The Australian-Israeli relationship: Where roots continue to blossom

The Magazine decided that commemorating ANZAC was an appropriate time to interview Australia’s relatively newly arrived Ambassador to Israel, H.E. Paul Griffiths.

ANZAC Day ceremony at the war memorial in Jerusalem, 2019 (photo credit: AUSTRALIAN EMBASSY)
ANZAC Day ceremony at the war memorial in Jerusalem, 2019
(photo credit: AUSTRALIAN EMBASSY)
April 25 is commemorated, in both Australia and New Zealand, as Anzac Day (ANZAC being the acronym for Australian and New Zealand Army Corps). 
On this day, back in 1915 in the midst of the First World War, the Australian Imperial Force – which included a number of Jewish officers and soldiers who later became part of the British Army’s Jewish Legion – together with New Zealand soldiers landed in Gallipoli; the aim was to capture the Peninsula thereby opening the Black Sea for the Allied navies. However, faced with fierce resistance by the Ottoman Army, the bold action planned to knock out the Ottomans from the war, dragged on for eight months resulting in the deaths of 8,709 Australians and 2,721 New Zealanders. 
The 25th of April became the day on which Australians and New Zealanders gather at cemeteries, memorials, parks and cenotaphs to remember the sacrifice made by those who died in the war. In Israel the date is commemorated annually with a ceremony at the Jerusalem War Memorial on Mount Scopus. The last ceremony in Israel was held in 2019 as COVID-19 prevented this impressive ceremony from being held in 2020. 
The Magazine decided that commemorating ANZAC was an appropriate time to interview Australia’s relatively newly arrived Ambassador to Israel, H.E. Paul Griffiths. 
A warm and dynamic personality, Griffiths’s education covered a broad spectrum. With a bachelor’s degree in psychology, he then studied law where – in his words – “I stumbled on a passion for international law and human rights first entering the diplomatic service based on my legal qualifications but haven’t worked a day as a lawyer since! I found myself doing trade jobs – often with a legal bent – moving on to more politically-focused jobs specifically in Jakarta and Washington.”
From 2016 to 2019, the ambassador served as minister-counsellor and head of the political branch at Washington’s Australian Embassy, after which he decided to take a sabbatical accepting a position with the US tech firm Palantir Technologies based in London. While in the UK, he received an offer from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to become Australia’s Ambassador to Israel. 
What made you accept this offer, seeing you were enjoying your employment in London?
While I loved my new job, there was no way I could miss the opportunity to be Ambassador to Israel. I had always wanted to live and work here. Although I’ve worked mainly in Asian countries, the Holy Land has held a deep fascination; a mix of everything remarkable, history, challenging regional dynamics, a positive trade and investment outlook and strong cultural links to Australia. 
How was it to arrive in Israel in September 2020 in the midst of the pandemic?
Undoubtedly the strangest start to an appointment that I’ve ever experienced. It has caused us to operate differently; no face-to-face meetings; no big events; limited personal interaction with online meetings and social media instead. The embassy staff remained busy prioritizing helping Australians in need; delivering what services we can while keeping our staff safe – somewhat challenging. It’s only in recent weeks that I’ve felt like I’ve seen the real Israel and am looking forward to meeting as many people as I can – safely of course!
Israel has enjoyed longstanding support from Australia, irrespective of which party ruled. Why does Australia support Israel?
Australia has always been one of Israel’s greatest friends. Our commitment to democracy and the rule of law are shared values that run deep. Looking back through history, we are proud to have chaired the committee that recommended the creation of the State of Israel to the UN General Assembly and were proud to be the first nation-state to have voted in favor of the partition of Mandate Palestine understanding that in the wake of the horrors of the Shoah, we wanted a refuge from man’s inhumanity to man, to use Robert Burn’s phrase. 
There is a vigorous, creative Jewish community in Australia, including many who came to our shores after the Shoah. With the exception of Israel, Australia settled the largest number of Holocaust survivors per capita. These Australians built new lives contributing towards the successful, diverse modern Australia. 
Australia’s national interests are well served by our productive and increasingly diverse relationship with Israel – a vibrant, multicultural democracy with a strong economy and world-leading industrial, science and research capabilities much like Australia; we benefit each other and the world more broadly. Australia’s support of Israel connects to our shared history, strong people-to-people links across many sectors with prospects for global stability and prosperity.”
Ambassador Paul GriffithsAmbassador Paul Griffiths
Australia stands out as one of seven countries supporting Israel within international forums but, in particular, at the UN Human Rights Council. Why is this?
A core pillar of Australia’s values and international engagement is promoting a rules-based international order – the path to security and prosperity for all which applies to action countries take at home as well as in multilateral institutions. We have clearly stated our concern at the ratcheting up of rhetoric and action aimed at isolating Israel. We regard the targeting of Israel, in certain international fora, as deeply unhelpful to efforts to build peace and stability undermining the rules-based international system.
In the Human Rights Council Australia’s view is that a separate agenda item (item 7) focusing on a single country situation is inappropriate. Israel is the only country that is singled out in this way. In other forums, antisemitism is cloaked in language about human rights. This type of behavior undermines the vital importance of these institutions for the progression of key values that Australia espouses. We continue to work collaboratively but with conviction to ensure the purpose of these institutions is upheld.
That is not to say we never call out Israel’s actions. The Australian government has expressed concerns, including over Israel’s land appropriations, demolitions and settlement activity. We believe these actions undermine peace and stability – core objectives Australia pursues; we encourage Israel to refrain from actions that diminish the prospects of achieving a durable and resilient peace agreement.
It was exceptionally moving to hear your Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Treasurer Josh Frydenberg speak on the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. With an unprecedented rise in antisemitism worldwide, to what extent is Australian Jewry affected by this phenomenon?
Australia unequivocally deplores all acts of violence and abuse against a person based on their race, religion or beliefs. We are a proud multicultural country that prides itself on diversity. Australia is not immune to antisemitic motivated offenses, but we call it out where we see it, under whatever guise it takes, in international forums as well as at home. Today, Australia’s strong and vibrant Jewish community, including post-war immigrants and Jewish students, continues to contribute to the enviable quality of Australian life – which is testament to the incredible resilience of those survivors who adopted the Australian way of life and to the “fair go” for all of which Australia is justifiably proud. 
Addressing antisemitism is an ongoing process and we recognize that education plays a key role, especially on Holocaust remembrance. We have pledged to the victims and survivors that they shall never be forgotten. Education on the Holocaust forms a compulsory part of the Australian National Education Curriculum. In 2020 the Government provided funding to an innovative project organized by experts on Australia’s International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance delegation – a pilot Holocaust Memorial Week in Australian Schools – involving 12 schools focusing on testimony from survivors, study of genocide and commemoration ceremonies. Such projects ensure Australian students have the opportunity to learn about and reflect on this important issue.
As an ambassador particularly interested in trade between our two countries, how do you view the future?
Australia and Israel are at the forefront of recovery from the global pandemic. As we look to rebuild our economies and return to growth, there are opportunities for enhanced trade between Australia and Israel who share a strong track record in innovation. We all know that Israel is the Start-up Nation, but did you know that Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) created WiFi, plastic bank notes and the Equivac HeV: Hendra virus vaccine? As Australia and Israel share a strong desire to create the best tech solutions for addressing climate change and water scarcity challenges, there is fertile ground for greater collaboration in Envirotech and Agtech. 
Trade is good between our countries but I think we could do better. Two-way goods and services trade amounted to approximately AUD 1.3 billion in 2019-2020, of which Australian exports were worth AUD 345 million and imports from Israel AUD 1.02 billion. Key Australian exports include primary produce, plastics and aluminum. Australia primarily imports confidential and mineral items, as well as pearls/gems and telecommunications equipment from Israel. In 2019, Australian investment in Israel totaled AUD 1.2 billion and Israeli investment in Australia was AUD 342 million, mostly centered in the innovation sector. Israel Aerospace Industries established a fully-owned subsidiary in Australia creating a joint venture with Western Australia’s Bis Industries, in September 2020, to develop and commercialize autonomous technologies for application in mining vehicles.
We are eager to deepen the economic relationship between Australia and Israel. On February 2, Australia’s Trade Tourism and Investment Minister, the Hon. Dan Tehan MP, announced that our government would undertake a feasibility study – completed by mid-2021 and informed by consultations with both sides – into the potential benefits of a Free Trade Agreement with Israel. 
Climate change is one of the most serious global challenges we need to address head on, bringing implications and opportunities for our people and economies. While Australia and Israel are in very different parts of the world, we share similar characteristics. We are both very dry countries, conditions expected to be exacerbated as the climate continues to warm. Our respective populations are small, with relatively limited carbon emissions profiles yet we have both committed to taking strong domestic and international climate action. Israel’s intention to slash emissions by up to 80% by 2050 includes exactly the type of policies (renewables, sustainable building and development standards) needed to keep the world in line with our collective Paris Climate Agreement commitments. 
Australia continues to advance mitigation and adaptation efforts; we’re on track to meet and beat our 2030 target having reduced emissions by almost 17% since 2005. We expect renewables to be at least 50% of our electricity thanks to our Technology Investment Roadmap – new wind and solar is being developed at ten times the global average and we’re aiming to leverage $70 billion of new investment in low emissions technologies by 2030. We are also investing $15 billion to make our natural resources environment and water infrastructure more resilient to drought and climate disasters. Where Israel and Australia use similar policy, technology and investments to reach net-zero emissions, there are opportunities for collaboration.
Israel is in the midst of endeavoring to form a new government. What message will Australia give to a newly elected government in relation to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict? 
Australia’s position is clear and longstanding – it supports a two-state solution in which Israel and a future Palestinian state coexist in peace and security within internationally recognized borders. As part of this we regularly call on all parties to refrain from actions that diminish the prospects for a negotiated two-state solution and encourage Israel and the Palestinians to return to direct negotiations in good faith in the interests of achieving a durable and resilient peace agreement.
On the Israeli elections, the Australian government looks forward to working closely with the government of Israel once it is formed.
BACK TO ANZAC Day: commemorating April 25, 1915, the beginning of the end of the Ottoman Rule. Some two and a half years later, on October 31, 1917, the Battle of Beersheba was fought where one of the most famous mounted charges, by the Australian Light Horse Regiments, was launched; a breathtaking charge, with swords in hands, to defeat Turkish troops near Beersheba. The wells of Beersheba proved vital for the watering of the Australian horses in the midst of the burning desert. Winning this battle was a prerequisite for the Balfour Declaration which followed on November 2, 1917; the Declaration being a catalyst for the rebirth of Israel. 
Thank you, Australia – we specifically remember your crucial contribution as we celebrate Israel’s 73rd Yom Ha’atzmaut. Chag sameach!  
The writer is chairperson of Israel, Britain and the Commonwealth Association (IBCA), which aims to strengthen the bridges between Israel, Britain and the Commonwealth countries. She is also public relations chairwoman of ESRA which promotes integration into Israeli society.