Australian governor-general attends Beersheba war monument ceremony

Hundreds of Australians, expatriates and visitors from abroad, participated in the dedication of the Park of the Australian Soldier in Beersheba on Monday. The park, a gift of the northern-headquartered Pratt Foundation - founded some 30 years ago by Richard and Jeanne Pratt - is a monument to the Australian Light Horse regiment, which defeated the Turks in the battle of Beersheba in October 1917. Australian Governor-General Maj.-Gen. Michael Jefferey recounted the history of the battle as if he had been there. President Shimon Peres listened to him intently, then said it made him wonder "what would have happened to our country and our history if this did not take place." Sam Lipski, CEO of the Pratt Foundation, said the foundation had decided to commemorate war and peace in Beersheba "because in this place, gallant Australian soldiers changed history in the Middle East." Australian soldiers, he said, were valiant warriors and ardent peacemakers. "The park strengthens the warm relationship between Israel and Australia," said Beersheba Mayor Yaakov Terner. He praised the monument, which was created by Australian sculptor Peter Corlett, as "magnificent" and "exciting." Asked at the end of the military ceremony how he felt, Richard Pratt - who had been thanked many times over by many people - told The Jerusalem Post that he was flattered. "Why do you feel flattered? You paid for it," he was asked. "Yes," replied Pratt, "but you pay for a lot of things, and people don't always remember to say thank you." Earlier Monday, Peres told Jefferey as he welcomed him at an official ceremony at Beit Hanassi that "this country is full of love for Australians." During World War II, recalled Peres, "most of us met your soldiers and fell in love with them." Peres characterized the Australian soldiers of his youth as "free-spirited but dedicated." He praised Australia, which despite not having fought a war on its own territory, had taken on the responsibility of caring for other people's security and independence without asking for anything in return. "Our country owes you a great a deal of thanks," he said. He did not elaborate much, but did make the point that what the Australian troops did in Beersheba more than 90 years ago "introduced a change of guard that eventually led to the creation of the State of Israel." Casting his mind back, Peres said he could not remember a "bad-weather" period in Israel-Australia relations. "Your leaders always showed goodwill towards us," he said. Jefferey, one of Australia's most distinguished army veterans, responded: "As an old soldier, your comments on the Australian military warmed my heart." He congratulated Peres on Israel's 60th anniversary, conveyed the good wishes of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and issued an invitation for Peres to visit Australia. If Peres goes, he will be the third Israeli president to visit the far-flung continent, joining former presidents Chaim Herzog and Moshe Katsav. There are strong and enduring ties between the two countries, said Jefferey, who is on his third visit to Israel but his first as governor-general, making him the first person of that rank to visit Israel. He said that 773 of the 100,000 Australians who fell in the two world wars were buried in Israel. His own uncle was killed in World War II on the Litani River. Referring to the 4th Light Horse regiment of the Desert Mounted Corps, Jefferey said they had fought audaciously, bravely and decisively to capture Beersheba and been "the finest light cavalry the world had ever seen." Australia, he continued, had a long history of service in the region and had been involved in peacekeeping operations since 1948. Jefferey also appreciated that four Jewish National Fund forests bear the names of Australian leaders. Three are named for former prime ministers Robert Menzies, Bob Hawke and John Howard, and one for former governor-general Sir Zelman Cowan. Commenting on some of the common goals of the two countries, Jefferey listed maximizing productivity of limited arable land; improving water availability, quality and distribution; and energy security issues, among other things. Jefferey said he looked forward to visiting Israel's scientific establishment "to look and to learn." Both publicly and in his private conversation with Peres, Jefferey broached the need to encourage regular high-level interfaith dialogue among Jews, Muslims and Christians in the interests of bringing about peace. Peres, who in recent weeks has made frequent mention of the importance of spiritual values, told him that this was also a Saudi initiative, which he personally endorses. The two heads of state also discussed economic relations, political developments in the region, global terrorism and the nuclear threat of Iran. Trade between Israel and Australia stands at $800 million, but Jefferey said this could be expanded. He reaffirmed Australia's belief in a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with guarantees that the two sides could coexist in peace and security. Jefferey was curious as to whether the United Nations could play any additional role in eliminating differences and accelerating the pace of the peace process. Peres replied that he doubted Hamas would abide by anything set down by the UN. Peres reviewed the 60-year history of the state and its accompanying wars, and said that under no circumstances would Israel compromise on the security of its citizens. The two heads of state also discussed the global impact of rising fuel prices, as well as the looming food crisis. The meeting went on for longer than the time allocated, and when the two men emerged, Jefferey said enthusiastically: "I could talk for hours on all these issues."