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.

International policy

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.

Defence cooperation

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.

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

Common interests have led to a situation in which many regional players realise that Israel isn’t the problem, but a pathway to devising constructive regional outcomes. The Gulf states, concerned about Iran and Islamic State, have edged closer to Israel. Israel’s dialogue with the large, important Sunni countries ‘remains mainly under the radar, but it deepens all the time and it bears fruit’.25 The recent willingness by Egypt to return two islands in the Straits of Tiran to Saudi Arabia entailed security understandings between Israel and the Saudis.26 Saudi Arabia has stepped up its intelligence sharing with Israel.

Both the ADF and the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) would benefit from enhanced cooperation: both operate American equipment and have invested heavily in world-class technology. (Israel’s defence budget is around US$8 billion; Australia’s is around US$24 billion.)

Both countries operate small, high-tech forces. Israel’s fighting is all about operating in complex terrain, how
to manage collateral damage, and how to manage missile threats (a lot of attention is given to hard kill vehicle protection). Israel’s air force, army and intelligence units are working to improve their ability to coordinate and share information in the event of a major conflict with Hezbollah. The IDF is refocusing the army’s training on countering guerrilla-style opponents and is bringing all commando units under one organisational roof to develop appropriate doctrine while keeping the expertise of each unit. All this is of great interest to the ADF.

Israel has proven to be a prime source of efective counterterrorism and counterinsurgency tactics, techniques and procedures: the Israeli military pioneered many of the tactics adopted by counterterrorism forces in units around the world. On Australia’s side, there’s been an unprecedented growth in its special forces capability, especially in Iraq and Afghanistan. Both countries’ special forces would benefit from an exchange of knowledge about each other’s approaches and from joint exercises.


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), and finding and destroying tunnels. It’s developing a doctrine for underground warfare. (Israel destroyed 32 tunnels during Operation Protective Edge in Gaza in 2014, but Hamas has been rebuilding the tunnel infrastructure.) Israel has also made technological inroads in tunnel detection.

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 (ISR) and advanced munitions.

More broadly, Israel has a range of technologies and skills relevant to the ADF’s role in domestic security, such as border-monitoring technologies, video surveillance and incident information management, particularly in the areas of explosives detection, video surveillance management and analytics, smart sensors, access controls and security applications for mobile devices.


Australia has taken advantage of access to unique Israeli capabilities in key areas of military technology. For example, the Israeli company Plasan is a world leader in armour and survivability systems for military vehicles. It’s partnering with Thales Australia to deliver the fully protected body kit for the 1,100 Hawkei vehicles to be provided to the ADF on a contract spread over the next five years.

Israel’s Elbit Systems is the prime systems integrator for the battle management system of the Australian Army (in essence, the system digitises the battlefield) and provides thermal weapon sights.

Because not many armed forces have deployed operationally with these battle management systems, it would be advantageous to develop a dialogue between users to reap the benefits of the operational experience of each user.

Australia and Israel could benefit from regular exchanges of perspectives in defence industries. Such topics might include ideas on how best to evolve military technology for profitable commercial applications, and how to maximise government investment in defence industries.

Israel has much to share with Australia on the readiness, mobilisation and use of reserve forces. In an extreme situation in which Australian society must be put on a war footing, Australia would need to understand what societal readiness requires. Israel’s approach to readiness would help.

Israel, whose military doctrine is based on self-reliance, can learn from Australia’s experience in operating as part of military coalitions. Australia has never fought a war outside of a coalition. The more secure Israel becomes in its own region, the more likely it will be that it will join coalitions. Australia can share lessons on how smaller powers work in such arrangements, especially with the US. This issue has become more important for the IDF: it’s noted in a seminal document, The strategy of the IDF (Hebrew), published in August 2015.



In the area of counterterrorism, there’s scope for Australia and Israel to share information on terrorist financing (Israel’s an observer of the intergovernmental Financial Action Task Force and wishes to become a full member next year).

In November 2015, Australia and Indonesia co-hosted the first-ever Asia–Pacific counterterrorism financing summit, at which 20 countries committed to a range of initiatives to increase the sharing of financial intelligence information in the region. In August 2016 both countries convened the second Southeast Asian regional counterterrorism financing summit that produced the world’s first regional risk assessment on terrorism financing. Israel has appreciated Australia’s very active diplomacy on financial sanctions on Iran, but has greater reservations than Australia about any relaxing of sanctions to do with the nuclear deal. (Australia still has some non-nuclear sanctions on sensitive goods, arms and ballistic missiles and special sanctions against designated persons and entities).

Other areas for cooperation relate to countering violent extremism, models of sharing information on foreign fighters, the connections between Middle East terrorism and Asian violent Islamist extremism, and developments in security technologies.


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

Intelligence cooperation

It’s reasonable to assume that there’s still a cloud over intelligence cooperation between Israel and Australia. Six years ago, Australia expelled an Israeli intelligence o icer in response to Israel forging Australian passports that were used in the assassination of Hamas leader Mahmoud al-Mabhouh. It was particularly unfortunate that the o icer’s name was leaked to the media.

Trust needs to develop continually so that ways may be found to cooperate in a more intimate way. 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, including as part of the increasingly precarious MFO mission in the Sinai.

Israel has strong capabilities for collection and assessments on key countries and issues in the Middle East.

Israeli intelligence remains a major source of information on Iran’s and Hezbollah’s global activities. Australia, in turn, has good information on Islamist extremist groups in Asia that Israel would find of interest.


The threats and risks in cyberspace aren’t diminishing: they’re growing in pace, scale and reach.

Australia and Israel are working to protect critical infrastructure from cyber threats, working with foreign countries on cyber diplomacy and helping to develop commercial relations on cyber R&D abroad.

Australia published its Cyber Security Strategy in April 2016, and $230 million will be invested to enhance operational capability. A range of initiatives announced in the strategy will better enable the private sector to manage cyber threats and embrace opportunities for digital economic growth. Developing Australia’s cyber workforce is one of the strategy’s key aims.

Australia will soon have its first Cyber Ambassador, which will allow it to play a more active role in international cyber diplomacy, continuing already fruitful work in the ASEAN Regional Forum. Engagement with foreign partners on cybercrime will be a key part of the responsibilities of the new ambassador. Australia has had o icial cyber dialogues with India, China, Japan, and South Korea.

Israel has world-class expertise in cybersecurity (its cyber exports last year were US$3.5 billion) and is now 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. Israel recently had its first-ever cyber dialogue, which was with Japan (Israel has also had close contact with South Korea on cyber matters).

As noted above, there’s no reason why Israel can’t become a major partner in Australia’s e orts to exploit the military applications of cyberpower as part of broader state power.

Australia’s Prime Minister recently made public, through the Cyber Security Strategy, that Australia has considerable o ensive cyber capabilities (although he made clear that its use is subject to stringent legal oversight and consistent with international law).


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 ways each manages its Islamic communities.

Israel’s population is roughly 20% Arab (mostly Muslim). They are fully-fledged citizens, and while they experience some discrimination and challenges, this population group has been remarkably free from radicalisation and extremist influence. Israel’s government decided recently to invest billions of shekels in the country’s Arab community to counteract discrimination and upgrade education and access to the labour market. It also plans to fund a new university in the Arab sector.

Australia, despite having some problems with small parts of its Muslim communities, which make up 2.2% of the population, has found that it’s done well in mainstreaming and integrating its Islamic communities, at least compared to most other Western states.

Australia’s policies of multiculturalism and citizenship have stressed integration into the core values of Australian life and on balance have provided an alternative societal model for those who might otherwise support Islamist extremism. But there’s no silver bullet here. Since September 2014, Australia has experienced three terror attacks and nine disrupted plots.

Around 110 Australians are fighting in terrorist groups in Iraq and Syria, 50–59 have been killed and around 40 have returned to Australia. Another 177 have been prevented from leaving Australia through passport cancellation, and 33 have had their passports suspended. Australian security agencies are investigating around 400 terrorism cases.

Australia has now developed an extensive program working with its Muslim communities on countering violent extremism. It’s devoting considerable resources to researching various countering violent extremism programs. The long-term e ectiveness of such programs is as yet uncertain. Israel has recently started a ‘youth at risk’ program. Both countries are interested in how to measure the e ectiveness of programs to counter violent extremism.


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.


This article is an edited excerpt from the report “The wattle and the olive. A new chapter in Australia and Israel working together” by Anthony Bergin and Efraim Inbar. It was published by the Begin and Sadat for Strategic Studies and Australian Strategic Policy Institute in October, 2016.