Australia/Israel Review

Noted and Quoted – August 2020

Aug 3, 2020 | AIJAC staff

Recent moves by Turkish President Erdogan prompted critical comment
Recent moves by Turkish President Erdogan prompted critical comment


Museum piece

Former Victorian Labor minister Theo Theophanous condemned Turkish President Recep Erdogan’s order to rededicate the Hagia Sophia, once Constantinople’s main cathedral and a museum since 1935, as a functioning mosque, and said Australia “should immediately withdraw its invitation for Erdogan to visit Australia in protest.”

Writing in the Herald Sun (July 16), Theophanous said, “Imagine for a moment that Israel decided to convert the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem into a Jewish Synagogue. And justified such action on the basis that the mosque sits on the holiest of places for Jews, the Temple Mount and that the area is subject to Jewish sovereignty.

“The outcry of such an action from the woke Left and the Greens in concert with the Islamic world, Hamas, Iran, the Muslim Brotherhood, would be deafening, and probably very violent. Australia and other nations across the world would condemn Israel in the harshest terms.”

Theophanous said Erdogan had justified the decision on the basis that Turkey has the sovereign right to decide the building’s fate, but wondered “if he would extend that right to other nations if they were to convert mosques on their sovereign soil to Christian places of worship?”


Talking Turkey

Meanwhile, in the Australian (July 21), American academic and foreign policy columnist Walter Russell Mead argued that Turkey’s increasing involvement in the Libyan civil war, in addition to Russian and Iranian hegemonic ambitions in the Middle East, were pushing Sunni Arab states closer to Israel.

Mead said, “the war also underlines the weakness of the Sunni Arab world and its need for a strong relationship with Israel. That the emirates, Egypt and Saudi Arabia can’t control political developments in nearby Libya illustrates the depth of the Arab crisis. These states also failed to steer the course of the Syrian war or prevent Lebanon’s collapse. They need allies to balance Turkey and Iran, and, as the US withdraws, Israel is the only real option they have.”

Turkey had provoked the US by purchasing the Russian S-400 missile system and, “by turning Hagia Sophia (one of the holiest sites in Eastern Orthodoxy) back into a mosque, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has picked a quarrel with Russia,” Mead said.

It has also “crossed” the EU “by exploring for gas in waters claimed by Cyprus” and “its support for Hamas angers Israel.”

But “Erdogan clearly thinks he sees a Mediterranean power vacuum and he’s seizing the chance to fill it,” Mead suggested.

Elsewhere in the same edition of the Australian, US academic Firas Maksad argued for greater US support for Sunni Arab regimes, noting China’s increasing trade links in the region. He wrote, “these Arab states are authoritarian, as are Iran and Turkey, but they share US concerns about Iran and Europe’s suspicions of Turkey. The strategic assets they control, and their degree of coordination, carries potential that deserves greater Western support. Even Israel, America’s leading regional ally and a traditional adversary of the Arabs, is now eager to build bridges to this Arab coalition.” 


Cutting remarks

The Australian’s “Cut and Paste” column (July 14) warned that Erdogan’s Turkey is not a welcoming place for Jews or Christians, quoting an article from 2019 that claimed “the percentage of Christians in Turkey declined from nearly 25 per cent in 1914 to less than 0.5 per cent today.” It also quoted from a 2018 article reporting that Erdogan told a rally “don’t be like Jews,” claimed that “Israel murders innocent people in cold blood”, and approved of a wish for Muslims to reconquer Jerusalem. 

Also receiving a mention was US commentator and recent AIJAC guest Michael Rubin’s advice in March 2019 that Jews are not safe in Turkey, including as tourists, because “as Turkey’s economy falters and with so many Turks already in prison, Erdogan is looking for scapegoats.”


The Eyes have it

Writing in the Australian (July 9), Israeli counterterrorism expert Professor Boaz Ganor called for Israel to join the ranks of the Five Eyes intelligence alliance – currently consisting of Australia, New Zealand, Britain, Canada and the US.

Ganor argued that, “Without up-to-date and accurate intelligence you cannot thwart terror attacks or deter state actors from carrying out military operations,” adding that “Israel has proved itself as a major intelligence player in the Middle East and elsewhere. Its intelligence services have thwarted countless potential terror attacks and hostile military operations, and in recent years shared high-quality intelligence with many countries’ security services, the Five Eyes included. That intelligence has helped thwart terror attacks and subversive activities in those countries.”

Discussing potential stumbling blocks, he said, “doubts may rise out of the bilateral relationships some of the alliance’s members have with Iran or the lack of a visible solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which may deter some alliance members from accepting Israel,” and “some of Israel’s security agencies possibly seeing potential risk in exposing their intelligence sources and methodologies.”

A possible solution, he said, was to grant Israel, and other countries, observer status to create “a second ring of nations that are not full-fledged members but can contribute and benefit from an intelligence co-operation on matters of common interest.”


Explosive claims

Israel was not the sole suspect in media reports after a wave of mysterious fires and explosions in Iranian civilian and military facilities, including a military base and a nuclear enrichment facility.

UK Times reporter Richard Spencer’s story in the Australian (July 6) on an explosion at the Natanz uranium enrichment facility on July 2 said it “was accompanied by a warning sent to the BBC’s Persian language service before news of the blast became public. A group of dissidents in the military, the Homeland Cheetahs, claimed responsibility.” However, analysts noted that this is the first time anyone has heard about this group. 

An explosion in an electricity transformer in Ahvaz “hints at another culprit: Saudi Arabia. Ahvaz and the surrounding Khuzestan province are home to an ethnic Arab and Sunni Muslim minority and several terrorist attacks there have been carried out by the Arab Struggle Movement for the Liberation of Ahvaz,” he said.

On ABC TV “The World” (July 8), US nuclear weapons expert Robert Kelley questioned claims of Israeli responsibility for the Natanz explosion while criticising US policy toward Iran, saying, “I think it’s not reasonable to blame them for it. We know that Israel and Mike Pompeo have it in for Iran. They don’t mind sanctions. They’re killing civilians. That doesn’t mean they did it. They’re probably cheering but I don’t think they did it.” 

Elsewhere, SkyNews’ “The Bolt Report” (July 16) hosted Israeli academic and regular AIJAC guest Dr. Jonathan Spyer, who said Iran has been downplaying the incidents because it wants to “wait out the clock” until the November US Presidential elections in the hope that Donald Trump loses and a “much less aggressive” administration takes over.


Chilling coronavirus infections 

Given the media coverage of Israel’s success at containing the spread of coronavirus in the first stage of the pandemic, it was to be expected that a dramatic rise in cases to 1,500 a day would become the subject of media attention. 

In the Sydney Morning Herald (July 13) veteran Israeli journalist Zev Chafets blamed Israeli PM Binyamin Netanyahu for telling Israelis in May “go out and have a good time.”

People listened but “few bothered with masks or social distancing,” he said.

Chafets said the Government had also been slow to respond to the economic impact, noting that “unemployment has soared to 20 per cent from four per cent in less than five months. The Government has failed to provide sufficient relief to the unemployed; in fact, hasn’t even tried. Less than half the $29 billion dollars for virus-related emergency financial aid has [been] dispersed.”

On July 8, the paper’s website ran a less emotional report which noted that “An Israeli official said government researchers have traced the bulk of new infections to a single category of activity: public gatherings, particularly weddings. The official said an explosion of weddings – some 2092 between June 15 and June 25 – proved to be COVID-19 incubators.”

On July 15, ABC Middle East correspondent Eric Tlozek reported on radio, TV and an online article on the crisis, noting that Israeli schools, which can have 30 to 40 students per class, were being blamed for the worsening infection rates and travellers from abroad were not forced to quarantine.

The rising numbers in the West Bank were due to Palestinian workers bringing the virus home from their day jobs in Israel, he said.

Arab-Israeli paramedic Mohammed Zaher Zabarqah was quoted saying Arab Israelis hadn’t taken enough precautions against the virus and “we saw many people participating in mass gatherings, like weddings and festivals.”


Give me four reasons

On July 2, ABC Middle East correspondent Eric Tlozek gave an almost perfect summary to ABC TV “The World” host Bev O’Connor and her viewers of the reasons the Netanyahu Government has given to justify its plans for Israel to extend its sovereignty to areas of the West Bank.

According to Tlozek, “there’s four reasons driving Israel’s approach to the West Bank. And the first is historical. This was an area where Jews used to live. And there was much celebration from the settlers when they started living in West Bank outposts after the 1967 war. There’s a very strong religious reason driving many people’s desire to move back into the West Bank, namely the particularly religious settlers argue that this land was given to the Jews by God. At an official level, the Government’s approach is that the West Bank is not Palestinian land, it is disputed land to which Israel has, it says, a valid moral, legal and historical claim. And its claims it says are as valid as those of the Palestinians. The fourth reason that’s often cited is of Israel’s security, particularly citing the example of Gaza and what happened there after Israel pulled out. The territory was taken over by Hamas which has had a number of dangerous and deadly conflicts with Israel since then. So those are the four main reasons.”

Tlozek also correctly noted that the Trump peace plan “includes eventual plans for a Palestinian state but allows for annexation.”

Meanwhile, an AP report run in the Australian (July 1) erroneously claimed “the Trump plan… envisions leaving 30 per cent of the West Bank under permanent Israeli control, while granting the Palestinians autonomy in the remainder of the area.” No, the plan explicitly aims to give the Palestinians a state.


No complaints about that

Following a complaint by AIJAC, ABC radio host Ian McNamara issued an on-air apology on June 28 over an antisemitic slur made by a talkback caller on the May 3, 2020 episode of his program “Australia All Over with Ian McNamara”, and which he had ignored at the time.

The caller, who claimed she was from a town in Victoria’s Latrobe Valley, said the factory she was the manager of in the 1980s had been bought out by a “big Jew” and characterised the purchase as wholly negative for the employees and the general community. 

ABC Audience and Consumer Affairs explained that McNamara said he hadn’t heard the remark made by the woman. 

The program’s website has appended an editor’s note of the May 3 episode which states that “This podcast has been edited to remove an offensive comment. ABC Regional apologise for this editorial lapse.” 


Not black and white

AIJAC’S Ahron Shapiro had an opinion piece on the extremist, anti-Israel, often antisemitic positions held by some of the leaders of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement published in the Spectator Australia (July 17).

Shapiro countered the claim made by BLM leaders who argue that criticism of Israel is not antisemitic because there are Jews who are anti-Zionist.

According to Shapiro, “They should remember another quote, by Dr Martin Luther King: ‘What is anti-Zionist? It is the denial to the Jewish people of a fundamental right that we justly claim for the people of Africa and freely accord all other nations of the globe. It is discrimination against Jews, my friend, because they are Jews. In short, it is antisemitism.’”

Meanwhile, New York Times columnist Bari Weiss’ dramatic resignation in the form of a 1,500-word open letter claiming she had faced intimidation and antisemitism at the paper was widely covered in the Australian media, but apparently not by the ABC.


Movie Madness

Australian novelist Christos Tsiolkas’ review of the new movie “It Must Be Heaven” by Elia Suleiman, who was born in Israel but identifies as a Palestinian, for the Saturday Paper (June 27) included a number of dubious comments.

The movie takes place in Nazareth, Paris and New York. Nazareth has been part of Israel since 1948 and the overwhelming majority of the Arab citizens of Israel do not identify themselves solely as “Palestinian”, but rather as “Arab Israeli”, “Palestinian Israeli”, or sometimes just “Israeli”.

Tsiolkas said, “Suleiman introduces us to the surreal world of Palestinian existence, where the threat of violence always simmers just below the surface of the everyday, and where regulations and prohibitions are often unnamed and seemingly ridiculous.”

Arab citizens of Israel, even those who consider themselves Palestinian, are subject to the exact same laws as Jewish citizens.

Tsiolkas praised Suleiman for “daring” to make comedies “out of one of the most intractable and unjust of all global conflicts, the denial of a homeland for the Palestinian people.”

Of an earlier Suleiman film, Tsiolkas said, Suleiman had “evoke[d] the tragedy of the Palestinians’ dispossession by Israel since 1948” and in this latest film “he is praying that these children will have a homeland, that one day they will see a Palestine.”

The tragedy of the Palestinians is that their leaders have consistently picked the path of rejection and violence instead of seizing opportunities to create a Palestinian state when they have arisen – for instance in 1947, 2000, 2001 and 2008 – invariably leading to great misfortune for their people. 


Heaven Sent

Paul Byrnes’ review of “It Must be Heaven” in the Nine Newspapers (July 3), correctly identified Nazareth as being in “northern Israel”.

Nine Newspapers’ Stephanie Bunbury’s review (June 29) quoted Suleiman saying, “My feeling is that the Palestinians might be one of the most oppressed and occupied peoples in the world today” but even people in places like Paris and New York can experience “military… economic and psychological” oppression.

In the Australian (June 27), Philippa Hawker’s piece quoted Suleiman saying, “If my previous films tried to present Palestine as a microcosm of the world, my new film … tries to show the world as if it were a microcosm of Palestine.”

Hawker’s article quoted Suleiman saying the film’s empty streets in the Paris section “express a tension fuelled by racism and police action, a movement towards a state of emergency that he had perceived years earlier as a tendency that would one day come to pass.” 

Maybe Suleiman is right that the world is a microcosm of “Palestine”, but not for the reasons he gives. 

Both France and Israel have had to contend with the threat of terror and accordingly have increased security measures. From pro-Palestinian groups in the 1970/80s, right up to the Islamist inspired terror of the last decade, including Charlie Hebdo, Hypercacher Kosher supermarket and the Bataclan nightclub, these attacks were not carried out because of perceived racism in French society, but to further extremist political agendas.

The Australian’s movie reviewer David Stratton claimed (June 27), “there could hardly be a more difficult part of the world to make a film than Palestine.” 

But this film wasn’t shot in “Palestine” but in Israel by an Israeli citizen who is believed to live mainly in Paris. 

There are lots of other places that would be much, much more challenging – Syria? Yemen? Kashmir? Libya? North Korea? 

Stratton also misquotes a key moment in the film when a fortune-teller looks at the camera and says, “There will be Palestine.” Stratton incorrectly says it was “Yes. Palestine will be a separate state.” The latter implies two states living in peace. The actual line from the film is more ambiguous – and Suleiman is from a town that would remain part of Israel under any two-state resolution, suggesting such a resolution may not be his real agenda in promoting a future “Palestine.”


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