New report on the Australia-Israel relationship

Nov 3, 2016

New report on the Australia-Israel relationship

A new report published by the Australian Strategic Policy Insitute (ASPI) in conjunction with the Begin-Sadat Centre for Strategic Studies (BESA) in Israel looks at the Australia-Israel relationship.

Co-authored by ASPI’s Dr. Anthony Bergin and BESA’s Prof. Efraim Inbar, the report focuses upon areas where the relationship may be further deepened through co-operation in key policy areas including diplomacy, defence, security, innovation and environmental challenges.

The full report (in PDF) can be accessed here.

The wattle and the olive

A new chapter in Australia and Israel working together

Anthony Bergin and Efraim Inbar

October 2016

Australian Strategic Policy Institute
Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies

Executive Summary

Next year will be the 100th anniversary of the World War I Battle of Be’er Sheva (Beersheba in English). The success of the Australian Light Horse regiments was due not only to their courage and daring, but also to their ability to be innovative and to take risks-the very characteristics we need today to enter a new chapter in relations between Israel and Australia.

The relationship between Australia and the small Jewish state is warm and close, despite occasional problems. Australia has always been seen as friendly by Israel, although it’s rarely been a major focus of policy efforts in Jerusalem.

Israel has sought over the years to solicit Australia’s support at international institutions and to gain access to diplomatic and economic opportunities in the Asia-Pacific region.

Both states are immigrant countries. Both societies pride themselves on being down-to-earth and on their egalitarianism, resourcefulness and social mobility. Both appreciate plain speaking and being up-front about the nature of any deal under discussion. All this provides a solid foundation for working together and doing business together.

Australia has a strong Jewish community of around 120,000 that’s made an enormous contribution to the country. It can serve as one component in efforts to bring the two countries closer.

But, while there’s a mutual recognition of shared values and a reasonably close bilateral working relationship, there hasn’t been sufficient recognition given by either state to how each contributes to the other’s national interests.

Underappreciating or simply ignoring the strategic benefits of closer ties means that each side won’t be able to fully realise all the benefits of greater cooperation across the spectrum of traditional and non-traditional security issues.

Right now, there’s a lot of rhetoric from both sides about the relationship, but not a lot of substance. While both publics have favourable views about each other’s country, it’s fair to say there’s not a lot of real knowledge in each nation about the other. The relationship is in many ways underachieving.
Common strategic interests

Values won’t sustain a relationship if it’s not built on interests. Australia and Israel have significant common national interests that provide the basis for greater security and other benefits for both countries.

Rules-based order

At a time when the global rules-based order is under increasing pressure, both Israel and Australia share a commitment to conduct their activities in accordance with international law and international norms.

Middle East

While Australia’s and Israel’s national interests in the Middle East will never mirror each other precisely, both states have a range of common interests, such as:

  • shared strategic perspectives on the prevention of nuclear proliferation 
  • combating terrorism and violent Islamist extremism 
  • a preference for peaceful, liberal, democratic change and economic progress 
  • limiting Iran’s support for terrorist groups and its nuclear potential 
  • ensuring the security of vital trade and energy flows 
  • resolving the difficult, complex and often emotional Israeli-Palestinian issue based on a two-state solution 
  • alliance interests (keeping the US engaged in their respective regions).

Israel strongly supports Australia’s longstanding contribution to the Multinational Force and Observers mission in the Sinai. Around a dozen ADF personnel are deployed to the UN Truce Supervision Organization in the Middle East.

Alliance management

Both Israel and Australia are friends and allies with the US, in good times and in bad. Both countries enjoy popular support from the American public, insofar as any foreign country is popular in the US.
For both countries, the US alliance is fundamental to each country’s national security: both states wish to deepen their alliance with the US.

Both Australia and Israel have a strong interest in ensuring that the US continues to invest in the credibility of its security relationship with them and to allow access to its arms industries.

However, neither country has any interest in following US international policy blindly: they both want a strategic partnership, not compliance.

Both states have a clear interest in ensuring that the US doesn’t pull back from its commitment to them and that the US defines its relationship with them as a core US national interest.

Both countries understand that their close defence relationship with the US requires their governments to invest heavily in sustaining the alliance relationship so that their voices are heard in Washington.

Both wish to strengthen American perceptions that the alliance with them also benefits the US: neither state wants to be thought of as a security ‘free rider’.


Australia and Israel should support common approaches on an issue-by-issue basis with Washington, if both countries think there would be value in that. However, given our separate strategic geographies, such joint approaches would be relatively rare.


Israel wishes to expand its economic links with Asia and the Pacific.

Its best and closest relations are with the North Asian states (Japan, South Korea and China) and with India and Singapore. These are all states with which Australia, too, has burgeoning relationships.

Both Israel and Australia recognise that China is challenging the US position in Asia. Australia has long appreciated Israel’s decision many years ago to terminate sales of arms and dual-use technology to China.

China is Australia’s largest trading partner and Israel’s third biggest. As China becomes a bigger player in the Middle East, the issue of managing China relations will become a bigger issue for Israel.
Both Israel and Australia appreciate the rising importance of India.

There’s a growing interest in Israel in the US pivot to Asia and what it means for the US position in the Middle East, and in the strategic implications of China’s initiatives, such as the ‘maritime Silk Road’, the infrastructure ‘belt’ across Central Asia towards Europe and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.

In the Pacific islands, where Australia has extensive security ties to the island states, Israel has had considerable goodwill engagement through sending out experts as part of its aid program.

Cooperation on traditional security issues

While Australia and Israel have worked successfully together, it’s now time to transform a longstanding friendship into a more dynamic and enhanced partnership across both traditional and non-traditional security domains.

International policy

Australia hasn’t really been on Israel’s radar screen. No incumbent Israeli prime minister has ever visited Australia. The last visit by an Israeli foreign minister was in 1976. That sends a message that Israel takes Australia for granted. Australia has a better record on this front, although it’s nothing to write home about.


In the next few years, each state’s prime minister should visit the other’s country. This should pave the way for more regular ministerial-level visits.

When the two states send prime ministers and foreign ministers to annual UN General Assembly sessions, meetings should be arranged as a standard procedure.

Israel is gradually seeing that Australia can provide it with a good understanding of Asia and might be a gateway for commercial opportunities in the region.

Israel would welcome Australia sharing its deep understanding of Indonesia and its contacts there.


Australia should convene a low-key 2nd track dialogue with Indonesia and Israel to share strategic assessments, especially as they relate to violent Islamist extremism.

There’s been a foreign affairs dialogue between the heads of each nation’s foreign ministries (Israel has the equivalent with Japan and India), but one hasn’t been held in the past four years. It’s now time to intensify that foreign affairs engagement.

Defence cooperation

There have been almost no high-level military exchanges between the two countries.

Israel doesn’t have a uniformed military attaché in Canberra (although it has posted a Ministry of Defense civilian). The Australian military attaché to Israel is based in Ankara.

Australia can have robust and productive relations with Arab and other Muslim nations in the Middle East, Southeast Asia and elsewhere, while developing closer defence cooperation with Israel. It’s not a zero-sum game.

Middle Eastern countries take it as a given that Israel and Australia have close relations. Australia’s relationship with Arab countries has flourished over the past decade.

In the Middle East, Israel’s also enjoying closer relations with many of its neighbours, albeit quietly.
Both the ADF and the Israel Defense Forces would benefit from enhanced cooperation: both operate American equipment; both states’ militaries have invested heavily in world-class technology.

Israel has proven to be a prime source of effective counterterrorism and counterinsurgency tactics, techniques and procedures. On Australia’s side, there’s been unprecedented growth in its special forces’ capability.

Israel has experience in urban warfare and the development of unmanned aerial systems for intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and combat. It has expertise in countering improvised explosive devices, an area where Australia also has considerable expertise.

Israel’s a global pacesetter in active measures for armoured vehicle protection, defence against short-range rocket threats, and the techniques and procedures of robotics. It’s developed a range of capabilities for battlefield intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance and advanced munitions.

More broadly, Israel has a range of technologies relevant to the ADF’s role in domestic security, such as border-monitoring technologies, smart sensors, access controls and security applications for mobile devices. Israel’s Elbit Systems is the prime systems integrator for the battle management system of the Australian Army.

Israel, whose military doctrine is based on self-reliance, can learn from Australia’s experience in operating as part of military coalitions.

Both countries’ militaries are focused on how to incorporate cyber capabilities into their military operations.

Both countries are near to major choke-points along maritime oil and trade routes, making naval affairs an important component in their national strategies.

Both are focused on the undersea domain, submarines and deterrence and plan for the future development of undersea technologies, particularly unmanned subsurface vehicles.

Both are interested in indigenous naval design capability, maritime electronic support measures and electronic countermeasures.

Both are interested in the ramifications of renewed competition in the global maritime arena, especially between China and the US, but also between second-tier powers with global ambitions, such as India and Russia.

Both are interested in protecting offshore resources: the discovery of significant hydrocarbon deposits in the eastern Mediterranean has the potential to create conflict and damage the environment.

Both states’ navies are interested in missile defence against seaborne land attack capabilities and surface-to-surface missiles.

In air power, both countries intend to acquire the F-35A variant of the Joint Strike Fighter. As two operators of the same variant, there might be potential for collaboration.

The RAAF is also developing its expertise in the use of unmanned aerial systems. There’s much Australia can learn from Israel’s pioneering extensive development and operational employment of unmanned aerial vehicles.


Starting in 2017, Israel and Australia should look to develop a strategic dialogue involving senior uniformed and civilian defence personnel. The dialogue should look at strategic thinking, military-to-military cooperation, US alliance issues, cybersecurity and industry cooperation. Israel already has such dialogues with the US, the UK, France, Germany, India and Canada (led by the Director-General of the Ministry of Defense or by a senior policy officer in the ministry).

The strategic dialogue could lead to meetings between the two defence ministers. Over the medium term, it may lead to an annual ‘2+2′ strategic dialogue involving the foreign and defence ministers from both countries.

To generate military benefits, both countries should establish uniformed defence attaché positions.
There should be military staff exchanges at each other’s defence colleges at least every two years and targeted training serials in Australia for junior Israel Defense Forces officers.

There should be regular exchanges between Australia’s Defence Science and Technology Group and Mafat (the Administration for the Development of Weapons and Technological Infrastructure) in areas where there are win-win benefits, such as countering improvised explosive devices.

Defence industry cooperation is about operating integrated systems, mission planning and communications. There should be more regular meetings between Australian and Israeli defence industry end-users and operators.


There’s scope for both countries to share information on terrorist financing, countering violent extremism, foreign fighters, the connections between Middle East terrorism and violent Islamist extremism in Asia, and developments in security technologies.


Israeli and Australian agencies involved in counterterrorism should meet for information exchanges.

Intelligence cooperation

Both states’ intelligence services can enhance their interests by sharing information, particularly in the area of counterterrorism.

Australia’s still undertaking military operations in the Middle East. Israel has strong capabilities for intelligence collection and assessments on key countries and issues in that region.

Australia has good information on Islamist extremist groups in Asia that Israel would find of interest.


Israel has world-class expertise in cybersecurity and is establishing a new national Cyber Security Authority.

Both sides can work to build an enduring partnership to try to secure the cyber commons while protecting their own critical infrastructure.


Australia and Israel should convene a cyber dialogue to examine issues such as internet governance, cybercrime, cyber regulations, information sharing between government and business, capacity building and incentives for industry.

Social cohesion and countering violent extremism

One of the most interesting areas in which Australia and Israel can learn from one another is the way each manages its Islamic communities.

Australia, working with its Muslim communities, has now developed an extensive program on countering violent extremism. Israel has recently started a ‘youth at risk’ program. Both countries are interested in how to measure the effectiveness of such programs.


Both countries should share information on how to integrate countering violent extremism programs into existing initiatives in education, employment and social policy and on how such programs can contribute to a cohesive society.


Cooperation on non-traditional security matters

Australia and Israel can also benefit from cooperation in non-traditional security areas.

Innovation diplomacy

Israel has one of the highest concentrations of innovators and entrepreneurs.

Through the National Innovation and Science Agenda, Australia is developing innovation policies to transform its economy.

Australia opened an innovation ‘landing pad’ in Tel Aviv in June 2016 to give Australians privileged access to those in Israel who have driven Israel’s economic transformation.

There could also be more grassroots academic cooperation between universities, especially in the sciences.


All efforts should be made to conclude the Australian Government’s agreement with Israel on industrial research and development. Australian companies should be encouraged to use the innovation hub in Tel Aviv. The best and the brightest in Israel’s innovation ecosystem should be invited to Australia to see how its tech scene is developing.

An internship program could be developed in Israel for Australian university students. It would incorporate both university study and working in high-tech enterprises, including on cyber matters.
Academic exchanges among Israeli and Australian institutions of higher learning should be encouraged.

Remembering the Anzac heritage

There’s not much awareness among young people in both countries of Australian military actions that set the ground for Israel’s independence. When Israelis talk about the Anzacs in their country, they’re really talking about Australia. There are many sites in Israel where Australian forces fought in World War I.


There should be public commemorations in both countries, involving senior leaders and military officers of both countries, to mark the centenaries in 2017 and 2018 of each of the large military engagements in Israel in which the Anzacs participated.

Resilience and disaster planning

Israel has a highly resilient population tested by many disruptive events. Its communities have very high capacities to continue operations and daily life during crises. Australian health authorities can certainly learn from the Israeli experience in dealing with the health aspects of terrorism.

Australia has resilience lessons to share based on its experience of mitigating and responding to the impact of natural disasters.

Both countries are heavily involved in providing overseas disaster response to nations suffering major natural disasters.


Australia’s national emergency management authority and Israel’s equivalent (under its Ministry of Defense) should exchange information on homeland disaster resilience and on humanitarian assistance and responses in overseas emergencies and disasters.

Smart cities

Australia’s one of the most urbanised countries. If Australia’s economy is to be led by innovation, the performance of its cities is crucial.

Israel’s cities have been doing innovative work. Tel Aviv, for example, is the ‘start-up city’: it has the highest concentration of high-tech start-ups per capita in the world.

Tel Aviv’s strategy of citizen-oriented governance operates from the bottom up, like a ‘kibbutz city’. In Tel Aviv, about 60% of people participate in an online digital engagement platform that allows registered members to conduct their business with the city and allows the city to send them information.

The southern desert city of Be’er Sheva has been undergoing a near-miraculous transformation from a barren land of sand and camels into a cybersecurity powerhouse.


The Australian Council of Capital City Lord Mayors should meet with Israel’s Conference of Mayors to discuss urban innovation, with a focus on issues and challenges facing mayors in both countries.

Serious and organised crime

Both countries face growing problems of serious and organised crime, drugs and money laundering. Gambling is a major crime industry in Israel, where gambling is illegal.


There should be exchanges between both countries’ national police forces.

Water security

Israel is a world leader in water conservation and management and high-tech agriculture. It’s a pioneer of drip irrigation for farming in arid regions and a major player in desalination, operating five large plants. Australia, too, is a leader in many aspects of water management.


Australia and Israel should exchange information on best practices in water management and work together on water management in Africa and the Pacific.

Concluding remarks

Deepening the Australia-Israel relationship will generate significant benefits in advancing both countries’ national interests, although it will be necessary to select areas for cooperation that bring the highest mutual benefit.

Of course, it won’t be a fairytale marriage or a completely trouble-free zone. Differences will arise, but they can be managed in a way that doesn’t damage long-term relations.

If the bilateral relationship is to flourish over the longer term, Australian and Israeli political leaders should be pointing out that our relations are a net asset for both nations.

Expanding partnerships both in traditional security areas, such as defence, intelligence and cyber security, and in non-traditional areas, such as innovation and disaster and societal resilience, offer a win-win deal that will benefit Australia and Israel for years to come.

We should use the 2017 centenaries of the charge of the 4th Light Horse Brigade at Be’er Sheva, Australian involvement in the Middle East and the Balfour Declaration (which led to the creation of the modern state of Israel) to revitalise the relationship.

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