Netanyahu visit: Australia’s relationship with Israel and where it could go

In the past fortnight the Israeli leader has visited London and Washington DC for talks with British Prime Minister Theresa May and “old friend” US President Donald Trump.


His visit to Australia this week will be the first for a serving Israeli Prime Minister.

His time with Malcolm Turnbull will likely cover similar ground: the Palestinian conflict, West Bank settlements, Iran, and combatting global terror.

Mr Netanyahu, accompanied by wife Sara, will also meet with Governor General Sir Peter Cosgrove, opposition leader Bill Shorten, NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian and members from Australia’s Israeli communities.

Australia’s Israeli embassy confirmed that, during Mr Netanyahu’s visit, the countries will sign two bilateral agreements. The first will focus on technological innovation, while the second will help “facilitate commercial air transport services” between Australia and Israel.

Anthony Bergin, from the Australian Strategic and Policy Institute, says the Israel-Australia relationship could be strengthened.

“It’s a good time for an Israeli Prime Minister to visit, and I think while we’ve got a lot of rhetoric about common values there isn’t at the moment a lot of substance,” he said. 

“The relationship, in many ways is underachieving. It could be developed.”


The last time an Israeli foreign minister visited Australia was in 1976, so what has prompted this visit from Benjamin Netanyahu?

“The ‘why’ I think comes back to common values around democracy, around shared support for human rights (and) recognition of the plight of Jewish people after the war,” Mr Bergin said.

“Obviously the relationship between the two countries has always been warm. Australia has always been seen by the Israelis as a friendly country.”

Wars and friendship

“The ties between Israel and Australia date back to 1917, with the Australian Light Horse Brigades’ courageous charge at the Battle of Beersheba, which was a major milestone in driving out the Ottoman Empire from what is now modern Israel,” says a spokesperson from the Israeli embassy.

Dr Leanne Piggott, from the Centre for Social Impact, told SBS News the relationship “is rooted in history, shared cultural and political values… and a pro-western foreign policy orientation”.

“Australian soldiers returned to the Middle East in large numbers during World War II. Many were stationed temporarily in Palestine and were hosted at social events by the local Jewish communities,” she said.

“In both world wars, Australians and Jews living in Palestine fought side-by-side.”


In 1948, Australian H.V ‘Doc’ Evatt utilised his position as President of the United Nations General Assembly to push for Israel’s formation.

And according to Dr Amin Saikal, director of the Centre for Arab Studies at the Australian National University, that’s when ties truly began to blossom.

He believes that showed in the aftermath of the 1956 Suez Canal Crisis, in which Israel, the UK and France invaded Egypt to regain western control of the Suez Canal and remove the Egyptian President from power.

“I think it really goes back to the Prime Minister Menzies era and the Suez crisis, and when Gamal Abdul Nasser – the President of Egypt – nationalised the Suez Canal in 1956,” he said.

“Users of the Suez Canal had a conference in Britain… and Prime Minister Menzies participated in that conference, and he was then sent as a head of a mission to discuss the issue with President Nasser and tell him to back off from the nationalisation of the Suez Canal.

“When Nasser did not do that and Prime Minister Menzies came back empty-handed, then that influenced Menzies’ attitudes towards Egypt and towards the Arabs. And then from that point, I think Australia pursued a very much pro-Israeli position.”

Party politics

Senior lecturer in International Relations at the University of New South Wales, Dr Anthony Billingsley, says “Israel has become a cause of the conservative side of politics”.

“When I was growing up it was a cause of the left, but it’s swung round now to be a cause of the right in Australia,” he said.

“It also fits into the US relationship. So when the US is looking for people, a UN general assembly resolution might be adopted on Palestine and you’ll have a vote of 180 against three; it’ll be the US, Israel and Australia.

“So it fits into that being nice to the Americans, and helping them out in difficult political situations.”


While Australia and Israel have been clear allies for decades, there is little trade between the countries. According to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Australia ranks 23rd on Israel’s top principal export destinations, and 37th on imports. Australia’s total trade with Israel is just over $1 billion.

“That’s where I think the relationship has been underdone, because we haven’t really focused on how we can really benefit one another in terms of interests,” Mr Bergin said.

“I think it’s fair to say Australia has not been a major policy focus of the Israelis.”


Unlike previous US administrations, successive Australian governments have rarely condemned Israel during the ongoing conflict with the Palestinians.

“I think that the Turnbull leadership, to me, it appears, is really playing to the right-wing elements within the coalition,” Dr Saikal said.

“I think there are people, like Cory Bernardi – who has now gone – but there are other elements within the coalition who are very much supportive of the state of Israel.”

And in the Labor party there is “paralysis basically”, according to Dr Billingsley.

“The Labor party cannot really discuss Israel and the Palestinians in any meaningful way because they just wind up fighting each other.”

Palestinian laborers work at a construction site in a new housing project in the Israeli settlement of Maale Adumim, near Jerusalem, Feb. 7, 2017.AP

Lobby groups

Dr Saikal believes there are other influences in the relationship.

“One must not really forget that the pro-Israeli lobby in this country has been very strong over the years and they do have considerable amount of influence on Australian policy towards the Middle East and more specifically, towards the Israel-Palestinian conflict,” he said.


Dr Billingsley agrees that pro-Israeli lobbies have influenced Australian government policies and positions.

“I think they’ve been very effective. I mean they were effective at all levels,” he said.

“I wouldn’t underestimate the inherent sympathy that Australians have for the Jewish plight, and the Jewish history, etc. And the influence of Jews in Australia has been considerable. So there is a historic issue there as well.

“I think the Zionist – if you like – movement in Australia has been very effective in promoting that sort of concern for Israel; the feeling that Israel is always under threat. So I think that also adds to the basis of that support.”

But Mr Bergin disagrees.

“Of course there are groups that promote Israel but there are plenty of groups that also promote the Palestinian cause,” he said.

“What I’d prefer to say quite bluntly is that there’s been bipartisan support for a two-state solution.

“If it became clear that Israel was moving towards a one-state solution, or completely drop attempts to try and get a peace settlement, then that is going to absolutely sap the support in Australia.”

What next?

Dr Amin Saikal says he hopes the Turnbull government uses Mr Netanyahu’s visit to condemn the expansion of settlements in the West Bank.

“Both Prime Minister Turnbull and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop are fully aware of the fact that the settlements are the major obstacle to a peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” he said.

“For that reason it is about time that Australia, or the Turnbull government, moderates its position in support of Israel and join the international community in condemning that expansion of the settlements.

“I think the time has come for them to move beyond that position in order to recognise the fact that the settlements are major impediments. Of course the Israeli Prime Minister would say ‘no, this is not a major issue’. It is a critical issue.”

Dr Piggott says she would like to see the government reaffirm its position in support of a two-state solution.

“Beyond continuing to support a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, deepening Australia–Israel bilateral relations will generate significant benefits in advancing both countries’ national interests,” she said.

“It will be necessary to select areas for cooperation that bring the highest mutual benefit.”

Mr Bergin believes the area of defence offers that.

“Both countries have got strong interests in naval affairs because we’re both close to major choke points along maritime trade routes,” he said.

“We should have a regular strategic dialogue with Israel on everything from developments in Islamist terrorism, to Middle East developments, to nuclear proliferation, to US alliance issues and so forth and the defence industry.”