THE Australia-Israel relationship, normally a byword for geostrategic stability and enduring human warmth, has had some stormy passages lately.
The use of Australian passports by the agents, presumably from Mossad, who assassinated a Hamas terrorist in Dubai led to unusually strong criticism of Israel from Kevin Rudd and Stephen Smith. Australia changed its vote from oppose to abstain at the UN on a resolution requiring Israel and Hamas to investigate alleged war crimes as demanded in the widely discredited Goldstone report. This was a clear if unstated punishment of Israel for the passports breach.
Then there were needlessly energetic comments by Foreign Minister Smith condemning Israel over the recent announcement of 1600 new housing units to be built in East Jerusalem, on which more later.
This makes it all the more remarkable, and reassuring, that Smith yesterday hosted a bipartisan ceremony to accept a report - prepared by the Australia Israel Leadership Forum, founded by Melbourne businessman Albert Dadon - with recommendations for enhancing the Australia-Israel relationship.
The forum, in which I have participated, brings together a range of Israelis and Australians for annual strategic dialogue in the broadest sense. The Australian delegation in its two meetings has been led by Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wrote a letter endorsing the work of the forum and saying he will consider its recommendations.
The report makes four important suggestions.
The first is that Australian military staff colleges should host Israeli officers. This is a brilliant idea. Our staff colleges routinely host Arab officers and this is all to the good. We deploy a lot of Australian forces in and around the Middle East and, as a result, we have developed effective working relations with a number of Arab militaries. But we are a strategic and political ally of Israel. The absence of Israelis from these courses is a serious gap and has a small but ongoing effect on our military culture.
Arab and Israeli officers routinely attend US staff colleges together. It's good for both of them. They have to put up with each other if they want the benefit of American military staff colleges. It helps dialogue all around and it gives expression to the true nature of the US-Israel relationship. There is absolutely no reason Australia should not do this.
I would add a recommendation the report leaves out. Australia should have an annual or biennial full strategic dialogue with Israel. We do have very high level intelligence exchanges but, given the depth of our investment in the Middle East, we should also exchange deep and wide strategic views. We could learn something, and perhaps we could teach something. Our military work in Afghanistan is overwhelmingly among civilian populations, just as is most of Israel's military involvement. Operationally, ethically, in every way we have things to talk about.
Recommendation No 2 is for a free trade agreement. This is also a brilliant idea. Australian trade with Israel is small, just about $1 billion a year. But Israel is a world leader in innovation and commercialisation. We could and should do much more together.
Third, Israel's experience with improving Bedouin health and Australia's struggle to do the same with Aboriginal health ought to be the basis for co-operation, comparison and mutual teaching.
Finally, the report recommends auditing and giving life to the plethora of bilateral agreements that have become moribund through the years.
This is a practical and very useful document.
Smith reiterated at its launch that despite recent controversies there has been no change in Australia's deep friendship with and commitment to Israel.
Smith did the right thing by accepting the report, committing the government to considering it seriously and reiterating Australia's support for Israel.
And Opposition Deputy Leader Julie Bishop supported him on behalf of the Coalition.
Overall, the Rudd government displays only marginally less solidarity with Israel than the Howard government did. It has changed a couple of Australian votes at the UN, but not many. No one seriously doubts that this is an attempt, almost certainly forlorn, to curry favour with the Arab League in our quixotic and pointless quest for a non-permanent UN Security Council seat. This worthless bid is distorting our foreign policy, but so far mainly at the margins.
Similar considerations probably animate Smith's overreaction to the 1600 Israeli apartments to be built, in three years, in East Jerusalem. This is in some eerie ways a minor imitation of the Obama administration's gross overreaction. Whereas the Rudd government is courting votes for a tawdry UN election, Barack Obama plainly sees the quest to redefine the US relationship with the Muslim world as central to his historic mission, and part of this involves dumping on the Israelis.
Thus the Palestinian Authority
- for 12 months refused to negotiate with Israel; that was fine.
- It then named a square after a female suicide bomber who killed 37 civilians, including 13 children. No hint of a US rebuke there.
Don't get me wrong. I think the Israeli government was extremely stupid to announce the apartments while US Vice-President Joe Biden was visiting Israel. But Netanyahu's temporary freeze on building in the West Bank never included East Jerusalem. There are Jewish parts of East Jerusalem that every serious player knows will stay with Israel in any peace deal. They were staying with Israel under the Bill Clinton mandated offer to the Palestinians in 2000, and under the even more generous plan put by Ehud Olmert in 2008.
In other words, as usual, Israel got the public relations and political management wrong but the substance right.
The Obama administration
- was notably unmoved by rape and murder as a political tactic in Iran;
- is offering endless concessions to Syria, which treats Washington with studied contempt; and
- will never criticise the Palestinian Authority.
Canberra has no need to go down that same road.
This useful report helps it choose a better road instead.
From Remarks at the Launch of the Australia Israel Leadership Forum policy paper, by the Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs, Stephen Smith, MP, 17 March 2010:
Albert Dadon, thank you very much....I compliment you on the work that you have done so far as the Leadership Forum is concerned, but also so far as Australia and Israel relations are concerned....
....Albert, I'm very happy on behalf of the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister to receive your report. Obviously, we will give your report serious consideration, as I'm sure other Members of the Parliament will.
Can I make this point: the friendship between Australia and Israel is longstanding and it is enduring, and that will continue. Despite recent events, which have been the cause of public commentary between Australia and Israel, that friendship will endure.
And the strength of the commitment of all sides of Australian politics, of both sides of the Parliament, shared by Governments of both political persuasions for a considerable period of time, our support for Israel, our support for a two-state solution, our support for a long-term sustainable, enduring peace in the Middle East is ongoing and our strong commitment to that will not, in any way, waiver...