Australia/Israel Review

Noted and Quoted – April 2020

Apr 6, 2020 | AIJAC staff

Israel’s surveillance capacity is subject to parliamentary oversight, as well as judicial review and appeal
Israel’s surveillance capacity is subject to parliamentary oversight, as well as judicial review and appeal


Viral claims

Age/Sydney Morning Herald reporter Sherryn Groch’s online article (March 18) on global efforts to slow the coronavirus’s spread stated that “China, Iran and Israel are deploying their notoriously invasive surveillance networks, including tracking phones, to keep tabs on people under isolation and close in on suspected cases.”

Including Israel with China and Iran is unfair.

The threat from Islamist and far-right groups using technologies to communicate, radicalise, recruit and develop terror plots has seen most Western countries – Israel included – adopt the capacity to monitor its citizens’ phones.

This is how Israel applies the technology. In contrast, China and Iran use surveillance as a means of internal repression toward dissent against their dictatorial regimes.

Furthermore, Israel’s surveillance capacity is subject to parliamentary oversight, as well as judicial review and appeal.

In the Mercury (March 23), commentator Greg Barns criticised Australia and Israel for wanting to use surveillance methods to enforce social isolation and slow the spread of coronavirus. Barns suggested such moves would erode human rights. Strangely, however, he expressed no concern at China’s total lack of scruples in how it has combatted the spread of the coronavirus.

The Guardian Australia (March 19) contrasted the Australian Government’s reluctance to charter flights to repatriate Australians overseas with that of “the governments of several countries – including Mexico and Israel – [which] have chartered flights to repatriate their citizens”.

Riveting visit

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin’s much-anticipated visit to Australia did not go unnoticed.

ABC TV “7pm News” Victoria (Feb. 26) reported Rivlin’s promise to raise the issue of Malka Leifer, who has fought an extradition request by Australia to face 74 charges of child sex abuse from when she was principal of the ultra-Orthodox Adass Israel School up until 2008. SBS TV “World News” (Feb. 26) also reported on Rivlin’s commitment, as did many newspapers.

On ABC TV “The World” (Feb. 26), veteran Israeli journalist and recent AIJAC guest Ehud Yaari explained that President Rivlin’s position in Israel was akin to Australia’s Governor-General.

The right kind of leadership

The quality of Rivlin’s leadership also came in for close examination.

Australian Strategic Policy Institute senior fellow Anthony Bergin noted Rivlin comes from the Israeli right but has “unflinching support for democratic principles, respect for human rights, opposition to any form or expression of racism and support for the rule of law.” Bergin also noted Rivlin’s decision, when elected speaker of the Knesset, to make “his first official visit… to a pro-Palestinian Arab town. He also refused calls to disqualify an Arab member of parliament who participated in the flotilla to Gaza.”

Bergin said Rivlin’s visit was an opportunity for Australia and Israel to “thicken” ties in areas “ranging from defence, cybersecurity and the start-up world,” Australian (Feb. 20). 

Australian foreign editor Greg Sheridan’s (Feb. 21) commentary on the visit touched on a range of contemporary topics, including Rivlin’s support for US President Donald Trump’s peace plan. Sheridan quoted Rivlin’s insights into Israeli society, which he said consists of “four tribes: religious Jews, ultra-Orthodox Jews, Arabs and secular citizens,” and explained Jerusalem’s current confrontation with Iran’s regional and global threat using “Hezbollah, and the Shia militias in Syria” and support for “Hamas and Islamic Jihad across the Middle East.”

Elsewhere, AIJAC’s Naomi Levin elaborated on Rivlin’s unifying role, writing, “Since becoming president, Rivlin has established an NGO called Israeli Hope…to promote diversity and inclusion of all of Israel’s demographic groups in academia, education and sport,” Daily Telegraph (Feb. 21).

Premature victory lap?

The Australian (March 4) editorialised on Israel’s March 2 election, casting a sceptical eye on PM Binyamin Netanyahu’s claim that he had won a “gigantic victory”. 

The paper said, “Given Israel’s existential challenges, especially Iranian aggression, Mr Netanyahu should build a broad coalition beyond his alliance with religious parties. After the inconclusive election in September last year, he proposed a national unity government with Mr Gantz, with the two leaders alternating as prime minister in the way Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Shamir did so well in 1984. Despite keen support from President Reuven Rivlin, Mr Gantz climbed on to his high horse and refused to work with a prime minister under indictment for corruption.”

Bibi talk

A 28-minute profile of Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu on ABC Radio National “Rear Vision” (March 15) was mostly fair and informative.

Professor Neil Lockery – author of The Irresistible Rise of Benjamin Netanyahu – said the Netanyahu family belonged to Zionism’s Revisionist stream which “believed that [Jews] would never be accepted by the local Arab population and… Israel needed to create an iron wall around it to protect it from attacks from the local Arab population.”

The program noted that Netanyahu’s late father, Benzion, paid a price for supporting the Revisionists against the Labor Zionist establishment, and was forced to seek employment in the United States, where Netanyahu acquired his proficiency in English. Also canvassed was the impact on Bibi of the tragic loss of his older brother Yoni, killed in 1976 leading Israel’s daring mission to rescue passengers from a plane hijacked by Palestinian terrorists and diverted to Entebbe in Uganda.

Israeli journalist and Netanyahu biographer Anshel Pfeffer said Netanyahu’s defeat of incumbent Israeli PM Shimon Peres in May 1996 was because “a very large part of the Israeli public, a majority… were against the Oslo Accords.” 

In fact, Peres held a double-digit lead over Netanyahu through most of the election campaign. Voters shifted their support to Netanyahu after five devastating suicide bombing attacks during the campaign killed 72 Israelis.

Academic Robert Freedman highlighted how Netanyahu’s electoral success has been, in part, an outcome of Palestinian and Arab terrorism.

Freedman said, “In 2000, Ehud Barak, when he was prime minister, withdrew from southern Lebanon, withdrew Israeli troops from southern Lebanon. The idea at the time was this would finally bring peace. The UN recognised the border, but instead of bringing peace, it brought rocket fire and ultimately a war in 2006 between Israel and Hezbollah. Then… Ariel Sharon as prime minister withdrew from Gaza. That was supposed to bring peace, but it didn’t. It brought rocket fire into Israel, which continues to this day from Gaza. So this…plus the second intifada, where Hamas would put bombs in pizza parlours and in restaurants and coffee shops to make Israeli lives miserable. All this shifted the Israeli polity to the right and Netanyahu was able to exploit this.”

It is important to also understand that ten years elapsed between Netanyahu’s 1999 election loss and his return to the prime ministership in 2009. During that decade, Israelis became disillusioned by a peace process wherein generous offers to create an independent Palestinian state in 2000, 2001 and 2008 were rejected and met with unprecedented terrorism.

Too right

ABC journalist Iskhandar Razak reported on the Victorian Government’s commitment to make Holocaust education mandatory for year 9 and 10 classes, as well as launching a parliamentary inquiry to consider banning Nazi symbols.

Razak noted both initiatives are a response to “growing antisemitism” and “the rise of the far-right in many countries”, as well as Victorian Education Minister James Merlino’s concern that many “high school students” don’t know about the Holocaust.

The Jewish Holocaust Centre’s Director Jayne Josem said Holocaust education would help in combatting racism in general.

In the Age (March 10), AIJAC’s Sharyn Mittelman said antisemitism is not confined solely to the far-right, explaining “while separate ideologies of hatred, both Nazism and violent Islamist extremism share similarities – they are hostile to democracy, human rights, the intrinsic value of life, and promote the hatred of certain ethnic groups – especially Jews.”

Boycott blues

The Australian (Feb. 18) slammed the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) decision to issue a blacklist of 112 companies that operate in Israeli settlements on the West Bank as “anti-Semitic.”

The paper noted that “the companies — from Airbnb, and Expedia to Motorola — employ hundreds of Palestinian workers, allowing them opportunities they otherwise would not have, it beggars credulity and common sense that the UN should see them as ‘aiding the commission of war crimes.’ No wonder Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council executive director Colin Rubenstein described the publication of the blacklist as ‘the ultimate sign of hypocrisy and bias by the UNHRC’ and ‘a witch-hunt that reminds us of Nazi-era boycotts of the Jewish people.’ There is no precedent for any UN body taking similar action over a disputed territory, and no basis in international law for it to do so.”

On March 12, the paper attacked the International Criminal Court’s decision to launch an investigation into alleged US war crimes in Afghanistan, writing that the Court “followed the well-worn path of UN linked bodies and prioritised claims against Israel over alleged war crimes.”

In the Canberra Times (Feb. 24), Zionist Federation of Australia President Jeremy Leibler said, “The worst thing is not what the Human Rights Council can inflict on Israel (which isn’t actually much), but its weakening as a legitimate body for calling out human rights abuses… The loser in all of this is not Israel but the victims of human rights abusers around the world.”

‘Farsical’ elections

There was widespread coverage of the farcical Iranian parliamentary election results. Most reports noted that only hardliners were entitled to run, a reality reflected in the low voter turnout, which dropped from 62% in 2016 to 42% on official figures – which may themselves be inflated.

The Australian (Feb. 25) said, “Yet the regime remains defiant. It has refused Mr Trump’s repeated offers of dialogue about a revised nuclear deal that could lead to sanctions relief. Instead, it has continued its brazen terrorist activities across the Middle East aimed at the ultimate destruction of Israel. Protesters’ demands that the regime use billions of dollars Barack Obama made available to Tehran when the nuclear deal was signed (Mr Trump claims it was $US150bn) to help the economy have been ignored. To the fury of the embattled protesters, it has gone into Iranian military involvement in Syria and Yemen and supporting terrorist groups such as Hezbollah.”

Subsequently, AIJAC’s Naomi Levin noted the absurdity of Australia not banning the entire Lebanese Shi’ite terror group Hezbollah, despite it largely sharing the same Islamist ideology and terrorist inclinations as Islamic State, which is proscribed. This means that “Australians are not allowed to fly Islamic State flags, not allowed to raise money for Islamic State and cannot recruit supporters of Islamic State,” but can do so for Hezbollah, Daily Telegraph (March 5).

Building bogey man

An AFP story reported Israeli PM Netanyahu’s announcement of plans to build “3500 new homes in the E1 corridor” of the West Bank.

It said E1 was “a highly sensitive part of the West Bank” and “the international community has warned that Jewish settlement construction in the E1 corridor, which passes from Jerusalem to Jericho, would slice the West Bank in two and compromise the contiguity of any future Palestinian state.”

As AIR has previously noted, E1 does not slice the West Bank in half. It does not come anywhere near Jericho, nor would it prevent a Palestinian state being contiguous.

In 2012, the New York Times issued a correction and apology for making an almost identical false claim, Australian (Feb. 29).

Hellyer Raiser

The ABC “Religion & Ethics” website ran British Muslim writer H. A Hellyer’s one-sided opinion piece from his trip to visit the Temple Mount / Haram al-Sharif in Jerusalem. In that piece, he essentially denied 3,000 years of Jewish history associated with Judaism’s holiest site.

Hellyer described himself as a “Briton of mixed race”. Travelling to Jerusalem from Jordan, he claimed he “received a certain type of treatment. Not as welcoming, I suspect, as a purely white Anglo-Saxon Briton might have expected, but definitely not what those of Palestinian origin would have endured. The Israeli security officers asked a couple of questions about a trip I’d taken to Lebanon… but after a couple of hours of waiting, I was at last in a car en route to Jerusalem.”

Plenty of Anglo-Saxon looking Jews and non-Jews are subject to Israel’s probing customs protocols and from the sounds of it, Hellyer didn’t actually face any impediments.

Hellyer said according to “status quo agreements” the “Haram al-Sharif is managed by a Waqf (a trust) that the Jordanian monarchy administers, as they did from 1948 to 1967, following which the territory was invaded and occupied.”

Of course, the only reason why Jordan administers the Temple Mount is due to its illegal occupation of east Jerusalem after the British Mandate ended.

Hellyer disparaged a tour guide he overheard telling visitors that “we can’t go to the Temple Mount – the Israeli soldiers keep us out, as Muslims don’t allow non-Muslims on there.”

Hellyer said, “it wasn’t as though non-Muslims couldn’t enter — I know many non-Muslims who have gone onto the Haram… The Haram is supposed to be partially restricted, nevertheless, and that would seem to be down to the many provocations that extremist Zionist settlers have carried out over the years.”

He also complained about the presence of Israeli soldiers on the Temple Mount, and said “periodically, Israeli citizens violate the status quo with the cooperation of the Israeli military, leading to regular complaints to the United Nations.”

Hellyer is peddling misinformation. Since the Second Intifada in 2000, the Waqf lets non-Muslims walk around the Temple Mount plaza during very limited visiting hours, but denies them entry to the Dome of the Rock and the nearby Al-Aqsa Mosque. 

His claim of “provocations” and violations of the status quo by Jews is nonsense. Jews, not “extremist Zionist settlers,” visit and as per a decision by Israeli governments since 1967, they are forbidden from even the merest hint of religious practice. Even praying with lip movements but no vocalisation is prohibited, and soldiers enforce this. 

It is the Palestinian side which has been running an ongoing campaign insisting that any entry to the Temple Mount by people in Jewish religious dress is a “provocation” and even an “invasion” by “settlers” – despite a status quo understanding which says all non-Muslims are free to visit during visiting hours. 

Diplomatically candid

Former Australian Ambassador to Israel and current federal Liberal MP Dave Sharma said the ABC’s Middle East coverage gives its audience a “one-dimensional picture of what’s going on in that part of the world,” particularly regarding Israel.

According to Sharma, “[The ABC] tend to focus on a particular story and a particular narrative at the expense of others… The art of news coverage should be to give your viewership and your readership a whole lot of different perspectives and let them decide the truth and decide their one point of view, whereas the ABC, particularly in its coverage there, tends to ram one narrative down the throats of the people who watch it or listen to it.”

As a taxpayer-funded body, the ABC “has a higher degree of responsibility,” he said, but “sometimes the way the ABC conducts itself suggests they think they are beyond reproach, beyond criticism, and I don’t think it’s healthy in a democracy with competing ideas.”

He also said the Palestinian leadership’s failure to respond positively to US President Donald Trump’s peace plan was a missed opportunity, Wentworth Courier (March 18).

World Vision correction

Reports about alleged corruption at NGO World Vision’s Melbourne office and staff underpayments also included mention of the organisation’s former manager in Gaza, Mohammed el-Halabi, who is on trial in Israel on charges of diverting millions of Australian dollars in aid to Hamas.

The Age (March 12) cited the Halabi case, saying, “for a charity with a high national profile that relies on public donations and bequests for more than 70 per cent of its income, even the suggestion that resources are being misused can be damaging.” 

The Age and Sydney Morning Herald reported (March 14) that World Vision had forced former Australian head Tim Costello to change his memoirs out of a “concern” that references “to the Halabi case could be construed as criticism of the Israeli prosecutors and may compromise the legal process in Israel.”

Suggesting that a few critical comments about Israeli prosecutors by Costello in a book published in Australia would have any material effect on a trial in Israel would seem far-fetched.


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