Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was still airborne on Wednesday morning when Australians opened The Australian over coffee and Tim Tams to read an op-ed by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull describing Israel as a “miraculous nation.” The “mateship” between the two leaders was palpable later that day when Netanyahu, the first sitting Israeli premier to visit Australia, was treated to the first-ever ceremonial welcome of a foreign leader on the lawn of Admiralty House, the official residence of the Governor-General. Dave Sharma, Australia’s ambassador to Israel, spoke to The Tower on the sidelines of that historic visit about why Australia enjoys such solid and warm diplomatic relations with Israel.
“We view the security and stability of the Middle East as important for Australian national interests,” explained Ambassador Sharma. The two nations’ “shared history of values” and “people-to-people ties” matter, but Australian troops have also been engaged in most major Middle Eastern conflicts in the last century, up to the present campaign against ISIS—and Israel is a “major player” in that field. And Australia appreciates the “access” that this friendship affords it to Israel’s “unique and unparalleled insights into what’s happening” in the region, give its experience in fighting “radical Islamic terror.”
Australia also has a clear commercial interest in ties with the Jewish state. This week, the two countries signed cooperation agreements on R&D and air services, and Netanyahu hopes they can triple their $1 billion level of annual bilateral trade. “Israel has one of the most entrepreneurial, innovative start-up economies in the world,” said Sharma. “Australia needs to have an economy more like that. We’re a prosperous, high-income economy, but we need to remain at top of the value chain if we want to remain high-skill and high-income.” Australia has just unveiled a “landing pad” in Tel Aviv to provide Australian start-ups with access to the Israeli start-up scene, hoping to accelerate their development. “What we can learn from Israel is very important,” stressed the ambassador. “Israeli tech can also help Australia improve its own…effectiveness in the Asia-Pacific region.”
Turnbull vowed in his op-ed that his government would not support “one-sided resolutions criticizing Israel of the kind recently adopted by the UN Security Council,” referring to Security Council Resolution 2334. That resolution, which declared the entire West Bank and East Jerusalem “occupied Palestinian territory,” was co-sponsored by Australia’s next-door neighbor New Zealand. Israel has fraught relations with New Zealand over its hostile stance in international forums, and recently recalled its ambassador.
“We have an interest in a strong, effective and flourishing New Zealand-Israel relationship,” said Ambassador Sharma. “To the extent we can encourage that, we will, but you won’t always see it or read about it,” he hinted, explaining that Australia is pursuing “private conversations and diplomacy behind the scenes” in the hope of seeing this relationship “in good repair again.”
But despite Australia’s diplomatic support for Israel, Australia “does not necessarily see it as its role” to persuade other Western states to mellow their foreign policy in Israel’s favor. “Israel has its own diplomatic service,” Sharma pointed out, and anyway Australia “won’t presume to tell” other countries how to conduct their foreign policy. But Australia offers a “model” for Western states in framing their relationship with Israel. “We see Israel as a country and not a conflict,” Sharma explained, echoing his prime minister. “The [resolution of the] conflict with the Palestinians is a national interest for us…but we don’t let that dominate other aspects of our relationship.” Instead, Australia hopes to pursue a “comprehensive trade, commercial and cyber relationship” with Israel and to deal with disagreements “privately rather than publicly.”
And there are disagreements. Israel opposed the nuclear deal with Iran; Australia supported it. Israel is concerned that Iran will use the cash from the lifting of sanctions to grow as a military threat; Australia rushed to ease those sanctions so that Australian firms could do business in Iran. “Obviously Australia has its own interests with Iran, and they’re not always going to be the same as Israel’s, nor can Israel expect them to be,” said the ambassador, with a dose of realism. “We have bilateral interests with Iran…as a sovereign country. Israel understands and respects that.”
On the question of Palestinian statehood, the respective prime ministers also appeared to publicly agree to disagree this week. A joint statement declared that “both countries re-stated their support for a directly negotiated peace between Israel and the Palestinians,” but only Australia “affirmed its support for a two-state solution” in that statement. There does not appear to be any appetite for publicly confronting or pressuring Israel over its West Bank policies – at least not on Turnbull’s part.
Netanyahu publicly locked horns with former Australian premiers Bob Hawke and Kevin Rudd of the now-opposition Labor Party, who both called for Australia to recognize a Palestinian state even before a peace deal. Netanyahu challenged them as to “what kind of state” they were supporting: “A state whose territory will be used immediately for radical Islam?” Rudd in turn accused Netanyahu of torpedoing peace talks by “by changing the goalposts,” often at “five minutes to midnight.” The proposal to radically shift Australian policy raises the prospect that Israel could become a partisan issue in Australia, as it is becoming in Britain and the U.S., rendering the special “mateship” vulnerable to electoral politics.
“Support for Israel in Australia has had long history of being bipartisan,” says the ambassador. But there is indeed an “internal political party debate” within the Labor Party about unilateral recognition of Palestine. Israel “should always guard against” the prospect that the issue could become partisan, warns the ambassador, cautious not to comment on domestic politics.
The year 2017 will assume an even higher profile in Australian-Israeli relations, with Turnbull’s planned visit to Israel in October to celebrate the centenary of the Battle of Beersheba. Conducted a mere two days before the publication of the Balfour Declaration in 1917, the battle saw a charge by Australian mounted infantry to drive the Ottoman Turks out of the Negev city.
The battle has “an iconic place in the Australian psyche,” says Ambassador Sharma. “People have heard of battle of Beersheba even if they’re not sure exactly where it took place…It is seen as an audacious and dramatic military success [and] the start of a successful campaign that transformed map of the Middle East and the postwar settlement.”
While other states are still seeking to shape Israel’s political future by metaphorically charging at Jerusalem on horseback, Australia – at least for now – is taking a less frontal approach.
Eylon Aslan-Levy is an Israeli news anchor and political commentator. He is a graduate of Oxford, Cambridge and the IDF.