Fresh off visits to Washington last week and the week before to London, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will fly to Singapore on Sunday afternoon, and from there to Australia on Tuesday, for the first visit by an Israeli prime minister to those countries.
Dave Sharma, Australia’s ambassador to Israel, called the visit to his country “massively significant” and “historic.”
“We have an incredibly close relationship,” Sharma said in an interview with The Jerusalem Post. “So we attach a great deal of significance to having an Israeli prime minister visit, spend time with the Australian political leadership, with the Jewish community and give Israel’s perspective on world affairs. There is a lot of symbolic and historic significance attached to this visit.”
Netanyahu is well aware of the importance of this visit to the Australian government, which was miffed by the cancellation last year of a planned trip by President Reuven Rivlin who decided at the last minute to travel to Russia instead.
Australian FM Julie Bishop in Israel
Netanyahu and then-foreign minister Avigdor Liberman also canceled separate visits in 2014, and another cancellation would have insulted the Australian government, described by one senior Israeli diplomatic official as arguably the friendliest government toward Israel in the world.
Netanyahu is scheduled, during his one day and night in Singapore, to meet President Tony Tan Keng Yam and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and visit a local synagogue.
This is a reciprocal visit to one made by Lee to Israel in April 2016, the first to Israel by a Singaporean prime minister.
Israel and Singapore have a robust relationship that includes some $1.35 billion in trade, massive Israeli investments in Singapore, extensive academic and cultural ties and a long-standing and significant military relationship, with Singapore believed to be one of Israel’s main arms markets.
During his five-day stay in Sydney, which includes a Shabbat, Netanyahu is scheduled to meet Australian Gov.- Gen. Peter Cosgrove, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, opposition leader Bill Shorten and Jewish leaders. He is also scheduled to pay a visit to a Jewish school.
Sharma said there is a great deal on the agenda, from peace and security issues in the Middle East to the fight against Islamic State – which Australia is heavily involved in – and the future of Syria.
This type of discussion is important to Australia, he said, because, although a long way away, the country “sees our security immediately affected by what is going on in the Middle East.
As a result, we have always had the view that Australian interests are served by a more stable Middle East and we should be prepared to support that.”
Sharma pointed out that since World War I – through World War II, the first and second Iraq wars, Afghanistan and the campaign against Islamic State – Australian soldiers have long fought in the Middle East. Today, he said, it is the second largest foreign contributor to the fight against Islamic State, with some 400 Australian troops training and mentoring in Iraq, and a significant air attachment flying missions against Islamic State targets.
In addition, an Australian general will soon take over the command of the Multinational Force and Observers in Sinai, where Australia has a contingent of 25 soldiers, as well as having forces with UN missions on the Golan Heights and in southern Lebanon.
“We very much have skin in the game in the Middle East,” Sharma said, adding that Israel has a “unique vantage point to offer unique insights as to what is happening in the region.
“We obviously talk to other countries, as well, but Israel speaks the same strategic language as we do and has the same sort of strategic culture so we find the insights and assessments from Israel to be particularly important.”
There is growing concern inside Australia of Islamic radicalization in Malaysia, and – to a lesser extent – Indonesia and the Philippines.
“The overall campaign against ISIS will have an impact on countries in our neighborhood,” Sharma said, pointing out that there are foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq from Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines.
He said that people who “honed their skills” in the Middle East were involved in attacks on Australians, such as in the Bali bombings in 2002 and 2005 and the attack on the Australian embassy in Jakarta in 2004.
Israel, he said, helps Australia understand “the greater dynamic at work,” as well as helping on the tactical level through cooperation between the two countries’ security forces to combat domestic and “foreign-inspired terrorism.”
Sharma said Australia will also want to hear from Netanyahu about his talks last week with US President Donald Trump and the prime minister’s vision for moving forward with the Palestinians.
“We are not looking to make a breakthrough on this and we recognize we are not a principal actor,” he said. “But we do support a two-state solution, we do support the emergence of a Palestinian state under conditions that allow for Israel’s legitimate security interests to be safeguarded.”
He said Canberra was “concerned about some of the things that have happened in the last few months that suggest that both sides are losing their commitment to preserving the possibility of a two-state solution, even if it is impossible right now, and that includes unilateral moves by the Palestinians in multinational fora, and it also includes some of the settlement announcements in the last month or two, and the [settlement] regularization bill.”
Sharma said Australian concern about settlement construction “will be passed predominantly in private,” and that, in the public comments, “I think we will reaffirm our commitment to a two-state solution.
“We are realistic to know that the US policy on this is not yet settled and we will be interested to hear directly from Netanyahu about how his conversations went in Washington and if there is an agreement between Israel and the US on how to proceed with this.”
In addition, Sharma said, Turnbull will “be keen” on briefing Netanyahu on the dynamics at work in the Asian Pacific region, an area where Israel – with significant ties with China – has a growing interest.
He said one of the big issues for Australia is “the upholding of some of these global norms” from which countries like Australia and Israel have benefited, such as freedom of navigation on the high seas and freedom of commerce.
He added that some of these norms have been challenged recently by militarization in the South China Sea and attempts to impose air defense identification zones.
Asked how Israel could be helpful in these areas, Sharma said it can bring these issues up in diplomatic talks with some of the countries involved. Though he did not mention it by name, this was a clear reference to China.
“Israel is not a major actor in this part of the world, but I think that it is important that when Israel engages, it doesn’t just see East Asia as a market,” he said. “It is more than that, it is a strategic region, and there are issues to consider beyond how big the market is and what you can sell.”
Sharma said Israel does not have this attitude, but it is “important we have these types of discussions to make sure those considerations are in their minds, as well.”
Netanyahu is expected to travel to China in March to mark 25 years of diplomatic relations with the country.
Beyond the strategic issues, Sharma said: “There is quite a full trade, commercial and investment agenda.”
The ambassador said Turnbull is particularly interested in “creating a more dynamic entrepreneurial and innovative Australian economy and wants to take lessons from Israel about how best to do that.”
The two leaders will host a large business event with participants from both countries.
Australia and Israel do $1.1 billion worth of trade each year, with a favorable trade balance for Israel, which exported to Australia some $700,000 worth of goods and services last year.