SYDNEY – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was greeted in Australia on Wednesday with pomp, circumstance and a degree of public warmth from the host prime minister rarely displayed during Netanyahu’s trips abroad.
“We have so much in common – shared values, democracy, freedom, the rule of law. Two great democracies, one very small in area, one vast, but each of us big-hearted, generous, committed to freedom,” Turnbull said at the outset of an afternoon press conference following his first of a number of meetings with Netanyahu – the first ever visit to the staunch ally by an Israeli premier. “Prime minister, you are so welcome here in Australia.”
That welcome was seconded just an hour later by Bill Shorten, the head of the opposition, who delivered a very supportive address at a luncheon attended by Netanyahu, Turnbull and some 400 Israeli and Australian businessmen.
Australian PM criticizes UN while meeting with Netanyahu during state visit to Australia
No nation provides better intelligence information about Islamic State than Israel, Shorten said, adding that he can’t imagine how it would be possible to fight Islamic State “if Israel was not Israel.”
Shorten made no mention of calls by two former prime ministers from his Labor Party – Kevin Rudd and Bob Hawke – for Australia to recognize a Palestinian state.
Turnbull, asked at the press conference about Australia’s stand on a two-state solution, reiterated Canberra’s long-standing support for it but said it must come as a result of direct negotiations.
“We support an outcome which has two states where Israelis, the Israeli people, the Palestinian people live sideby- side as a result of direct negotiations between them – that is the fundamental point – and live together in peace and the security that they are entitled to expect,” he said.
He added: “And you can’t expect – being blunt and realistic about this – you cannot expect any Israeli government to put itself in a position where security is at risk, where its citizens are not safe. The first duty of every government is the safety of the people. That’s my first job as prime minister of Australia; it is Bibi’s first job as prime minister of Israel.”
Turnbull stressed that the burden of reaching an agreement also rested with the Palestinians: “As with any agreement, it needs two to tango.”
Netanyahu, speaking about a possible resolution to the Arab-Israeli conflict, said Israel wants the Palestinians to have all the power to govern themselves, but not the military and physical power to threaten the Jewish state. The question of a Palestinian state, he said, repeating his statement from last week’s visit to Washington, was not over “labels” but over substance.
The premier added that a Palestinian state must recognize Israel as a Jewish state and that Israel must retain final security control over the territory west of the Jordan River.
Before the press conference, Turnbull rolled out a red-carpet, 21-gun-salute welcome for Netanyahu.
Using words like “miracle” and “envy of the world” to describe the Jewish state, Turnbull greeted Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, on the lush lawns of Admiralty House in Sydney, the residence of Australia’s governor- general.
With the beautiful backdrop of the harbor and the iconic Sydney Opera House in sight, an honor guard greeted Netanyahu and Turnbull and played the Israeli national anthem, “Hatikva,” twice.
The warmth of Turnbull’s reception was not relegated to the ceremonious welcome, however, as the Australian prime minister also penned an op-ed in Wednesday’s edition of The Australian under the headline “Israeli PM visit cements a warm, old friendship.”
An excerpt from the strongly pro-Israel piece appeared on the paper’s front page, titled “Turnbull blasts UN over vote on Israel.”
“My government will not support one-sided resolutions criticizing Israel of the kind recently adopted by the UN Security Council, and we deplore the boycott campaigns designed to delegitimize the Jewish state,” he wrote.
Turnbull echoed these sentiments during the three public appearances he had with Netanyahu on the first day of a four-and-ahalf- day visit: at a press conference following an initial 90-minute meeting; at a large event with some 400 Israeli and Australian business people; and in the evening at an event with some 2,000 people in the Central Synagogue in the Bondi neighborhood.
At that event, Netanyahu commended US President Donald Trump for taking “a strong stand against antisemitism.”
Netanyahu’s remarks, greeted by loud applause, were in response to comments Trump made the day before about a resurgence of antisemitism in the US.
“The antisemitic threats targeting our Jewish community and community centers are horrible and are painful and a very sad reminder of the work that still must be done to root out hate and prejudice and evil,” Trump said.
Netanyahu, during a speech that extolled the exceptionally good relations between Israel and Australia, received equally fervent applause when he said the Golan Heights “will never go back to Syria, it will always remain a part of Israel.”
Both Netanyahu and Turnbull were each asked at their press conference what could have been perceived as embarrassing questions: Netanyahu about his relationship with Australian billionaire James Packer, whose name has been tied to one of the affairs for which he is under investigation; and Turnbull about the now famously difficult first telephone conversation he had with Trump.
Netanyahu said he was not at all concerned about the investigation into his relationship with Packer, and repeated in English the Hebrew mantra he has been using since the affairs first broke: “I think nothing will come of it because there is nothing there, except friendship, which is a good thing.”
Turnbull chuckled when asked whether Netanyahu might help repair the relationship between the US and Australia after the call with Trump.
“You really shouldn’t believe everything you read in the newspapers,” he said of the infamous call about which it was reported that Trump allegedly hung up on him.
“That is absolutely not true,” the Australian prime minister said, adding that the call was courteous, “frank and forthright” and ended with Turnbull thanking Trump for “his commitment to the arrangements [regarding taking in refugees] that had been entered into by his predecessor.”