When he presented his credentials to President Reuven Rivlin on August 8, Australian Ambassador Chris Cannan brought with him his 11-year-old twin sons Alex and Nicholas, who were vacationing in Israel.
The boys live in Brussels with Cannan’s ex-wife who is also a diplomat and deputy head of mission at the Australian Embassy in Belgium. They receive a well-rounded education in that they are absorbing European culture in Belgium, and when they visit their father they imbibe a multi-cultural Middle Eastern experience.
They absolutely loved it when they were here for the summer, says Cannan in an interview with The Jerusalem Post while recovering from the hectic pace of the very recent visit to Israel by Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.
It’s not often that a new ambassador tumbles into an event of such magnitude as an historic visit by his Prime minister with a large entourage and a highly detailed and complex itinerary.
Of course Cannan knew before taking up his post that Turnbull would be coming to Israel at the end of October to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Beersheba and to join in the inauguration of Beersheba’s ANZAC Museum.
He just wasn’t fully aware of the extent to which he would be personally involved in the arrangements leading up to the visit, as much of the preliminary work had been done by his close friend and colleague, former Australian ambassador Dave Sharma, who returned to Israel for the occasion.
Sitting over coffee in a Jerusalem hotel, the affable Cannan, who quickly gets on first name terms with people, and who has an impressive and varied Foreign Service background, tells the Post that for a first time ambassador, Israel is an ideal posting. “This is a geo-politically important part of the world.”
He also mentions the large Australian military presence in the Middle East, the constant flow of Australian start-up entrepreneurs who come to Australia’s launching pad in Tel Aviv as well as the many Australian parliamentarians who come to Israel to learn more about the region.
During Turnbull’s visit, there was the signing of a defense industry Memorandum of Understanding and there was an agreement to hold annual defense strategic talks, which Cannan says is “something long overdue because of common interests in stability and security as well as a shared agenda on terrorism.”
The MoU and the annual talks provide a real opportunity for building up defense and security relations, he says, adding that this includes a cybersecurity dialogue with the participation of leading figures from business, government and academia.
Curiously, he is the fourth consecutive Australian ambassador since 2006 for whom Israel is a first time ambassadorial posting. The others were James Larsen, Andrea Faulkner and Sharma.
The Middle East was not previously in Cannan’s portfolio.
In fact the first time he set foot in Israel was when he got off the plane as ambassador designate.
But he’s quickly learning the ropes, and was almost instantly impressed with Israel’s energy, informality and general goodwill toward Australia.
“That makes my job a lot easier,” he says.
Cannan says that Turnbull’s visit and the anniversary of the Battle of Beersheba in which Australian and New Zealand soldiers played such a pivotal role proved to be “a great opportunity” for talking about Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to Australia earlier this year, Turnbull’s then upcoming visit to Israel and Australia’s contribution to the eventual establishment of the State of Israel, which was “a great way to start a conversation.”
Checking and double checking on arrangements for the centennial event also enabled him to meet with key figures in the country at a very early stage in his ambassadorship.
A senior career officer with Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT ), Cannan, before taking up his present posting, was responsible for Australia’s aid investments in health, education and climate change funds, and also for the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
Some of his other roles have included: chief of protocol, and head of Staffing Branch (responsible for the recruitment, training, deployment and welfare of Australia’s foreign service officers). As head of the Environment Branch, Cannan was DFAT ’s lead negotiator at the Rio+20 UN Conference on Sustainable Development.
He has also worked on bilateral issues relating to South East Asia and Europe; international security and arms control, public affairs; and financial management.
As a very junior diplomat he began his overseas career in Vienna. Although he loves Israel’s informality, he admits that he did enjoy the occasional black tie and white tie ballroom affairs in Vienna.
“I’m not much of a dancer, but every Viennese knows how to waltz.”
He has also served in Manila, and was senior civilian monitor with the Australian Defense Force and led the Bougainville Peace Monitoring Group. From 2010 to 2011 he was head of donor relations at the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria in Geneva.
Originally from Australia’s internationally renowned wine state of South Australia, Cannan moved to Canberra, Australia’s federal capital, more than 20 years ago, but continues to support the Adelaide Crows, a team in the Australian Football League.
A keen swimmer, he is well disposed to Israel’s beaches, especially the beach in Herzliya Pituah which is within walking distance of the ambassador’s residence.
Among his many duties is the promotion of Australian wines.
Like that of his predecessors, his job description includes advancing and protecting Australia’s interests, developing business contacts and security relations, engagement with the local community at all levels and supporting Australian citizens in need of assistance.
He is amazed, he confesses, at the number of Australians living in Israel. His interviewer, who also comes from down under, tells him that many Israelis are also surprised when informed that there are more than 12,000 Australians living in Israel, because Australian immigrants tend to be self-reliant and are not constantly running to immigrant absorption agencies to ask for help. They merge easily into the communities in which they live.
Cannan says that the Australians that he’s met in Israel for the most part retain ties with Australia; and the Jewish community of Australia has a very strong relationship with Israel, with members coming frequently for business and family reasons, in addition to which there are numerous Zionist organizations in Australia such as the Jewish National Fund, which financed the ANZAC Museum, WIZO, the United Israel Appeal and many more, all of which help to strengthen the ties between the two countries.
Later this month Cannan will again have the opportunity to talk about Australia’s role in paving the way for Israel’s statehood and independence, when Israel, on November 29, celebrates the 70th anniversary of the United Nations Resolution on the Partition of Palestine.
Dr. Herbert Evatt, who was a brilliant Australian politician with strong Zionist sympathies, was president of the United Nations General Assembly and chairman of its Ad Hoc Committee on Palestine. As such, he resisted British efforts to get the Australians to either abstain or vote against the Partition of Palestine. Instead, Australia cast the first “yes” vote. Cannan is not sure whether there is sufficient awareness of this in Israel, and it is one of the issues he intends to address.
While current relations between the two countries are at a peak, Cannan is determined to make them even better.
One of the most helpful elements toward this goal, he says, is the Israeli frankness which he happily reciprocates, saying that in a conversation with Israelis, “you know where you stand.”
When his sons were in Israel, he took them on tours all over the country, but mostly to Jerusalem which he frequents often, not only for meetings with officials, but also because he loves to roam around the Old City “where there is so much history.” His boys loved it too.
“You could see them appreciate the history and the importance of religious and political tolerance in Jerusalem.
It’s a terrific place for children to learn about the world.” His boys loved Israel so much he says, “they can’t wait to come back.”
He takes all important visitors from Australia to the Old City, and most find it “mind boggling” to see the contrasts between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem which are only an hour’s drive from each other.
Still, Cannan is very careful not to give the wrong impression when asked about the possibility of an Australian Embassy move to Israel’s capital. Although many countries did have embassies in Jerusalem before 1967, Australia was never one of them. Cannan notes that Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has ruled out moving the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and declines to say more on the subject.
Cannan has not yet had the opportunity to study Hebrew, though he has picked up a few essential words.
However, he’s on the verge of taking Hebrew lessons.
In his extremely limited spare time, he has enjoyed the Israeli lifestyle, the food with its many refreshing innovations, and even the way people dress.
He hasn’t yet had a chance to absorb Israeli culture in terms of music, theater and dance, but intends to make up for that.
As for his job: “It’s incredibly busy, but never boring.”
The Jerusalem Post Diplomatic Conference will take place on December 6 at the Waldorf Astoria in Jerusalem.