(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
The same day President Reuven Rivlin apologized profusely to Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop for canceling a planned trip to Canberra earlier this year, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu received an invitation to visit by Bishop, who had made a twoday visit to Israel. If he follows through, he will become the first serving prime minister to make an official visit Down Under.
Considering the special and very close relations that exist between Canberra and Jerusalem, it is about time an Israeli prime minister make the trip to Australia to show Israel’s appreciation for Australian support, which should not be taken for granted. An official visit by a serving Israeli prime minister would send that message.
Australian involvement in the creation of Israel goes back a century. Rivlin noted during his public apology to Bishop that the 1917 Battle of Beersheba, fought by the Australian Light Horse Regiment together with the British Army against the Ottoman Empire, helped pave the way for the Balfour Declaration and, eventually, the creation of the Jewish state.
In the early 1940s, a group of Australian Jewish businessmen lobbied Australia’s then-foreign minister Doc Evatt to support the creation of a Jewish state. Evatt was won over and as a leading figure in the United Nations, he actively pursued the creation of the State of Israel.
After the Second World War, Australia accepted a large number of European Jews who survived the Holocaust.
But relations have not always been smooth. Under the leadership of Gough Whitlam, Australia distanced itself from Israel during the Yom Kippur War.
In 1997 during the opening of the Maccabi Games, negligence resulted in the collapse of a footbridge that led to the deaths of four Australian athletes and the injury of dozens more. The games organizers and the State of Israel were slow to accept blame and provide compensation, which hurt relations with the Australian Jewish community and with the Australian government.
A low point in relations was the fallout from the 2010 assassination of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh. Fraudulently obtained Australian passports were used by the Mossad agents who reportedly carried out the assassination.
Then-foreign minister Stephan Smith expelled an Israeli diplomat from Australia and publicly declared “these are not the actions of a friend.”
The same year, Ben Zygier, a dual Israeli-Australian citizen and Mossad agent died under mysterious circumstances in Israeli custody. He had been held in a special wing of an Israeli prisoner reserved for those awaiting trial for the most serious espionage charges. His death sparked debate in Australia over Israel’s treatment of an Australian national.
In recent years though, diplomatic ties between Australia and Israel have flourished. In 2014, for example, Australia joined the United States as the only other country on the United Nations Security Council to vote against a Palestinian bid for statehood. Large numbers of Israeli emigres have relocated in Australia. Economic and technological cooperation between the two countries is robust.
Nevertheless, consecutive public opinion polls have shown that Australians are divided over their support for Israel. A Roy Morgan Research poll from November 2011 found that Australians were just as sympathetic with Israelis as they were with Palestinians. And in 2014, a BBC World Service opinion poll found that 67% of Australians had a negative view of Israel’s influence and just 24% had a positive view.
Israel’s leaders have an obligation to nurture ties with Australia and there is much common ground to build on. The two countries are robust democracies that cherish freedom. As political scientist Daniel Elazar pointed out, unlike most nations that grew out of indigenous populations, countries like the US, Australia and Israel were established by bearers of a covenantal tradition.
Those who settled these countries had in mind and in writing a model society which they proceeded to create in accordance with the ideals they held dear. This partly explains the affinity Australians and Israelis feel for one another.
It is nothing short of astounding that an Israeli prime minister has never once paid an official visit to Australia.
Netanyahu should change that embarrassing record by taking up Foreign Minister Bishop on her offer.