An Aussie’s view

Australian Ambassador Dave Sharma talks about what it’s like to work in the world’s most turbulent region and Israel’s standing in his home country.

Australian Ambassador Dave Sharma (photo credit: Courtesy)
Australian Ambassador Dave Sharma
(photo credit: Courtesy)
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Whether they love it or hate it, most governments around the globe will acknowledge that Israel is a power in the Middle East, the world’s most turbulent region and one that has an enormous impact on the security and economy of the world. It is a very important country in a very important region. An ambassadorial posting in Tel Aviv, therefore, is not generally given to young diplomats.
Not so for Australia’s Dave Sharma.
When appointed ambassador in 2013, Sharma was only 37, the youngest ambassador Canberra ever sent abroad.
He served previously in junior positions in Washington and Papua New Guinea. And when he came here with his wife and three young daughters to take up his posting, it was the first time he had ever visited the country.
The past 15 months have given him a crash course in Israel and the Middle East. And as an interview conducted with him in the Knesset’s dairy cafeteria bears out, the personable Sharma is a very quick study.
This is your first ambassadorial stint. Isn’t this a rather tough row to hoe for a first-time ambassadorial assignment?
It’s a tough job, a challenging job, but I wouldn’t want anything else. It’s an important relationship for Australia, it is an incredibly important part of the world, and an incredibly important time to be here. Compared to the alternatives, I couldn’t want for anything more.
If you are an ambassador, you want to work in a country that is relevant to your country, where things are happening, where developments are unfolding, and Israel is all of those things.
Why is Israel relevant to Australia?
Because the Middle East is by far and away the most turbulent and unstable region in the word.
What happens here impacts on us. Look at what is happening in Syria, right on Israel’s border.
We have about 150 Australians fighting there. We know they are coming back to Australia, or are attempting to radicalize
Muslims in Australia, so what is happening in Syria is creating a national security risk for us.
Who are the Australians in Islamic State?
They are a motley crew. There is a stereotype that people who go out on jihad come from poor, impoverished backgrounds on the fringes of society, but that is not the case with these guys in Australia. Most of them are second- generation immigrants – a lot of them [were] born in Australia, or who moved when they were very young.
Most of their families have made a real success of things – doctors, lawyers, small business people. They are part of the community. A lot of these guys had education and an opportunity. They seem to have been radicalized by the Internet, not so much through preaching, mosques or activism in Australia.
The package that ISIS [Islamic State] is offering jihadists is an attractive one.
They package it up as a five-star jihad.
Come here [to Syria] and there are fivestar hotels. This is not Tora Bora in Afghanistan, but a civilized country with hotels, tobacco. They are selling it as an adventure.
This is convincing a lot of people.
We’ve seen people, and other countries have too, who have gone there, viewed the fighting, and then come to us or other governments and said, “Get us out of here, this is bad, I don’t want to be a part of this, I didn’t realize this is what we signed up for.”
They have done a good marketing job, there are a lot of Westerners who have fallen under their spell – people who don’t have meaning in life, or are looking for meaning, or are at a dead end and have fallen into this trap.
Has there been increased intelligence cooperation with Israel because of this?
The intensity of our dialogue has certainly been stepped up... Israel has some of the best analysis and information on what is going on in the region.
We value the insights we get from the Israeli policy-makers and the analytical communities about the dynamics at play – who are the forces, where does the region stack up behind this.
Israel’s standing took a big hit in Europe as a result of Operation Protective Edge in Gaza this summer. Did something similar happen in Australia?
I don’t think public opinion about Israel is at the same place in Australia as it is in Europe, not as critical. Operation Protective Edge was a bit of a litmus test. We had protests, people coming out, but that was in the low thousands. We also had pro-Israel protests, in similar numbers.
So we had nothing like the level of activism that was seen in Europe, or some of the hatred and anti-Semitic placards. We did see a couple of anti-Semitic incidents that were inspired by this. We are not proud of that, very ashamed by it, but doing what we can to address it and hold the perpetrators responsible.
The government of Prime Minister Tony Abbott is strongly pro-Israel. Has he taken a hit for that domestically?
No, I haven’t seen any evidence of that. The [Liberal] Abbott government is strongly pro-Israel, but the [Labor] government before that was also very strongly pro-Israel. There has been a pretty long-standing bipartisan tradition of support for Israel in Australia. That is one of the strengths of the relationship.
If you look at Europe, at the UK for example, they are getting away from that bipartisanship. That is a worry, because once you get away from that bipartisanship, and [support of Israel] becomes a party political issue, you start to lose the basis for support.
Does Australia see the settlements as illegal?
We don’t think using legal terminology to discuss elements of the conflict is helpful or productive. We think that all issues in the conflict need to be decided politically, so saying something is legal or illegal is immaterial to something subject to political negotiation. But we do take the view that unilateral steps are not helpful or conducive to a two-state solution, and that includes settlement activity.
What is the position on Jerusalem?
The position on Jerusalem is that it is a final-status issue, which needs to be resolved by negotiations between the parties.
Therefore, Australia will not say that Jerusalem is “occupied?”
I better be careful here because this is a fraught issue... We don’t think it helpful to use terminology that qualifies or attempts to characterize issues that are in dispute in a legalistic manner.
So that goes for all final status issues – borders, settlements, right of return, Jerusalem. We think they are subject to political negotiations and amenable only to a political solution.
Are Israel’s interests going to be hurt when Australia is replaced in the UN Security Council in 2015 by New Zealand?
The composition of the Security Council is changing and it will be less favorable for Israel than the current one. If you just look at the countries, South Korea is coming off, Malaysia going on; Argentina is going off, Venezuela coming on. New Zealand is a supportive country, I think they are solidly supportive of Israel, but they do take a slightly different position than Australia on settlement expansion, on a two-state solution, and on other elements.
What does a diplomat need to know to work effectively in Israel?
I think it is a complicated political system and the centers of power are actually quite dispersed. There are a lot of people with influence in the Israeli system. So if you want to understand how an issue is playing or you want to influence an issue to serve your own national agenda, you can’t just plug in at one point, you need to be across the terrain. It is different on different issues.
I come from a two-party system, a Westminster party system which generally seems to mean that governments are more centralized. You can talk to a government department and you know the message will be communicated throughout the bureaucracy. Here, in a multiparty system, it is quite different.
Some government departments have more influence depending on who their minister is.
I’m often struck by the degree to which the prime minister might say one thing, and the foreign minister something completely different.
A lot of our work as far as diplomats is interpreting some of this for our capitals.
How can the foreign minister and the prime minister be at odds [on an issue]? Often you need to explain and give the context that domestic political differences can explain apparent differences expressed overseas.
It is our role to provide a bit of a filter, checks and balances. Sometimes we will say that a particular comment is intended for a domestic audience, not an international audience. And sometimes I will say that this reflects mainstream political Israeli opinion and is not about domestic politicking.
Does Israel get hurt by this decentralization and multitude of players and messages?
It makes message discipline hard.
Governments know this, but if you are a media outlet, or an outfit that wants to be critical of Israel, you will be able to find someone who is in the Likud, or who has a title that sounds important, who has said something beyond the pale of international opinion.
Although this does not represent the Israeli government, because this person has a title, and is part of the ruling party, it makes things quite difficult, because if you are the average person reading in Australia, this is what the Israeli government is saying. Since you don’t have one voice speaking for Israel abroad, it can make things harder.
Every system struggles with this a little, but in the Australian, British and American systems, the administrations are much more unified. Also, people who speak out seem to be punished or disciplined, and are deterred. But that doesn’t seem to happen here so much.
Do Australians at home get a good sense of Israel?
No, and I think that is a problem in Australia and worldwide. The news stories that come out of Israel tend to relate to the conflict with the Palestinians, to the conflict with the neighbors.
The truth is that if you’ve never been to Israel and follow Israel from abroad, most of the media coverage will be those types of stories, which means you’ll get a very one-dimensional picture of the country. It is an important part of what is going on here, there is no discounting that, but there is a whole lot more going on in Israel than just the conflict.
What can Israel do?
I know it’s hard, but attract more tourists. People need to come here and spend some time here. I’m always struck by Australian delegations who come here for the first time – journalists and parliamentarians – and who always tend to say, “it’s much more complicated than I realized, there is a lot more going on here than I realized.”
That is an important lesson to take away: that things that might look pretty binary, or easy, or straightforward from afar, are actually much more complicated up close.
You live here, do you feel the world is fair to Israel?
It is a tough one to answer, I think every country could find that the world is not giving it a fair show of things.
In some senses, I think the question is immaterial. The world’s attitude is what it is. Sure, you should try to shift those attitudes, but it is part of the reality that you have to deal with.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu talks about a double standard in the world toward Israel. Is Israel held to higher standards than other countries in the world?
I can only speak for Australia, I don’t think we hold Israel to any higher standard than any other nation. But I would say there is only so much bridling against international reality that you can do. It can be fair or unfair, just or unjust, but it is just the framework in which you live, and in some sense it is a reality that you need to adapt to and help shape.