Australia/Israel Review

Noted and Quoted – January 2021

Dec 22, 2020 | AIJAC staff

Australian academic Kylie Moore-Gilbert shortly beofre her release from captivity in Iran
Australian academic Kylie Moore-Gilbert shortly beofre her release from captivity in Iran

Why’s after the fact

Following the release of Australian academic Kylie Moore-Gilbert from captivity in Iran, media discussion was dominated both by the possible reasons for Iran making ludicrous spying charges against her and by the price paid to free her. Dr. Moore-Gilbert was freed in a deal that saw the release of three Iranians jailed in Thailand over a 2012 plot to attack Israeli diplomats.

The Australian editorial (Nov. 27) quoted US-based Iran expert and regular AIJAC guest Behnam Ben Taleblu saying that the “outcome… would embolden Tehran to engage in further hostage-taking.” 

AIJAC’s Colin Rubenstein was quoted warning that the freed Iranians “will again present a threat of terrorist violence to innocent people.”

The newspaper said the episode is a reminder that “Iran is the most serious threat to Middle East peace,” referencing its threats to “the existence of the only democratic state in the region”; support for Hamas, Hezbollah, Houthis in Yemen and “surrogate forces… in the residue of the Syrian war”; the “unprovoked harassment of vessels attempting to cross the Strait of Hormuz and the Gulf of Oman”; not to mention Iran’s “cyber capabilities” and ongoing commitment “to the acquisition of nuclear weapons.”

The Age/Sydney Morning Herald (Nov. 29) said “the brutal truth is she found herself a pawn caught in a high-stakes diplomatic game between Iran and the Western world…her release… makes travel to Iran for any Australian…dangerous…and potentially unshackle[s] terrorists who would have otherwise stayed behind bars.”

The Herald Sun (Nov. 27) editorialised that Iran’s “tyrannical regime has long used…political prisoners as bargaining tools all the way back to the 1979 US embassy hostage crisis” and as “a major state sponsor of terrorism with ongoing efforts to obtain nuclear weapons… must be met with even harsher sanctions and international condemnation.”


Moore than meets the eye?

ABC Radio National “Breakfast” fill-in host Hamish MacDonald (Nov. 27) asked former Australian ambassador to Israel and current federal MP for Wentworth Dave Sharma if Kylie Moore-Gilbert was more than just an unlucky academic. 

MacDonald said there were many “unusual things” and “glaring black holes” and suggested it “was clearly significant” that the Israeli Government was involved in the “discussions” over her release.

According to MacDonald, “It strikes me as highly unusual that this whole thing would’ve been orchestrated by Nick Warner, the Director General of National Intelligence here in Australia. Obviously, the fact that Kylie has a partner who is an Israeli citizen was not reported, at least in Western media, during her period of captivity…does this all tell us something about how highly valued Kylie Moore-Gilbert was?”

Sharma said Iranian state TV reports claiming Dr. Moore-Gilbert was an Israeli spy should be taken with a “grain of salt.” 

MacDonald then himself demonstrated the baselessness of his own question by noting media reports that Warner was previously based in Iran and had contacts there, which helped facilitate her release. 


A handsome ransom 

News Corp columnist Andrew Bolt questioned the price paid to secure Moore-Gilbert’s release (Nov. 30), writing that “Iran has clearly worked out we’re a willing customer in the hostage trade. Its exchange rate has rocketed from two Australians for one Iranian last year [referring to two travel bloggers released in exchange for an Iranian man held in Queensland pending extradition to the US], to one Australian for three Iranian terrorists today. That’s not because Moore-Gilbert is a big catch. She’s just an academic who was yet silly enough to fly to Iran two years ago for a conference. Silly because Iran is a paranoid Islamist regime that’s been arresting foreigners on fake charges of spying. It is still holding men and women from Britain and the US – even an artistic affairs officer, a conservationist and a journalist – as bargaining chips, and Moore-Gilbert was an easy mark. She had an Israeli boyfriend, which is catnip to Jew-hating ayatollahs. Even better, she’s a citizen of Australia, weak enough to pay blackmail. And we paid a lot for her – agreeing to fly three Iranian terrorists from Thailand back to Iran.”

On Channel 9’s “6pm News” (Nov. 26), political editor Chris Uhlmann said, “this was a highly complex exchange which would have demanded the agreement of at least three nations – Iran, Thailand, and Israel. The last because it would have had to have been alerted to the fact that the men who once tried to murder its diplomats were about to be released.” He also, rightly, referred to Iran as a “rogue state”.


Title fight

An Australian report (Nov. 20) on Bahrain Foreign Minister Abdellatif al-Zayani’s historic visit to Jerusalem was given the strident title, “Make peace, Bahrain tells Israel.”

The AFP-sourced article was more nuanced, stating that al-Zayani had actually said, “to achieve and consolidate… peace, the Palestinian and Israeli conflict needs to be resolved… I therefore call for both parties to get around the negotiating table to achieve a viable two-state solution.”


Tom and Joe

In the Australian Financial Review (Dec. 4), New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman said the incoming Biden administration would be “unwise…to give up the leverage of the Trump-imposed oil sanctions [on Iran] just to resume the nuclear deal where it left off. We should use that leverage to also get Iran to curb its exports of precision-guided missiles to its allies in Lebanon, Syria, Yemen and Iraq, where they threaten Israel and several Arab states.”

Friedman said, “Biden’s team is aware of that argument and does not think it is crazy – but for now they insist America’s overwhelming national interest is to get Iran’s nuclear program back under control and fully inspected. In their view, Iran’s development of a nuclear weapon poses a direct security threat to the US and to the global nuclear weapons control regime, the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons.” 

Earlier, AIJAC’s Ahron Shapiro told SBS Radio’s “Shalom Australia” (Nov. 15) that Biden’s “record is overwhelmingly pro-Israel. And the thing is, if we were not [just] coming out of a Trump presidency, we would be all talking about, ‘ooh, well, Joe Biden is such a good friend of Israel because his history is just that.’” 

Shapiro said he doubted Biden would’ve signed off on the Iran nuclear deal if he had been president in 2015 and said Biden wants to return to it as a “starting point” for negotiations. 


Winkin’ at Blinken 

The Australian Financial Review (Nov. 25) quoted former US Bush administration national security council official Michael Singh’s approval of Joe Biden’s nomination of Antony Blinken for US Secretary of State, and Jake Sullivan – who set up a backchannel to Iran under President Barack Obama – to be his national security adviser.

Singh said, ‘‘[they] are highly experienced and… non-ideological… They are pragmatic foreign policy practitioners with a history of working across the aisle.’’ 

The LA Times-sourced report said Blinken “has acknowledged that some Trump-era steps will be difficult to reverse” and, “Biden does not plan to return the US embassy in Jerusalem to Tel Aviv…but…will work to bring the Palestinians back into negotiations after they were sidelined by Trump.”

The Palestinians were not “sidelined”. Their leaders decided to boycott talks with the Trump Administration after the US demanded that they stop inciting violence and financially rewarding terror.


Twice as nice

The Australian (Nov. 25) also endorsed Blinken and Sullivan as “committed centrists [who] were on the more hawkish side of Obama-era policy debates. Mr Blinken, whose stepfather, a Holocaust survivor, was brought up in Melbourne, is a strong supporter of Israel and favoured the 2003 Iraq war and US intervention in Libya. Mr Sullivan supported sending US missiles to Ukraine, a policy Barack Obama opposed. Together with the expected appointment of the vastly experienced Michele Flournoy as defence secretary, they are expected to form a team that should stand up to adversaries better than Mr Obama did.”

The newspaper warned against returning “the US to the Iran nuclear deal… in the form negotiated by [the Obama administration which gave] away far too much to the ayatollahs. Mr Trump leaves a legacy of strength and solid achievement in the Middle East that will be at risk if Mr Biden tries to cosy up to Tehran again.”


Labor intensive

Federal Labor Deputy Leader Richard Marles’ contribution to a new book called The Write Stuff: Voices of Unity on Labor’s Future, offering future policy directions for the party, was quoted in the Australian Financial Review (Dec. 4).

Marles warned that ‘‘Australia has dropped out of the top 20 most innovative countries in the OECD” and said Australia should model itself on “Israel, a country that commercialises research well and consequently has a more complex economy that is expected to grow at well above our economy over the next six years.”


Turki ruffles feathers 

The Australian and the Herald Sun (Dec. 8) picked up on an anti-Israel diatribe from Prince Turki al-Faisal, a high-profile former intelligence chief of Saudi Arabia – a country some have suggested might be on the verge of normalising relations with Israel. 

At a conference in Bahrain that included Israeli Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi participating via video link, Turki accused Israel of apartheid, putting Palestinians in concentration camps, and being a Western coloniser, and disparaged the recent peace deals with the UAE and Bahrain as painkillers for a gaping wound. 

The report noted that Ashkenazi rejected Turki’s claims, saying, “the Abraham Accords do not come at the expense of the Palestinians” and called on Palestinians to return to peace talks that were frozen in 2014.

The AFP report concluded that “despite Prince Turki’s blunt rhetoric, mutual concern over Iran has gradually brought Israel and Gulf nations closer, and Riyadh has quietly been building relations with the Jewish state for several years.”


Bridging the gulf

Yet more media coverage was given to reports of a secret meeting in Saudi Arabia between Israeli PM Binyamin Netanyahu, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

On ABC TV “The World” (Nov. 24), Middle East correspondent Eric Tlozek suggested Netanyahu leaked the news “for domestic politics” just as his “political rivals” launched an investigation into alleged corruption. 

Tlozek said it is not politically prudent for Saudi leaders to admit the two countries have cooperated for “at least 10 years” because the kingdom is seen as a “leader in the Muslim world”.

He also noted that MBS is “not as tied” to Saudi Arabia’s formal policy of “no normalisation with Israel before a Palestinian state is created…the Crown Prince is looking to move forward on this issue, but the older heads within the Saudi government are being more cautious.” 

Citing Trump’s election loss and the ongoing hostility in the US Congress over the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, Tlozek said MBS “needs Israel and… the links and influence that Israel has in Washington, and with an incoming Democrat administration. That’s probably why the meeting occurred at this time.”

SBS reporter Rena Sarumpaet’s story for SBS TV “World News” (Nov. 24) on the alleged meeting paraphrased academic Amin Saikal, saying he “predicts… eventual normalisation but not… before President-elect Biden’s stance on the Middle East becomes clear.”


Mack talks smack

On ABC Radio National “Breakfast” (Dec. 1), David Mack, a former US ambassador to the UAE, implied the Trump Administration’s special envoy Jared Kushner wants reconciliation between Saudi Arabia and Qatar to further his own business interests and because he failed to solve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

Mack said that “the young Jared Kushner wants to show that even though he failed to achieve the deal of the century with a final peace agreement between Israel and the Arab states, that he has done some things. Normalisation between Israel and the UAE and Bahrain and Sudan. All of whom had strong interests of their own to do it. And it wasn’t really peace. These weren’t countries that were at peace [sic]. So people are saying what has he really accomplished? So he’s turning his attention to this.” 


Moderately Incorrect

An SBS TV “World News’” (Dec. 2) report on the Iranian Parliament voting to halt unrestricted access by the International Atomic Energy Agency to the country’s nuclear sites and increase uranium enrichment levels from 4.5% to 20% incorrectly gave a misleading impression of moderation within the regime. 

SBS reporter Amelia Dunn noted that the parliamentarians chanted death to America and Israel and that if implemented, the bill would be “a direct violation of the 2015 nuclear deal to which they are still a part.”

Dunn added that “the conservative dominated parliament does not have the final say. Iran’s nuclear policy is dictated by the Supreme National Security Council, a body much more invested in keeping international diplomacy alive.” Dunn’s report included Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh saying, “the Government has said the bill is neither necessary, nor useful.”

But as a Reuters story on the ABC website noted (Dec. 3), the Guardian Council, which has greater authority than the National Security Council, subsequently approved the bill. 

It also explained that the 2015 nuclear “deal caps the fissile purity to which Iran can refine uranium at 3.67 per cent… Iran breached the 3.67 per cent cap in July 2019 and the enrichment level has remained steady at up to 4.5 per cent since then.”


WHO says Israel’s not to blame? 

On ABC Radio National “Breakfast” (Nov. 24), Gerald Rockenschaub, head of the World Health Organisation’s Office for the occupied Palestinian Territory, refused to blame Israel for hampering Gaza’s ability to deal with COVID-19.

Despite Rockenschaub attributing rising infections to the social behaviour of Gazans, host Fran Kelly asked, “the Hamas leadership are calling on the international community to provide Gaza with the support it needs. But Gaza has been under blockade since 2007. Israel and Egypt sealing the borders around the territory. How is that impacting on the response to the pandemic? Particularly the ability to get ventilators in or PPE in, or testing kits in?”

Rockenschaub answered that “it’s not necessarily that getting the stuff in is the major obstacle,” but getting “the necessary quantities due to global shortages… and, to the logistics around this, is a constant challenge.”  

Kelly asked if the logistical challenges “include the blockade? I know that there is constant mediation going on with Israel to allow some of the supplies in. What’s the situation there?”

Rockenschaub explained that WHO “have actually relatively good collaboration with the Israeli authorities and when it comes to life saving supplies and the essential equipment, we don’t face major obstacles. Sometimes there are bureaucratic obstacles to overcome but usually we see quite good collaboration with the Israeli authorities to be able to get humanitarian supplies and essential equipment into the Gaza Strip.”


Give it a rest

Israel issuing tenders to build 1200 new housing units in Givat Hamatos, a neighbourhood in the southern part of Jerusalem on land captured in the 1967 war, was red meat for the ABC. 

A brief on ABC TV “7PM News” (Vic) (Nov. 16) said, “Opponents say the project will sever [east Jerusalem] from Bethlehem, damaging prospects for a Palestinian state. They’ve also accused Israel of trying to sneak the development in before the new Biden administration takes over in the United States.”

Later that night, ABC TV’s “The World” said, “Israel was pushing ahead with a controversial plan to build a new Jewish settlement on the edge of occupied east Jerusalem.” 

Givat Hamatos is not a new settlement, rather a 30-year-old neighbourhood of Jerusalem surrounded by other Jewish and Arab neighbourhoods of the city.

Neither report included any balance from Israeli spokespeople. 

Three days later, ABC Middle East correspondent Eric Tlozek’s report ran on both ABC programs. 

“The World” host Bev O’Connor’s introduction claimed the buildings “would block access between Bethlehem and east Jerusalem.” 

Tlozek claimed the “development would separate Palestinian towns in the West Bank from suburbs in east Jerusalem which Palestinians want as their capital for a future state.” 

In fact, anyone who looks at a map can see that Givat Hamatos cannot block access to Jerusalem because it actually nestles alongside the rather large Palestinian neighbourhood of Beit Safafa which itself is positioned directly across from Bethlehem with no obstacle between the two areas. 

Moreover, Israeli media reported that hundreds of the proposed new housing units are actually slated for Arab residents of Beit Safafa. 


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