Rare support for democracy in a sea of misunderstanding
Despite its mistakes, Israel is a legitimate nation & should not be treated as a pariah
Greg Sheridan Foreign Editor
The Australian
May 03, 2007

WHEN you're young, you think that every piece of mail is going to be that special letter that recognises your brilliance. As you get older, you realise that most pieces of mail are bills. But recently I did get a remarkable piece of mail. It told me that if I would accept, I would be awarded the Jerusalem Prize. Sponsored jointly by the Israeli Government and the local Jewish community, it is awarded to people who have supported Israel conspicuously.

Since I believe that Israel is a democracy in good standing I was delighted to accept the award, which has been won by sundry heads of government, foreign ministers, social democrat and conservative European politicians and many others over the years. Its previous Australian recipients include Foreign Minister Alexander Downer, and Frank Sartor, formerly lord mayor of Sydney and now a minister in the NSW Labor Government.

Since the award was announced I have had a certain amount of mail urging me not to accept it. I must disappoint these folks, many of whom have written in good will and some detail, for I am greatly honoured to receive the Jerusalem Prize. I cannot accept the idea that Israel is an illegitimate state, or not really a democracy, or that it should be treated as a pariah.

It goes without saying that in accepting this award I do not compromise my independence as a commentator. I have often been critical of Israeli policies. Last year I opposed its military operation in Lebanon. My views are unusual in the commentator class but they are mainstream in Australian politics. In a fine address to a gathering of Labor Friends of Israel last week, Labor leader Kevin Rudd praised the "vibrancy of Israel's democracy". He said that both Hamas, the dominant political grouping among the Palestinians, and Hezbollah, are terrorist organisations and "you can't negotiate with terrorists". "Israel's strategic challenges," he said, "are great and that's why it's important that the modern state of Israel and its government has friends around the world. And I simply state unequivocally that we remain a strong and close friend of Israel in good times and bad."

This is truly a bipartisan position in Australia. Israel has probably never had a better friend as Prime Minister than John Howard. This was evident in Howard and Downer's decision, along with only a handful of others, to vote at the UN in 2004 against a resolution to condemn Israel's security barrier, following a ruling against Israel in the International Court of Justice. Again, Rudd's view is enlightening. He criticised the vote but argued not that Canberra should have voted against Israel, merely that it should have abstained. Rudd's star new candidate for Eden-Monaro, the distinguished former colonel and military lawyer, Mike Kelly, has argued in a legal journal that the ICJ was wrong and that Israel's security barrier is legal.

But let's pull back and look at a bit of history. There have always been Jews in Palestine. Israel was created by a resolution of the UN to partition Palestine between the Jewish and Palestinian populations. When Israel was founded in 1948 it was immediately attacked by the massed armies of five Arab neighbours.

Twice more Israel had to fight wars of national survival against the armies of its Arab neighbours - in 1967 and 1973. And all through from that time to this, with only fairly brief pauses, it has been subject to terrorist attacks.

In 2000, in Camp David and in subsequent negotiations, the government of the then Israeli prime minister, Ehud Barak, offered the Palestinians their own nation on more than 95 per cent of the West Bank, all of Gaza and part of East Jerusalem. There was also the offer of some land from Israel proper to compensate for that part of the West Bank which is in effect predominantly Jewish suburbs of Jerusalem.

But this offer of land was in exchange for the Palestinians, and Israel's Arab neighbours, embracing peace - accepting Israel's legitimacy, ending their hate-filled and anti-Semitic propaganda designed to make schoolchildren despise the Jews, and stopping terrorist and other attacks on Israel.

The then Palestinian Authority, led by Yasser Arafat, walked away from this offer and did not even make a counter offer, because, like some of the leaders of neighbouring nations, he had never accepted that Israel had a right to exist at all.

None of this means that Israel is beyond criticism. Israel, like any democratic nation, makes plenty of mistakes and sometimes it makes moral mistakes. But it is a robust democracy founded on decent values and it tries to correct its mistakes. This week's Winograd Report on last year's Lebanon action was fiercely critical of Ehud Olmert's Government. That suggests Olmert made some mistakes. But the bigger story is what a vibrant, genuine, problem-solving democracy Israel is to commission such a report and let its findings go where they may. Moreover, the question is not whether Israel is perfect, but are its actions reasonable for a democracy under such constant threat and attack. How would we react in circumstances similar to those Israel faces?

Anti-Americanism, anti-Semitism and anti-Israel sentiment are all different, yet they are all intimately related. They draw from diverse sources, yet they are all, in their virulent forms, fundamentally irrational and evidence of psychological and ideological dysfunction rather than genuine analysis.

Saddam Hussein was directly responsible for the deaths of near enough to 1.5 million Iraqi Arabs and Iranians. He killed 300,000 to 400,000 of his own citizens deliberately and a million or more died in the wholly unjustified war he launched against Iran. Anyone who was seriously concerned about Muslim suffering in the Middle East would have concentrated on Saddam all the years he was in power.

Yet the UN, and the Left internationally, focuses with obsessive zeal on Israel. I once interviewed Abdurrahman Wahid, the former president of Indonesia and a great Muslim leader, and asked him about the Middle East. Israel, he told me, "is a democracy in a sea of misunderstanding".

Commentators should write about Israel the same as they write about any other nation, with a desire to tell the truth, know the facts and make judgments based on civilised values. I agree with Wahid. Israel is a democracy - that fact speaks for itself.

Comments three years later when Canberra expelled the local Israeli intelligence chief, after forged Australian passports were found to have been used in a hit team's assassination of a Hamas terrorist leader in Dubai

Expelling Israeli diplomat was a confected, self-serving exercise

Weekend Australian
May 29, 2010

THE Earth moved between Israel and Australia this week, with Kevin Rudd's government expelling an Israeli diplomat over the Dubai passports affair, and it may be that the Earth moved in Australian politics as well. In an interview with me, Opposition leader Tony Abbott has condemned the expulsion. "It was an over reaction," Abbott says. "Sure Britain has done this but other nations whose passports were misused have not. I think we need to understand that Israel lives in a far more dangerous world than the rest of us. Sincere friendship means an honest understanding of the dangers they face. I don't condone the misuse of Australian passports. The big difference between Israel and almost every other country is that Israel is under existential threat."

There is now a greater difference between the main parties over Israel than at any time since Gough Whitlam. The Abbott-led Liberal Party is now much more deeply committed to the Israel relationship than the Rudd-led Labor Party.

Rudd's policy towards Israel mirrors his policy towards an Emissions Trading Scheme - an extravagant and emotional level of promise, followed by a complete failure of delivery, marred by short-term political expediency. This is a tough judgment, but it is the only one that fits the facts.

The Hamas terrorist leader Mahmoud al-Mabhouh was assassinated in Dubai earlier this year, almost certainly by Mossad agents. They used Australian, British, French and Irish passports.

First to the morality of the operation. Mabhouh was a leader of Hamas, which is pledged to Israel's violent destruction. He had much innocent blood on his hands. His assassination is morally exactly the same as when an Australian SAS unit targets an al-Qa'ida leader for attack in Afghanistan, as the SAS has often done. It is an even closer parallel to US drones hitting a terrorist in a border area of Pakistan. US President Barack Obama has decided, with Australian support, that merely fleeing the conflict zone of Afghanistan to the haven of Pakistan will not prevent an al-Qa'ida or Taliban terrorist being killed by US forces. So any Canberra moral outrage at the Israeli operation, which Foreign Minister Stephen Smith describes without qualification, or sophistication, as murder, is hypocritical and confected. Objecting to the misuse of Australian passports is entirely reasonable. But the manner in which the Rudd government has effected the expulsion demonstrates cynicism and short-term political opportunism.

When the passport misuse was first revealed in February, the Rudd government made a great song and dance about it. Emotions ran high. The government in effect sooled the Australian media on to savage Israel. It made sure there were cameras outside the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade when the Israeli ambassador, Yuval Rotem, was summoned for a ritual dressing down.

For six weeks, the Israelis were cast into diplomatic outer darkness. There was no dialogue of substance between Canberra and Jerusalem. Then suddenly there was a thaw. As part of its initial response the government sent a delegation of Australian Federal Police to Israel. This was all show - and a pretty poor show given their well-publicised problems with Israeli traffic - as the AFP could tell the government nothing more than it already knew. The Israelis did the operation but there is no proof.

The long delay of three months with nothing happening, and the deliberate resumption of diplomatic dialogue, led the Israelis, and Israel's friends in Australia, to believe the government was going low key. Then, all of a sudden, some internal dynamic changed and a couple of weeks ago, the government sent ASIO director David Irvine to Israel. Irvine is an official of the highest possible quality. But his trip, and the fact that Smith this week publicised it, represents an overt politicisation of ASIO by the government. The Irvine trip, which could produce nothing more than the AFP trip, gave the government cover for the expulsion. The manner and timing of the expulsion reflect very poorly on Rudd.

The government decided to announce the expulsion on Monday, the first day of parliament's new sitting. This was the day it was likely to face its heaviest pasting over the resource super-profits tax, just as the earlier outburst of confected anger against Israel coincided with a spike in the pink batts controversy.

This is a government obsessed with the management of the daily media cycle. The Opposition's foreign affairs spokeswoman, Julie Bishop, instinctively supported Israel but did so incompetently and gave the government more opportunity for confected outrage. But it is very low-grade behaviour to ruin a key relationship such as that with Israel for domestic political advantage.

Smith claimed that he was taking the action to expel an Israeli more in sorrow than in anger.

But Smith made his statement in parliament to get the greatest possible media. Although the government had all the information it needed for any action for months, there was a sense of rush at the last minute. Bishop was rung at 11.30am and abruptly told senior officials were on their way to her office to brief her. The officials were in her office while Smith was making his noon statement. The Israeli embassy was not told of the impending expulsion until 11am.

This is a great contrast to the British behaviour. When the British expulsion was announced, the Israeli diplomat was already back home. If you are doing something to an old friend, more in sorrow than in anger, surely you tell the old friend first. Similarly, it is a great breach of normal practice for a friendly country to publicise the visit of an agency head, such as Irvine. The fact the government publicised the visit is a politicisation of ASIO. It is the government using a national security smokescreen to cover what is entirely a political decision.

Smith also let it be known that the Israeli to be expelled was the Mossad chief in Canberra. In 2006, under the Howard government, Australia and Israel decided to station senior intelligence people in each others' countries. There was a Mossad officer among the Israeli diplomats in Canberra and an ASIO person in the Australian embassy in Tel Aviv. These are declared positions of friendly agencies. They don't spy on each other, but work together.

Australia and Israel for many years have had close intelligence exchanges. The chiefs of our other intelligence agencies also visit Israel, but quietly, and gain an enormous amount of information and insight from every visit. We also send senior national security personnel from across a number of agencies for short courses.

Smith said intelligence co-operation between Canberra and Jerusalem would now cool for an indefinite period. This will be entirely to our detriment. Despite the recent difficulties, not least its agents being filmed in Dubai, kilo for kilo, the Mossad is without question the best intelligence agency in the world.

Australia has significant interests in Iraq, is acutely concerned with Iran, and will, according to our own Counter-Terrorism White Paper, quite likely be a target of Hezbollah terrorism. On all these subjects no country is better informed than Israel. At this stage, Israel has not asked the ASIO representative to go home. Nor is it clear how long the ban on a Mossad agent coming to Canberra will be enforced. Equally, it is not clear Israel will bother sending a Mossad officer to Australia.

This whole sequence has the hallmarks not of an intelligence operation but a Hawker-Britton operation, the Rudd government using one of the most sensitive relationships Australia has to distract the media from the political agenda.

Julie Bishop's clumsiness helped the government. She was mistaken to stress it's not proven whether the Israelis did the operation and she was mistaken to answer yes to the idea that Australia also forges passports, even though I have reported this on two occasions in The Australian and Smith would not deny it at his press conference.

Some context is important. Australian intelligence agents, but also police and others associated with combating drug smuggling and the like, often travel on false Australian passports, that is, passports that do not carry their true identities. That is almost routine.

Much more rare, but not entirely unheard of, is using the passport of another nation. However, it's easy to construct a scenario where this might happen. Say, hypothetically, Canberra wanted to send an ASIS agent of Pakistani origin to Pakistan for an operation and didn't want any indication of an Australian presence. Such an agent might use a Pakistani passport. It's unlikely Australia would forge the passport itself as this is difficult and resource intensive. Instead it would probably borrow such a passport from the British, known to be master forgers, or the Americans.

The government's outrage against Bishop was entirely confected. The government also suggested the Israelis had broken a specific agreement with Australia over passports. This is almost certainly untrue. The Israelis don't acknowledge their passport forgeries and to promise not to do it again can only be predicated on them having done it in the first place. No Howard government minister has any recollection of any such agreement.

The Israelis operate in a unique environment. They have to undertake operations in the Middle East. But use of an Israeli passport in most Middle East countries is impossible. So they are forced to use other passports.

Israel is incredibly beleaguered at the moment. It has never been under such sustained political attack. In many parts of the world, anti-Israel sentiment is morphing into traditional anti-Semitism. By making such a cynical and exuberant public relations bonanza out of this episode, the Rudd government is directly licensing the recrudescence of the worst sentiments imaginable. I can't conceive that this would have been Dietrich Bonhoeffer's way.

The government dismayed many of its own supporters, who took its previous rhetoric about friendship with Israel seriously. Michael Danby is the Labor member for the critical Melbourne seat of Melbourne Ports. He is in no sense a marginal figure in Labor. He is a former secretary of Labor's national security committee, a former Labor whip, and the chairman of the parliamentary foreign affairs sub-committee, that is the most senior parliamentarian, outside the ministry, on foreign affairs.

Yesterday, he said: "The expulsion was the wrong policy response. Even if there was some obscure previous incident, Berlin and Paris are as sophisticated as the mandarins of Canberra and their reaction (no expulsion) demonstrates why we did not have to ape the British Foreign Office. Stephen Smith should have made a recommendation to the NSC having the more worldly overview, that this harsh proscription would feed the international campaign of delegitimation of Israel.

This harsh reaction by Australia comes just at a time when we want the Israelis to be as flexible as possible in the new peace talks with the Arabs. This folly, this over reaction, has unwittingly encouraged bigots elsewhere, who have their secret passions sanctioned. I have suggested a series of steps to the Prime Minister to overcome this successful attempt to blot Labor's copybook just weeks before an election."

That's what the government's friends think of it.


Israel rejects Rudd's call for nuclear inspections
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Thursday, December 16, 2010

Kevin Rudd and Israel's Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman,
during a press conference at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem yesterday   AP

Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman yesterday rejected Kevin Rudd's call that its nuclear facility should be subject to inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency. Standing alongside Mr Rudd during a press conference in Jerusalem, Mr Lieberman said what was important was not whether any country was a member of the Non- Proliferation Treaty but that it was responsible. He made it clear Israel did not regard any such inspection as necessary as it was a responsible country "and we have proved this for many years".

Mr Rudd, in an interview with The Australian this week, had said Israel's nuclear facility should be subject to inspection by the IAEA. The comment shocked Israeli officials, who could not recall an Australian minister suggesting that their facility at Dimona should be subject to inspection. Mr Rudd had said: "Our view has been consistent for a long period of time, and that is that all states in the region should adhere to the NPT, and that includes Israel. And therefore their nuclear facility should be subject to IAEA inspection."

But Mr Lieberman said yesterday: "I think that we have a very clear position — we are a very responsible country and a responsible government and we have proved this for many years." He said in his view, the question was not the NPT but whether a country and its government was responsible or not. "Iran joined with the NPT and is part of the NPT and we see every day cheating and many attempts to waste time (allowing in inspectors) and, of course, they're part of the NPT but the reality is completely different."

While Mr Rudd had made his comment in an interview in Cairo, in Jerusalem yesterday he softened his position, saying Australia recognised Israel's "unique security circumstances". He concentrated much more on Iran's nuclear program than Israel's. Mr Rudd said Australia was "deeply concerned" about Iran's nuclear weapons program and while its stated aim was nuclear energy for civilian purposes, it found itself in defiance of provisions of the NPT.

"Therefore Iran has obtained from us and from other countries … universal condemnation, secondly sanctions and thirdly, in the case of Australia, autonomous sanctions over and above those which are required under the UN Security Council," he said. "Iran's nuclear weapons program and nuclear program in general represents a fundamental threat to security across the wider region. On the question of other regional states, including Israel, the position of the Australian government has long been reiterated by governments of both political persuasions in Australia that all states, including Israel, should become accessories to the NPT and its associated obligations. We recognise … Israel's unique security circumstances … but in terms of our fundamental position on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, as it applies to this region … all states should be in, including Israel."

Same Day
Commentary: That's no way to treat a precious friend, Mr Rudd
Greg Sheridan, Foreign editor

No previous foreign minister has called for the inspection of Israel's nuclear facilities

THIS has been a remarkable week for Australia in Israel, made just a bit perplexing by a baffling little sequence from Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd. This week the third meeting of the Australia Israel Leadership Forum took place in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, with a day in Ramallah talking to Palestinian leaders. There is no doubt Rudd is well regarded in Israel and his authentic leadership on Iran is appreciated. However, there was one episode of policy freelancing, or innovation, or just downright oddity, that has no honourable explanation and has perplexed, to put it mildly, his many Israeli admirers.

In an interview with this paper's John Lyons in Cairo on Saturday, Rudd said: "Our view has been consistent for a long time and that is that all states in the region should adhere to the [nuclear] Non-Proliferation Treaty, and that includes Israel. And therefore their nuclear facility should be subject to International Atomic Energy Agency inspection." Lyons was prompted to ask the question because Rudd had made very similar remarks at a press conference with the head of the Arab League, Amr Moussa, in Cairo the day before. In fairness to Rudd, he had strongly pressed the case that Iran's nuclear program must be contained. However, the de facto equating of Israel and Iran is bizarre. Rudd may as well have demanded that India open its nuclear facilities to inspection by the IAEA.

But Rudd's words in Cairo were extremely welcome to his Arab interlocutors. No Australian foreign minister in history has previously called for Israel's nuclear facility to be open to IAEA inspection. Israel, not being a signatory to the NPT, has no legal obligation to submit to IAEA inspections. Iran, a member of the NPT, is in clear violation of NPT and IAEA rules. Israel has never threatened anybody with nuclear weapons, Iran has threatened to wipe Israel off the map. Israel is a democracy, Iran is a clerical-military dictatorship. Israel does not sponsor terrorism, Iran is the chief international sponsor of terrorism. Israel has never proliferated any nuclear material, Iran has been intimately involved in nuclear technology proliferation with North Korea and Syria.

Israel does not officially admit to having any nuclear weapons, but most experts believe it probably has about 200 nukes. As Rudd has acknowledged many times, Israel faces existential challenges no one else faces. There are areas of deliberate greyness in international diplomacy. No serious Western foreign minister ever demands that Israel submit to IAEA inspection. Everyone knows that Israel, like India, will never give up its nuclear weapons and a repeated demand for inspections would become just another sterile, anti-Israel agitprop slogan, of no utility to nuclear non-proliferation but very helpful to those who hate Israel and wish to demonise it.

So, presumably Rudd would not take such a radical and fateful step unless this prefigured some new and profound Australian policy objective, right? But, dear reader, the truth is that when Rudd got to Israel he did not raise the NPT and IAEA inspections even once in his lengthy meeting with Benjamin Netanyahu, or in his speech to a gala dinner at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem. Indeed, the timing of the publication of Lyons's story was such that Rudd's most senior Israeli interlocutors were not even aware that he had made these remarks when they saw him on Monday.

At a press conference with Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, Rudd did repeat his statement that Australian policy wanted Israel to join the NPT but by then he had abandoned any reference to inspections. On a smaller note, all through the Arab world Rudd had denounced Jewish settlements in the West Bank and in East Jerusalem, but in his talks with Netanyahu and in his public speech they didn't get a mention.

Now, in politics you can support policy A or its opposite, policy B. What you cannot credibly do is support policy A in Cairo and policy B in Jerusalem. In a sense Rudd let down both the Arabs and the Israelis. If the Arabs thought he was sincere in wanting the Israelis to submit their nuclear facility to inspection, then they would be bitterly disappointed to know he didn't mention it to the Israelis. If the Israelis thought he was sincere in his presentation of himself as Israel's best friend, they would have a right to be bitterly disappointed that he was espousing much more robust anti-Israeli opinions than the consensus view among even Israel's habitual critics in Western governments.

One interpretation is that Rudd could not resist telling the Arab audience in Cairo what it wanted to hear, then telling the Israeli audience in Jerusalem what it wanted to hear. This is a common interpretation of Rudd, but one this column has resisted, regarding Rudd as a figure of singular substance in foreign policy. But you cannot have it both ways. Indeed, and this is a conclusion this column would be extremely reluctant to reach, Rudd's famous leaked comments to Hillary Clinton, saying that he wanted China to develop peacefully and fruitfully as a fully responsible member of the international community, but that if it didn't the US and Australia would have to have the option of force in reserve, could also be interpreted in this way: that Rudd was telling the Americans what he thought they wanted to hear.

The ongoing tragedy with Rudd is that his ability could never remotely be in doubt. He knows more about foreign policy than anyone on either side of the Australian parliament. But these strange quirks seem to get in the way. Rudd's performance in Israel overall was impressive, but there were times when he seemed to strain just that bit too much to connect with the audience. At the speech at the King David Hotel, for example, he remarked: "From the 1930s, this hotel became the British field headquarters for what was then British Palestine, until Menachem Begin undertook some interior redesign." Rudd was referring to the incident in which Israeli independence activists blew up the hotel. I accept that they were not the equivalent of modern terrorists. But people died in that incident. I don't think such a joke was in good taste, although many in the audience appreciated it.

I remain convinced that Rudd has made a prodigious contribution to Australian foreign policy. His self-confidence on the international stage is a great asset. But he would do well to turn the volume down, stick a bit closer to conventional government positions, be a little less adventurous. Now everyone in the Australian foreign policy debate is bound to explore whether this demand for IAEA inspections of Israel's nuclear facility is a serious government policy. As for myself, I confess considerable confusion about Rudd's purpose in this episode.

** End of article