestinians were agreed on the concepts and goals of a two-state solution to the conflict. I am hopeful that negotiations on how to resolve the real and difficult substantive issues can now proceed,” the Senator added.
A nuclear Iran, he said, “is dangerous to Israel, the region and the world and cannot be accepted under any circumstances.”
Peter Costello’s infectious humour and bonhomie was matched by his unequivocal support for Israel.
“I have been a friend of Israel since my first trip to this country as a student leader 30 years ago,” he declared. “Australia has repeatedly shed blood and treasure in battlefields far from its borders and around the world and here in Israel over many, many years,” because Australia’s security is based on the security of peace loving peoples in their common stand against totalitarianism, Islamic extremism and terrorism.
“Australia wants the peace process to move forward. The overall architecture has been accepted and I welcome this,” Costello told AIR. “Israelis and Palestinians should work on (fulfilling their obligations under) the Road Map. This is the view of the Coalition and Labor as well and Australia could definitely use its good offices on both sides privately and publicly to urge them to continue the peace making process.”
Iran is an “aggressive, destabilising power” in the region. “If it proceeds with its nuclear ambitions, other moderate Arab regimes will want to develop a capacity and response. That’s why it is absolutely essential that the international community must pressure Iran to forego its nuclear ambitions,” Costello said.