Common Strategic Interests
of Israel and Australia
While Australia and Israel have worked successfully together, sometimes on sensitive matters related to Israel’s relations with its Arab neighbours, it’s hardly surprising that on some issues Jerusalem and Canberra have had some di erences (as occurs in most bilateral relationships).
But the two states remain old friends. It’s now time to take relations to a higher level and transform a longstanding friendship into a more dynamic and enhanced partnership across both traditional and non-traditional security domains.
There are particular opportunities to expand Australian–Israeli cooperation in traditional security areas, such as international policy, defence, counterterrorism, cybersecurity and programs to counter violent extremism.
While the political relationship between the two countries is good, there’s been a lack of recognition by both sides of opportunities to capitalise on the potential.
Australia hasn’t really been on Israel’s radar screen. No incumbent Israeli prime minister has ever visited Australia. The most recent visit by an Israeli foreign minister was in 1976. It’s disappointing that the scheduled visit of Israeli President Reuven Rivlin in March 2015 was cancelled at the last minute so he could visit Russia to meet with President Vladimir Putin instead. Rivlin is among four senior Israeli politicians who have cancelled visits to Australia in the past two years. All this sends a message that Israel takes Australia for granted.
Australia has a better record on this count, although it’s nothing to write home about. There have been occasional prime ministerial and foreign minister visits to Israel over the years, and recent high-profile visits have included those by a number of senior federal ministers, as well as the NSW Premier. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s wife, Lucy Turnbull, led a group of Australian businesswomen to Israel in May this year to examine the start-up agenda.
In the next few years, the Israeli and Australian prime ministers should visit each other’s country. This would pave the way for more regular ministerial level visits. An obvious theme for the prime ministerial visits would be to promote closer cooperation on innovation supporting economic growth.
When the two states send their prime ministers and foreign ministers to annual UN General Assembly sessions, meetings between them should be arranged as a standard procedure.
Israel is gradually seeing that Australia can provide it with a good understanding of Asia. It’s interested in learning more from Australia about China, Japan and India, as well as violent Islamist movements in the region. There’s also great interest in Israel in how Australia might be a gateway to Asia for commercial opportunities.
Israel would welcome Australia sharing its deep understanding of Indonesia and its contacts there. Israel recognises that if its ties to Indonesia are increased that will enhance cooperation with other Muslim countries.
Both Australia and Israel deeply appreciate that Indonesia is a voice of moderation and a model of democracy in the Islamic world, but are concerned about signs of Islamist extremism in Indonesia. About 500 Indonesians are thought to be fighting with Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, and some of them have returned to Indonesia. The rise of the Islamic State has revived jihadist sentiment across the archipelago.23
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 a airs dialogue between the heads of the Israeli and Australian 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 engagement.
The Israeli armed forces have had minimal knowledge of or interest in other states’ armed forces, with the exception of the American military. That’s largely because of Israel’s very limited experience of fighting abroad in coalitions.
Israelis are surprised when visiting the Australian War Memorial in Canberra by the number of expeditionary wars Australia has fought, and always in coalition.
There have been almost no high-level military exchanges between Israel and Australia (unlike between Israel and Singapore, India and South Korea).
In the past, Israel has raised the idea of enhanced defence cooperation with Australia, but little progress has been made: Canberra has been reluctant to take the defence relationship forward because of perceived costs to Australia in the Arab world and elsewhere.
The result is that 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. (The US, Britain, Canada, Korea, Japan, China, India, the Netherlands, Germany, Italy, Spain, Finland and Norway have all seen the advantages of having defence representation in Israel.)
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, especially given the recent experience of cooperation between Israel and Sunni Arab Gulf countries.
There’s no evidence that Australia’s relationship with Israel has in any way hindered its defence relations with Arab countries, its defence engagement in Southeast Asia or the Pacific, its international e orts to counter terrorism and proliferation, or the ability of the ADF to operate in Afghanistan and Iraq.
It hasn’t stopped Australia from developing a strong defence relationship with the United Arab Emirates that includes training, personnel exchanges and high-end exercises. The Emiratis are very pragmatic: for example, there are plans to open an Israeli energy o ice in Abu Dhabi. Nor has it stopped Australia working with Iran on the return of Iranian asylum seekers from Australia. Although this work shows no sign of bearing fruit for Australia so far, that’s for reasons that are unrelated to Israel.
In other words, it’s just plain false that the level of Australia’s international influence, credibility, defence diplomacy or leadership has suffered through its relations with Israel.Middle East countries take it as a given that Israel and Australia have close relations. Japan has very close relations with Israel while maintaining very strong relations with the Gulf states, on which it depends for energy security. China has high-level military exchanges with Israel.
The record shows that Australia’s relationship with Arab countries has flourished over the past decade. Australia’s trade flows and investment relationships with Arab countries continue to grow, particularly inwards investment from Gulf countries. Trade with the Gulf states has increased an average of 6% per year since 2010. Arab states’ representation in Australia continues to trend upwards. A er extended gaps, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar now have ambassadors to Australia, and Qatar has welcomed the opening of an Australian Embassy in Doha. Arab countries continue to conclude bilateral agreements with Australia to cooperate and build links on a wide range of issues. There’s a continued strong tempo of two-way ministerial visits.
This really isn’t all that surprising. Israel has peace treaties with Egypt, the most important Arab state, and with Jordan. Generally, Arab countries are quietly getting closer to Israel because of the rise of Iran in the region and because of the fear of radical Islam. They face common enemies and threats from Iran and its proxies and clients, Hezbollah and Hamas.