Malcolm Turnbull

Historic Netanyahu visit: The views of Jewish Australians


Australia's Jewish community is described as one of the most pro-Israel in the world, but there are some dissenters unhappy about Benjamin Netanyahu's historic trip.

Benjamin Netanyahu will on Wednesday become the first sitting Israeli prime minister to visit Australia.

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull will welcome Mr Netanyahu and his wife Sara for four days, a trip that's attracted criticism as well as support.

For Dr Colin Rubenstein, executive director of the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council, it's an exciting milestone in the diplomatic relationship between the two countries.

"It's very hard for Israeli prime ministers to leave the country for more than three days," Dr Rubenstein told SBS News.

"The country is under perpetual threat and the politics at home are rough and ready."

"It's taken a while. Perhaps it's overdue, but that's what makes it more exciting and important."

Many have remarked as to why it has taken so long, given Australia supported the creation of the modern state of Israel in 1948, and has, as Labor MP for Melbourne Ports, Michael Danby described "probably the most pro-Israel Jewish community in the world".

"The community is very, very close to Israel.

"Probably because we're the - most intensely - the children and grandchildren of survivors of the Nazi genocide in Europe. That colours our thinking obviously," Mr Danby said.

"I think the Israelis have come to realise in the last 10 years that Australia is a very important country, 12th largest economy in the G20" he said.

Mr Netanyahu is travelling with a large business contingent, and the official statement reads that expanding cooperation in cyber-security, innovation and science, agritech, energy and resources, and the environment are the key topics.

But wherever Benjamin Netanyahu goes, the Palestinian conflict follows him.

Sixty Australians signed an open letter which said Mr Netanyahu should not be welcomed here. Among them was Peter Slezak, a Jewish academic who lives in Sydney.

Mr Slezak belongs to both the Independent Australian Jewish Voices and the Australia Palestine Advocacy Network.

"Well I think we shouldn't welcome him, we shouldn't have invited him," Mr Slezak told SBS News.

Mr Slezak acknowledged his opinion is a minority one in the Australian Jewish community, but said more are starting to think critically about Israel and its leadership.

"I'm Jewish. My parents are both Holocaust survivors. My mother and her mother survived Auschwitz," he said.

"There's a lesson we were supposed to have learnt. We say 'never again', but sadly I think most Jews don't understand that properly. That means never again, to anybody."

"We're meant to be standing up for victims, we're not the victims any more in this case and for us to cast our gaze aside, to be silent, or to in fact support Israel, is in the view of many Jews like myself is exactly the wrong thing."

Mr Slezak is frustrated that the trip is being treated like that from any other trading partner.

"To normalise and to pretend that everything is okay and get on with cultural and business dealings with Israel, many people think this, as I do, this is a bad mistake. 

He would like Mr Turnbull to send a strong message to Mr Netanyahu.

"Tell him to stop, these are all violations of human rights and international law. [Mr] Turnbull won't do that of course, but that's what a decent friend of Israel would do."

Mr Netanyahu will also meet with opposition leader Bill Shorten, who said he will express Labor's support for a two-state solution.

Former Labor Prime Minister Bob Hawke, always staunchly pro-Israel, has recently joined other Labor heavyweights Kevin Rudd, Bob Carr and Gareth Evans in saying that Australia should give formal diplomatic recognition to the State of Palestine.

Mr Shorten will not change Labor policy to do that, and Mr Danby said he's right not to.

"I wish Bob Carr, and Bob Hawke and Gareth Evans would be such big heroes when a giant like China comes to Australia... where were they for the Tibetans or the Uighars," Mr Danby told SBS News, referring to the people of the semi-autonomous Tibet, and the Muslim Uighar minority of Western China. 

But the Jewish MP is happy to call out the Israeli government on what he thinks are mistakes; the recent passage of a law that retrospectively legalises some Jewish settlements on privately owned Palestinian land a case in point.

"I think the Knesset passed a ridiculous law on adverse possession of abandoned Palestinian property, that will be overruled by the Israeli supreme court, as our High Court here in Australia has overruled laws that our parliament has passed that went a bridge too far," Mr Danby said.

The Turnbull government has been critical of settlement expansion in recent months, but has positioned itself as a close friend of Israel.

Last December, the UN Security Council voted 14 to zero to condemn Israeli settlements, the former Obama administration's decision to abstain, rather than veto, allowed the resolution to pass.

Australia does not have a seat on the Security Council, but Malcolm Turnbull has said Australia would have voted against what he called a 'one-sided' motion if it had the chance.

Dr Rubenstein said that was not missed in Israel.

"The current government I think is regarded in Israel as one of its greatest friends in the world and certainly Israel noticed that Australia very bravely, and I think very wisely, said that they would not have supported that UN resolution 2334 which is so counter-productive to the peace process."

When Mr Netanyahu was in Washington last week, President Trump appeared to walk back from decades of US support for the two-state solution.

"I'm looking at two-state and one-state, and I like the one that both parties like," Mr Trump said. "If Israel and the Palestinians are happy, I'm happy with the one they like the best."

That won't be the message Mr Netanyahu will hear during his four days in Sydney. 

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