Back in March I published a blog piece detailing a pretty normal week in the life of the Australian Embassy to Israel. It was intended to pull back the curtain on the work of the Australian Embassy and give a sense of our priorities and activities. In the same spirit, here are some of our highlights and lowlights for the year 2014, a particularly busy year for the Embassy.
January started with the passing of former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Sharon was a larger-than-life figure who featured prominently in Israeli public life over several decades. His career was not without controversy, and the legacy of his unilateral Israeli withdrawal from Gaza continues to be debated here. Foreign Minister Julie Bishop dropped everything and jumped on a plane in Perth to make it here in time for the funeral – a gesture that was noted and hugely appreciated. After barely 12 hours on the ground and discussions with several counterparts, including Prime Minister Netanyahu, she turned around and flew back home again. Amazing.
In February I made a trip to the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt to visit the Australian peacekeeping contingent there, part of the multinational force that observes and monitors the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt (MFO Sinai). Australia is a significant contributor to this mission, as well as to the mission observing the increasingly fractious truce between Israel and Syria on the Golan Heights. I also ran the Tel Aviv marathon on behalf of Holocaust survivors.
March saw a flurry of activity related to Woodside’s prospective investment into Israel’s gas sector, and particularly the large offshore gas field of Leviathan. Woodside got very close to finalising a deal, and the Embassy provided Woodside a lot of support, but unfortunately the deal collapsed in May. This was a deep disappointment – Woodside’s involvement in Israel had the potential to transform the bilateral economic relationship.
In April the Assistant Defence Minister, Stuart Robert MP, made a visit to Israel at the head of a high-tech business delegation. Whilst exploring the possibilities for greater defence cooperation, he also studied at close quarters the Israeli ‘Start-up Nation’ model and ecosystem. A visit to the Australian peacekeepers serving on the Golan Heights went down very well with our troops. Also in April, visiting former Prime Minister Julia Gillard stopped by the Embassy for a cup of tea. Staff were delighted to meet her. Endless selfies ensued.
May saw the unfortunate collapse of the effort lead by the United States to secure a ‘final-status’ peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. We supported this serious effort towards a two-state solution and were disappointed by its failure. Since that time little has happened by way of encouragement for those like us who support a two-state solution, but we remain committed to it as the most just and realistic outcome.
June was a very sad month. Three Israeli teenagers were abducted whilst hitchhiking. They were murdered, their bodies turning up 18 days later after an exhaustive nationwide search. A day after these three were buried, a 16 year old Palestinian resident of East Jerusalem was abducted and murdered in a gruesome fashion, as a reprisal killing. Temperatures were running very high.
July saw steadily escalating rocket fire from Hamas-controlled Gaza into Israel, matched by a steadily escalating Israeli response. A full-fledged conflict soon broke out, the third such war with Gaza in the past six years, leading to large-scale casualties and suffering on both sides of the divide. The conflict continued for 50-odd days, running well into August. The Embassy was kept busy in helping to evacuate Australians from Gaza and providing increased humanitarian assistance to Gaza, interspersed with frequent dashes for the bomb shelter to take refuge from incoming rockets.
Remarkably, two high-level Australian delegations kept to their plans and visited Israel during this conflict. Education Minister Christopher Pyne MP came for the Australia Israel UK Leadership Dialogue and National Australia Bank CEO Cameron Clyne headed a business delegation. The first item of discussion at any meeting during these two months was to point out the nearest bomb shelter and evacuation route. Prime Minister Netanyahu, who was due to make an historic visit to Australia – he would have become the first ever sitting Israeli Prime Minister to do so – understandably had to cancel his visit.
Much of September was taken up with trying to achieve a durable and sustainable ceasefire agreement with respect to Gaza, which provided for reconstruction but also prevented re-armament of Hamas and permitted the Palestinian Authority to return to Gaza. Unfortunately, such an agreement proved elusive. Gaza remains an unstable place and the Gazan civilian population continues to suffer. Fijian peacekeepers serving with the UN mission on the Golan Heights were also kidnapped in September, a reminder of the instability which now exists on nearly all Israel’s borders.
In October we had some happier news. We signed the Australia-Israel Work and Holiday visa arrangement, providing for easier travel between our two countries for young Australians and Israelis. We also held our annual commemoration of the Battle of Be’ersheva, a victory in which Australian troops featured prominently and which shaped the outcome of the First World War in the Middle East. 2017 will mark the 100 year anniversary of this battle, and we are determined to make it a focal point for the relationship.
In November the Embassy fielded a large contingent to participate in Movember, a concept entirely new to Israel. Every meeting I had during this month usually began with a statement by way of explanation for my half-hearted attempt at a moustache. In addition to raising eyebrows wherever we went with our facial adornments, we raised several thousand dollars and did a lot to put men’s health issues on the map in Israel – suicide is one of the highest killers of young males in Israel.
December was another sad month, this time because of events in Australia – the Sydney café siege and the tragic deaths of two hostages. Israelis, who are unfortunately quite used to seeing such events in their own country, were quick to offer their support and condolences. Our two-year term on the UN Security Council came to a dramatic conclusion, with our final vote as a Council member on a resolution related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. On a personal note, I managed to get my father to make his first ever trip to Israel. Taking him to the Old City of Jerusalem, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and the Western Wall was a memorable experience. No-one ever forgets such places.