Speech to Australia-Israel and Jewish Affairs Council

Offices of Arnold Bloch Liebler, Sydney

30 September 2015

Thank you for giving me the opportunity to speak today. I acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we meet. And I acknowledge ABL and AIJAC for hosting us. I thank you for your work in building stronger understanding as between Australians and Israelis.

Though there is a great deal I could say about our delegation's time in Israel, I wanted to talk about three things: the economy, an important current event when we were in Israel, namely the US Iran nuclear agreement, and conflict locally and in the region.

The Israeli experience is difficult for an Australian to understand because our country gives at least equal weight to discussing the economy as we do to ensuring national security. 

The Israeli economy is very interesting to Australia given the focus on encouraging startups and commercialising intellectual property. Military service and an assumed lack of natural resources has compelled Israel to seek to diversify its economy, both by encouraging innovation in agriculture, and in creating the conditions for a vibrant startup ecosystem.

The program as originally planned had a meeting with the Australia-Israel Chamber of Commerce. The delegation was excited to meet with them. Given our interest in Israel's economy and sought further opportunities to explore the startup support. So I was pleased when a visit to Siftech, an incubator in Jerusalem, was added. These meetings, and dinner with a group of students in their twenties, gave us valuable opportunities to discuss Israeli innovation.

Military service, and no doubt the feeling of a need to work together to defend against internal and external threats, gives rise to an enduring esprit de corps for young Israelis. The military service also exposes them to technology. While I don't support mandatory military service in Australia I acknowledge that these benefits.

The significance of government support for innovation should not be ignored.

Siftech, the incubator we visited in Jerusalem, had municipa funding. The entrepreneurs we met in Tel Aviv spoke of the importance of the government co-funding of Venture Capital, on the condition that the privately-raised 50% of the capital had to be foreign capital. You will be aware that Labor supports a government co-funded venture capital scheme here in Australia - as Bill Shorten announced in his budget night speech. We also support a "startup year" at university, using an income-contingent loan system built on the existing arrangements for deferred payments of university fees. We announced this policy last week.

The innovation ecosystem is clearly important in Israel. We were told the nation had 4-5% growth per annum, last decade, but that growth is now slowing. Attention to the economy is needed - like, as we were told, continuing to support innovation, and opening up new international markets.

It is disappointing for Israel - but, as an Australian, I'll confess, not for me - that the nation seems to have missed an opportunity for development of its natural gas resources. I am sure work continues to be done on that, and that members of the Knesset are reflecting on why a deal had not been secured.

Constant focus on security may mean that it is always the priority, over and above the economy.

Peace negotiator Tal Becker told us: 

Previous elections were about the economy until they weren't - until they became about security. They tapped into fear. Anxieties are just below the surface.

First time visitors - see a country that's vibrant, happy, economic power, and then every speaker talks about threats and vulnerabilities. It's dissonant, but captures who we are.

That really resonated with me throughout my time in Israel.

And given the security risks in the region and the impediments to resolving the conflict with Palestinians that seems unlikely to change.

When we were in Israel in July, it was the first anniversary of the most recent significant conflict with Gaza, which Israel called "Operation Protective Edge". When we were there, India had just abstained from voting in a UN resolution in relation to the Israel/Palestine conflict. Rockets had been fired into Israel from the Sinai peninsula a couple of days before our first meetings. And, on our first day, the United States was announcing its nuclear deal with Iran.

We were, of course, aware of the conflict in Syria and Iraq, and the broader unrest across the region. Mark Regev told us that Jerusalem to the Golan Heights was like the distance from Melbourne to Geelong. When we flew by the Golan Heights later in the week we saw how close it was, and of course when we went to the hospital in the North that was further reinforced to us, given that Syrians were crossing the border for treatment.

Given the circumstances, there were grave anxieties in Israel. And the reaction to the United States deal with Iran seemed to be one of dismay.

The Israeli government sees Iran as an existential threat to Israel. We were told that the Iranian government wants the "obliteration" of Israel. More broadly the Israelis we spoke with were concerned about Iran's role in the conflicts in the region.

So the Israelis were concerned about the effect of the deal with Iran. One presenter told us:

"If Iran doesn't have to choose between having sanctions lifted and its nuclear program, they will have both."

In discussing the agreement we asked those with whom we spoke whether a deal based on inspections and scrutiny was better than no deal at all. The sentiment from government, Knesset members and academics with whom we spoke was that if sanctions had continued, the Iranian people would have demanded that the nuclear program cease in order to have those sanctions lifted.

This is a preference for the bird in the bush, over the bird in the hand. One might think reasonable minds could differ. But all of those with whom we spoke were firm in their views and unwilling to acknowledge the merit of alternative views.

The risks are high, either way. As the Israelis with whom we spoke said, the question was one of other nations' reactions. Would the prospect of less barriers to Iranian nuclear armament mean that other nations in the region would seek to develop their own arms? As one person said to us, it could be "multilateral proliferation in the most unstable part of the world".

It was suggested that this deal represented the United States pulling away from the middle east and tacitly acknowleding Iran as a hegemon in the region. The counter-view is that the US pivot to the Asia Pacific is actually an acknowledgement of the rise of China and India, among other nations, and the shift of economic and security gravity towards our region, rather than a reaction to the changes in the power dynamics within the Middle East region.

The Asia Pacific is important to Israel, too. One presenter acknowledged the importance of India, China and Latin America - though of course the latter is not in the Asia Pacific, the first two are - as markets. We heard that Prime Minister Modi was a considered a friend to Israel, and an admirer of Israel's approach to innovation. As to India's recent abstention at the UN: we were told that Israel understood the politics for India in that regard.

It is to be hoped that the US pivot towards the Asia Pacific will ultimately be seen, in Israel, as a positive for world economic development, rather than as an indicator of less interest in the middle east.

That is not to downplay or understate the extent of the regional challenges. The complexity of the security conditions in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Egypt, Lebanon and other areas was impressed upon us.

Our delegation also left the Middle East with a much greater appreciation of the adverse effect that the broader conflicts were having on the prospect of resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

I said we'd met with Tal Becker, the peace negotiator who'd been at Oslo and each negotiation since. Speaking with him, and speaking with a representative of the Palestinian Authority during one of our attendances in the West Bank, it seemed as though the politics of talking were greater impediments to peace than the substantive matters the subject of the talks.

We did not go into Gaza, though we visited Sderot, and went to the military base near the Erez checkpoint, and the checkpoint itself.

We visited the settlement in the West Bank. Our host told us he lived there because it was a good place to raise children. I found that frankly unbelievable. He later told us that his children went to a school with no Palestinian children. This segregation seems at odds with the already counter-intuitive statement that a settlement in the West Bank is a good place to raise children. It seems more likely that the settlements are tactical given they are, at least ostensibly, a major impediment to, or bargaining chip in, peace negotiations.

The politics of Hamas and the Palestinian Authority are, of themselves, difficult, and seem to increase the complexity of negotiations with the Israelis. Our delegation asked the Palestinian Authority about the question of negotiating authority - that is, their ability to actually negotiate on behalf of Palestinians, the power that Hamas seemed to have, and the emergence of new groups in Gaza that seemed to be, in turn, challenging Hamas's authority.

Our delegation heard that optimism is the only response to the difficulties that are faced. Anything else would constitute resignation to the current circumstances which are unacceptable.

We went to Sderot and saw the rocket shells gallery and playground bomb shelters. We saw the 8 metre high walls with automatic weapons. These issues are not just problems for the current generation but for the children. While we were in Israel the local press published a story stating 40% of children in Sderot suffer post traumatic stress disorder. At the same time another story was published saying the same thing about the children of Gaza. Of course these children are traumatised. These are the consequences of the failure to find a resolution. To some extent it doesn't matter who's to blame: it's the outcomes that really count.

These local challenges, grave as they are, form part of a much bigger picture. Israelis live with unrest in neighbouring and near states. The conflict in Syria, the Hezbollah influence in Lebanon, and the political uncertainty in Egypt are all matters of concern, as is the involvement of other nation states in supporting non-state actors in the region.

I know that our experience is not the same as Israelis'. It was impressed upon us that we were lucky to have the buffer of a lot of water around us. We gained a greater understanding of the difficulty that Israel has trying to engage with the region while trying to protect Israelis.

Australia is in a different situation but we are trying to do our part.

Australia is playing our role in the war in Iraq. We are also increasing our humanitarian response to the crisis in Syria. These security and humanitarian efforts are bipartisan. Only yesterday, former Prime Minister Abbott paid tribute to the bipartisanship shown by Leader of the Opposition Bill Shorten in relation to national security policy. Labor has a long history of engaging in international security issues too - from the work of Doc Evatt, to the work Bob Hawke did to look outwards, and to our most recent Labor government's work to gain Australia a seat at the UN Security council. I note the current government has announced it will seek to do so again. And, again, Labor has offered bipartisan support.

Conclusion

I am grateful to those who invited me to participate in this delegation. I express my particular appreciation to Colin Rubenstein, Peter Adler, and Anthony Orkin. Thank you for the opportunity to see Israel and the West Bank first hand and to meet with the excellent presenters you arranged for us.

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