Noted and Quoted – June 2019

Deadly messages

Australian media coverage of the ferocious barrage of more than 600 rockets fired from Gaza at Israel on May 4 and 5, which killed four Israelis and led to 27 Palestinians being killed by both misfired Palestinian missiles and Israel’s targeted response, gave little indication of the motivations of the actors involved.

Top Israeli analyst Jonathan Spyer teased out the regional dynamics at play, saying, “Israel’s central dilemma regarding Hamas-controlled Gaza can be discerned behind Israeli decision-making in recent days.

“Observe: the latest events mark the clear arrival of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad organisation to a primary role in the ongoing conflict. The fighting was triggered by the targeting by Islamic Jihad snipers of Israel Defence Forces personnel on the border area on May 3. Two IDF soldiers – a man and a woman – were wounded. The attack took place against the background of a Hamas-organised border demonstration. Israel’s response then led to further Hamas missile and rocket attacks.

“The ability of Islamic Jihad to heat up the situation on the border is the subject of concern in Israel. Islamic Jihad, unlike Hamas, is not a largely independent actor with deep roots in Palestinian society. Rather, it is a military organisation closely aligned with Iran… The movement takes its direction from Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps.

“Israeli officials consider the recent uptick in PIJ activity out of Gaza to be part of an Iranian desire to draw Israel into a prolonged operation in Gaza… to divert attention from the more crucial front to Israel’s north, in Syria and Lebanon. In that arena, an undeclared conflict between Israel and Iran is underway.

“Iran is seeking to build an infrastructure for future attacks on Israel. Israel is trying to prevent this,” Weekend Australian (May 11).

TV terror 

Meanwhile, Palestinian claims that a pregnant woman and her child in Gaza were killed by Israeli airstrikes received widespread media coverage. ABC Middle East correspondent Eric Tlozek (May 5) and SBS TV “World News” (May 6) were among the few to report that Israel denied it caused the deaths, blaming a misfiring Palestinian rocket. 

On ABC TV “7pm news” Tlozek’s report (May 6) stated that Israel warned occupants of the buildings it was targetting to evacuate. In a live cross to ABC TV “The World” later that night, Tlozek also discussed Israel’s claim the flare-up was Iranian-inspired. 

Ivory tower 

US academics Henry Farrell and Abraham Newman warned that the Trump Administration’s imposition of additional sanctions on Iran risks “hardening the resolve of the Iranian regime and driving both allies and competitors away from the US-dominated global financial system” and expressed scepticism that sanctions would work against Iran. 

Farrell and Newman acknowledged the US may have the capacity to penalise and restrict those foreign companies who want access to US markets and companies if they do not comply with sanctions on Iran. 

But, they claimed, “it is unclear whether the United States has the clout to actually deliver on its threats.”

Yet the highly flawed 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan for Action was negotiated precisely because of the success of previous sanctions against Iran and any foreign company which dealt with it. 

Farrell and Newman placed their trust in European states backing the deal who “will…explore ways to escape the reach of US economic power. Most notably, Germany, France and Britain announced in January they would develop a special purpose vehicle known as the Instrument in Support of Trade Exchanges (INSTEX), which allows for the clearing of Iranian transactions without using US dollars or financial networks.”

But the Europeans have since failed to launch INSTEX, and it is now clear that it would likely only have minimal impact if it ever did actually get off the ground, Australian Financial Review (April 26).

Reality knocks 

Moreover, subsequent events proved Farrell and Newman’s predictions wrong. On May 8, News Corp reported Britain’s warning that sanctions might be reimposed following Iran’s 60-day ultimatum that it would restart sections of its nuclear program unless it received economic relief. ABC TV “The World” (May 8) reported France also warned Iran to respect the deal.

A report by UK Financial Times international affairs editor David Gardner countered Farrell and Newman’s sanctions pessimism. 

“This month, a year after the US tore up this landmark agreement, President Hassan Rouhani, its architect on the Iranian side, said Tehran would cease to observe a number of its requirements… unless the other partners to the 2015 deal find a way to deliver the promised economic benefits within 60 days. That is unlikely. European companies look unwilling to risk being shut out of the US market and the international financial system by continuing to trade with Iran,” he wrote.

Moreover, Gardner explained some of the imperatives behind the US withdrawing from the nuclear deal, saying, “Iran keeps signalling that it will not back down. Helped by the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 that toppled the Sunni-dominated Saddam Hussein regime, and by its salvage of Bashar al-Assad’s minority regime in Syria allied with Russian air power, Iran has forged a Shi’ite axis from the Caspian Sea to the Mediterranean, through Baghdad and Damascus to Beirut,” Australian Financial Review (May 17).

Elsewhere, in the Guardian Australia (May 17) Ben Armbruster of activist group Win Without War naively claimed the JCPOA was “blocking all pathways for Iran to build a bomb.” The Iranian nuclear archive captured by Israel proves that Iran retains nuclear technology in its possession that it has not declared to the Interational Atomic Energy Agency and which will allow it to quickly restart nuclear weapons production work.

Naïve on Iran

The Sydney Morning Herald (May 15) cautioned against letting the heightened tensions between Iran and the US escalate into all-out war, portraying Iran as being a victim of unfair treatment by the Trump Administration.

According to the newspaper, “Certainly there is nothing wrong with applying pressure on Iran, a tyrannical and corrupt regime which the US blames for supporting regional terrorist groups and developing long-range missiles that could potentially be used against Israel.

“But the US has been applying pressure for four decades and there is no obvious new threat to justify a new Middle East war. It is the US which has suddenly raised the temperature by tearing up a deal signed with Iran and five other countries in 2015 which ended sanctions in exchange for Iran shutting down its nuclear weapons programs.

Even though Iran complied with the deal, the US has just slapped new sanctions on Iranian metals exports and on countries that buy Iranian oil. Iran has now responded with a threat to restart its nuclear program.”

The paper appeared frankly naïve about the success of the nuclear deal. 

View from a Height

Analyst and recent AIJAC guest Michael Doran countered claims by the Lowy Institute’s Rodger Shanahan in the Australian (April 27) that US President Trump’s Middle East strategy shows no signs it is “part of a coherent broader strategy”.

Doran said, “Shanahan depicts Trump’s Middle East policies as disconnected from any strategy. Indeed, Trump’s approach is perfectly consistent with mainstream Republican thinking. Like almost all Republican candidates for president in 2016, Trump argued that Barack Obama empowered Iran at the expense of America’s traditional allies. From the moment he took office, Trump worked to contain Iran and to revitalise relations with Israel, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. You can certainly argue against this approach but you can’t claim it’s incoherent.”

Shanahan was also incorrect, Doran added, in “fault[ing] Trump for the ‘moribund’ Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Two years after Jared Kushner took over the portfolio, Shanahan writes, ‘there is still no sign of the US’s peace plan proposal’.”

Calling for some perspective, Doran, said, “For the past 20 years, every American peace plan has failed. Attributing the absence of progress to Trump is churlish.

“But this focus on peacemaking misses an essential fact: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is less important than ever. Shanahan laments Trump’s decisions to cut Palestinian aid, move the US embassy to Jerusalem and recognise Israeli sovereignty over the Golan – steps, he argues, that poison the atmosphere. If so, then why have relations between the Gulf Arab states and Israel continuously improved in recent years?” 

Doran noted that “growing co-operation between the Gulf and Israel will do more to shape the future of the Middle East than any developments in the Palestinian-Israeli arena,” The Australian (May 8). 

Imitation is the…

In an article discussing the lack of focus on foreign policy in the federal election, Swinburne University’s Jason Thomas said Australia should consider adopting Israel’s model of military response and deterrence. 

“Ivan Arreguin-Toft’s book, How the Weak Win Wars, provides perspectives on how strong actors often lose to weak actors in asymmetric conflict. Some of the deadliest things on earth are the smallest. Israel is a good example; attack the Israelis and be prepared to spend time in an intensive care unit. As former Australian defence official Ross Babbage wrote in his 2008 paper Learning to Walk Amongst Giants, Australia needs a flexible deterrent option that can ‘rip an arm off’ an opponent,” The Australian (May 17).

Funeral rites and wrongs

Many reports on the death of former Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke recalled his strong support for Israel in the 1970s/80s and his leading role in efforts to pressure the Soviet Union to allow its Jewish citizens to leave.

But Damien Murphy channelled the gratuitous media habit of those times of alluding to a person’s Jewish ethnicity or only picking out people who are Jewish as the focus. 

In the Age/Sydney Morning Herald (May 17), Murphy wrote “Over the years Hawke had developed close friendships with the very rich and very powerful, men like transport magnate Peter Abeles and the leading Zionists Isi and Mark Leibler, magnates whose business interests ran close to government policy.”

Abeles was Jewish but was hardly the only “transport magnate” who was “close friends” with Hawke. Non-Jewish billionaire trucking magnate Lindsay Fox was interviewed on ABC Radio (May 17) on the basis he was “one of Bob Hawke’s closest friends and confidantes.”

Murphy’s description of “leading Zionists Isi and Mark Leibler” as “magnates whose business interests ran close to government policy” is also absurd.

AIJAC national chairman Mark Leibler is not in business but is a leading tax lawyer. His brother Isi founded the travel agency Jetset Tours in the mid-1960s, and this was already a highly successful business well before Hawke was elected PM in 1983. 

Prison Blues

An ABC website report (May 7) on the sentencing of Donald Trump’s former lawyer Michael Cohen on charges of lying to Congress and paying ‘hush money’ exoticised the fact that the prison he will be sent to is a preferred choice for convicted Jewish criminals. 

The story, entitled “Michael Cohen begins jail sentence at minimum-security prison dubbed ‘Jewish heaven’” gave the impression he would be living it up during his three-years at the Federal Correctional Institute in Otisville, New York, whose reputation is as “one of the country’s more comfortable prisons.”

A former inmate was quoted calling it “Jewish heaven”, and a former prison manager said the camp was “a great place for white-collar Jewish guys,” offering kosher food, including “matzo ball soup, gefilte fish and rugelach.”

But as a New York Times story noted, white collar criminals with short sentences can select where they will serve their sentence and the Otisville facility Cohen picked is actually a “shabby, low-slung building 75 miles northwest of New York City, with an antiquated weight room, an uneven tennis court and no swimming pool”. 

Bottom line, Cohen’s Jewishness is not relevant to his crimes, and should not be a focus of stories about them or his sentence.

Parke Avenue

The Labor Party’s preselection of former Fremantle MP Melissa Parke to run in retiring senior Liberal MP Julie Bishop’s seat hit the skids after West Australian media and Melbourne paper the Herald Sun reported on a poisonous anti-Israel speech she gave to a pro-Palestinian lobby group in March.

In an opinion piece after Parke decided to stand down so as not to be a “distraction”, AIJAC’s Colin Rubenstein warned how “Parke repeated inflammatory anti-Israel statements – including a claim Israeli soldiers forced a pregnant Palestinian to drink bleach – echo… the language and claims of inhuman behaviour directed at Israelis for many years and Jews for centuries. It should not be necessary to state the obvious fact that criticism of Israel as you would criticise any other nation is not anti-Semitic. However, Parke also complained that Israel’s ‘influence in our political system and foreign policy is substantial’ and compared that influence to that of communist China. Yet Israel has almost no influence in Australia – and the danger is that what she was referring to might be taken as a comment on the role of Australian citizens, primarily the Australian Jewish community, in advocating for good Australia-Israel ties,” West Australian (April 24).

Walker on the line

But veteran correspondent Tony Walker implicitly defended Parke, asking “Where are the boundaries between acceptable criticism of Israel’s behaviour, and criticism that might be interpreted as prejudiced” before adding, “Too often, motives of those offering muted criticism [of Israel] are impugned, or misrepresented… Sadly, and too conveniently, a charge of anti-Semitism is used to stifle reasonable criticism, and, yes, to intimidate those who would question Israel’s actions,” Age (April 18).

Rubenstein responded to Walker in a letter published by the Age (April 22) that his question is “easily answered… criticism of Israel similar to that levelled against any other country cannot be regarded as anti-Semitic” but “criticism can risk straying into anti-Semitism in ways listed by the [International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance] definition – including ‘applying double standards’ to Israeli behaviour, ‘dehumanising, demonising, or stereotypical allegations about Jews … or the power of Jews as collective’, [or] ‘accusing Jewish citizens of being more loyal to Israel… than to the interests of their own nations.’”

Parke, he said, “publicly supports the discriminatory Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel, which demands Israel alone of all the world’s nations be punished by complete economic, academic, and cultural sanctions; and made comments arguably recalling traditional anti-Semitic tropes about supposed Jewish power.” 

These “stances surpassing mere criticism, and contradicting ALP policy, therefore unsurprisingly have raised troubling questions about both her motives and the appropriateness of her claims,” he argued.

Barns’ Ignoble

After a long absence, Mercury columnist (April 22) Greg Barns used Parke’s withdrawal as the perfect opportunity to denounce Israel, relying on quotes from South African radicals to claim that Israel is an apartheid state and arguing Parke was correct in accusing Israel and its supporters of exercising excessive influence over the ALP.

Barns claimed “She is better than the ALP. A party which is captured by the Israel lobby and which no doubt has gone running off to the Israel government, via its Ambassador to Australia, to forelock-tug and promise that in government the ALP would be just as sycophantic to Israel as its predecessors.”

But as Executive Council of Australian Jewry’s Peter Wertheim noted, in “December, the ALP National Conference passed a resolution, supported by Labor foreign affairs spokeswoman Penny Wong, calling on the next Labor government, as ‘an important priority’, to recognise ‘Palestine’ as a state” and “Penny Wong also announced that an ALP government will reverse, not merely review, the present government’s recognition of west Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.” 

The ALP leadership, he said, “was fully aware aspects of these announcements would be criticised by most Jewish organisations in Australia. But the ALP made them regardless, making a nonsense of Barns’ claims about the Israel lobby having captured the ALP,” Mercury (April 26).

AIJAC’s Allon Lee disputed Barns’ apartheid slur, noting, “During his 1999 visit to Israel, [South African anti-apartheid leader and President Nelson] Mandela never made any such comparison, never questioned Israel’s right to exist and even expressed understanding of why Israel was still occupying the West Bank and Gaza, saying, ‘I cannot conceive of Israel withdrawing (from the territories) if Arab states do not recognise Israel within secure borders,’” Mercury (May 1).