Sykes-Picot and the modern Middle East

Two mid-ranking diplomats from the early twentieth century, each of whom died in relatively obscurity, have received an astonishing amount of bad press of late. Their names? Mark Sykes and Francois Georges-Picot, the British and French negotiators of the infamous Sykes-Picot agreement.

Reading some accounts, you could be forgiven for concluding that these two gentlemen are the sole authors of the current turmoil, tragedy and deep instability plaguing the Middle East. There have been countless calls from informed commentators urging a ‘re-negotiation’ of Sykes-Picot as a panacea for the region.

It is true that the compact at the heart of Sykes-Picot, later elaborated and codified in the Treaties of Sevres and Lausanne, partitioned the Ottoman Empire into constituent ethnic and national units. In this sense, the legacy of Sykes-Picot lives on, for better and for worse, in today’s map of the Middle East.

But before we seize on the ghost of Sykes-Picot as both sinner and saviour, some context is called for.

The defeat of the Ottoman Empire on the battlefields of World War One inevitably meant the dismemberment of that empire into nation-states, just as it did for the Austro-Hungarian empire. Without a doubt, the state boundaries drawn up by the victorious powers were artificial and sub-optimal in places. But to put the blame for the turmoil of today’s Middle East solely onto Sykes-Picot is a colossal analytical failure.

It is to misrepresent what is an epochal challenge to the very system of sovereign nation-states in the Middle East as a mere series of border disputes. And it is to mislead us into the conclusion that some tweaking of national boundaries, and possibly the creation of a new state here and there, would readily bring peace to the Middle East. Alas, the truth is much more inconvenient.

The dominant form of political order in the Middle East for millennia has been one based on empires – a metropolitan power ruling over other peoples and territories, in a hierarchical fashion – or one based on faith or religion. Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Greeks, Persians and Romans – all contested and ruled the Middle East as imperial powers, whilst the Byzantines, Umayyads, Abbasids, Crusaders and Ottomans ruled as imperial and religious powers.

So when, following the defeat and collapse of the Ottoman Empire, a Westphalian model of sovereign and equal nation-states was introduced into the Middle East, it was an entirely unfamiliar and foreign concept for the region.

States were brought into being that, for the most part, had never once previously existed as sovereign entities. People were brought under the rule of a capital or a ruling class to whom they had never previously been subject. And the concept of national identity, so familiar to Europeans, had to be consciously formed, learnt and inculcated.

Europe’s transition from an international system based on monarchies and empires to one based around nation-states as the core geopolitical unit was bloody and prolonged, taking hundreds of years and costing millions of lives. It is still not entirely resolved.

Little wonder, then, that the transition in the Middle East is not proving to be an easy one.

The nation-state system in the Middle East is a fragile one. National identity, never strongly-rooted to begin with, has been steadily weakened by failures of national leadership. Against this loss of legitimacy, older and more resilient forms of identity – religion, tribe, sect, ethnicity, and even gender – are re-asserting themselves as the basis for political order.

This is the real struggle underway today in the Middle East. It’s the struggle for the survival of the modern nation-state system, against deep and historic forces that seek the return of the older forms of political order.

This is why ISIS made such a show of demolishing a sand-berm on the Iraq-Syria border in 2014 and proclaiming it the death-knell of Sykes-Picot. They wish to erase the borders from the map, dismantle the nation-state system in the Middle East, and re-establish a caliphate.

You can disagree about where Sykes and Picot plotted state boundaries on the map. But seeking to adjust these boundaries is a folly, its simplicity misleading. Such a prospect will only fuel further conflict, whilst doing little to address the underlying driver of state weakness.

In a region as ethnically and religiously diverse as the Middle East, no map can be drawn that will satisfy every national ambition (unless we are prepared to countenance decades of bloodshed, persecution, and population displacement).

Instead, the current nation-state system, with all its imperfections, needs to be bolstered and made to work better.

The sovereignty and territorial integrity of the constituent states of the Middle East must be reaffirmed. Governments in the Middle East require help in earning the legitimacy and trust that can only come with providing their citizens a measure of security, dignity and opportunity. And, within the system of current nation-states, the rights of minorities need to be affirmed, and their security strengthened.

Stabilising and then strengthening the nation-state as the basic geopolitical unit of the Middle East is no easy task. It will take decades, require patience, and may well be beyond the scope of outside powers. But it, and not Sykes-Picot 2.0, is the only durable pathway ahead.

Published as an OpEd in the Times of Israel on 26 May 2016.

Disruption and #DigitalDiplomacy

I’ve talked before about how new technology is disrupting diplomacy, undermining some of the traditional monopolies inherent in the trade, and making it a much more contested vocation (see It seems clear to me that we all need to update our business model if diplomats are to remain relevant in the conduct of diplomacy. To survive, we need to conceive of ourselves in a new role: as part lobbyist, part spokesperson, and part thinktank.

I’ve since been giving thought, though, to how innovation and disruption might be harnessed as a positive force for transformation. In other words, beyond the threats, what are the opportunities for diplomacy inherent in this new world? This is necessarily a work-in-progress. But some decent answers to this question are integral to any credible articulation of ‘digital diplomacy’.

To start with first principles, I tend to think of successful disruptive innovations as falling into one of three categories.

Firstly, there are those innovations that disintermediate – which cut out layers of intermediaries and successfully bring producers and consumers, or buyers and sellers, closer together. This is your eBay, your Amazon for books, or indeed even the Internet at large. The intermediaries suffer, but the producers and consumers both benefit.

Secondly, there are those innovations which harness a previously underutilised or unexploited resource. This is the sharing economy. Outfits like Airbnb have harnessed the stock of underutilised housing to disrupt the hotels sector; Uber is doing the same for transport; Flexicar and others are doing the same for the car rental business; Snapgoods is doing it for high-end household appliances; and more creative platforms such as Expert 360 are doing it for the labour force – tapping skilled workers who don’t want the restrictions of a job but nonetheless have surplus labour to sell.

Thirdly, there are those innovations which create a genuinely new category of product, and which create a new demand or market entirely. Think of Snapchat or Facebook or Twitter here: who would have guessed there was such a latent demand, previously unknown and untapped, for communicating in this way?

If we take these three categories of disruptive innovation and apply them to how we think about diplomacy, where does it lead us?

Let’s start with disintermediation. Viewed on the downside, this is in fact one of the biggest threats to a diplomats role. The ability of Presidents, Prime Ministers and Foreign Ministers to text, telephone and direct message one another is a great example of disintermediation – they are disintermediating diplomats out of one of our traditional roles, as a conduit for communication.

But there is also an upside. New communication tools, and especially social media, allow us diplomats to engage directly with the public in the country we are trying to influence, often in quite a targeted fashion. We are no longer forced to work through intermediaries, such as the mainstream media or the foreign ministry. We can now take our case, our point of view, to the public direct. To do so takes a degree of bravery and media savvy. It requires a stomach for public debate and confrontation, and a thick skin towards the inevitable trolls. And it requires a supportive government at home. But the tools are now there to engage our target audience in a more direct and focused fashion than previously. Used smartly – and the best ambassadors around the world do use these tools smartly – this can be a huge asset.

How about an underutilised asset? Well, the backbone of any diplomatic service is its overseas presence. We own a lot of bricks-and-mortar infrastructure around the world. The flag and the chancery, the titles and the flummery, still count for a lot, as do the secure premises, secure communications, networks and contacts, and local expertise.

This – the infrastructure of our overseas network – is the great, underutilised resource. We need to broaden our conception of an embassy beyond just a vehicle for engaging in traditional diplomacy and the conduct of foreign relations. We need to move beyond the bread-and-butter stuff of third person notes, formal diplomatic exchanges and negotiations, and set-piece discussions, usually conducted with the host foreign ministry.

We should be utilising our overseas presence as a platform and enabler to advance interests across a much broader spectrum, and for a much broader set of stakeholders . Trade and commercial diplomacy have always been traditional partners in this respect, but we need to look much further afield. Australia’s decision to establish high-tech ‘Landing Pads’ in Tel Aviv and San Francisco, to help emerging entrepreneurs engage these high-tech ecosystems, is a great example of the sort of creative thinking needed. These Landing Pads are about exploiting and adapting a traditional embassy presence to support a whole new set of clients, in a way that is non-traditional but nonetheless firmly in the national interest.

Once you begin to think of the embassy network as a backbone of enabling government support for a whole lot of other, non-foreign ministry, interactions, your horizons open immediately. You might use the embassy to support collaborations in areas as varied as youth mental health, or medical marijuana, or surf life-saving (some areas where the Australian Embassy in Tel Aviv has been active). These areas will depend on the complementarities and opportunities that exist, but the trick is to think of the embassy as a facilitator of productive interaction and a broker of relationships, and to get more value out of the overseas network.

Lastly, new products. I think there is still a pretty pronounced tendency amongst us diplomats to consider the diplomatic cable or telegram – with its searing analysis and nuanced judgements – as the gold standard of our product. (We all secretly hope to produce the modern-day version of the George Kennan despatch from Moscow, which provided the intellectual underpinnings of the Cold War containment strategy.) Undoubtedly the cable still has its place, but the readership for this product, especially amongst senior decision-makers, has been in decline for years. We are in a much more competitive information environment these days, and we cannot rely on the supposed supremacy of our product alone to guarantee our views a hearing. People simply don’t have the time.

As a result, we need to embrace new ways of communicating important information and analysis to our political masters and stakeholders at home. Sometimes a Tweet can be enough to draw direct attention to an issue of importance. Sometimes a WhatsApp group is the best way to keep people updated on a developing issue. Sometimes Wickr is the most surefire way of getting a message through. Sometimes an Instagram photo says more than 1000 words could. And sometimes just sending on or re-posting a particularly good piece of news analysis – with a comment or two – is all that an issue requires, rather than seeking to reinvent the wheel. And then of course there are text messages, phone calls and emails – all legitimate methods of communication.

There is still, and will remain, a time and place and audience for well-considered and insightful diplomatic cables, but this should not be our default method of communications. For many issues, it is too slow, clunky, cumbersome and limited in its reach. Instead we need to embrace the full spectrum of communications and think about where our audience is and how best to reach them, and select our medium accordingly. Choosing how to say something is as important as choosing what to say.

My conclusion? The threats to the traditional practice of diplomacy are real. But the same forces of disruption that threaten the old business model also present opportunities. Seizing these opportunities, discarding some traditions, but remaining true to the underlying purpose of diplomacy – that is the challenge facing us today.

Innovation and Israel: Lessons for Australia

When Israel’s Chief Scientist, Avi Hasson, touches down in Australia tomorrow for a week of meetings and events, he will find a ready audience.

Avi, as well as his title as Chief Scientist, is also the head of Israel’s National Innovation Authority, and it is this title which more aptly describes his role in Israel. Avi is like the chief executive of Israel’s innovation system, an official appointed by statute but  who enjoys powers more closely resembling those of a Minister. His job is to ensure the Israeli economy, the ‘Start Up Nation’, remains one of the most innovative in the world.

Avi will find an Australian economy at a turning point. Though still strong, our economy is coming off the highs of an historic mining and commodities boom. We are searching for the next engine of growth – one that makes us of our highly-educated workforce, is export-oriented, pays sufficiently well to maintain our living standards, and harnesses our natural advantages as a nation. For this, we need a more innovative, creative and entrepreneurial economy. Innovation has become the new buzzword in Australia, with the Prime Minister due to deliver a major Innovation Statement next month.

This is why the experience of Israel is so relevant to our current economic debate.

Israel is indeed an innovation powerhouse, on any metric. 50% of Israel’s exports are in high-tech. Israel spends an OECD-high of 4.2% of GDP on research and development (R&D). Last year Israel attracted almost $2 billion in venture capital, more than any other country (including the US) on a per capita basis. Over 275 big multinationals have established R&D facilities in Israel, from Apple to Alcatel, Google to Philips. Israel has the highest density of start-ups in the world, with 1 for every 2000 people, and more NASDAQ listings than any country bar the US and China. For a small country, Israel punches way above its weight on innovation.

But – and this is where it gets interesting – Israel did not become like this overnight. Israel was not always destined to be an innovative, high-tech economy; quite the opposite, in fact. In the early 1990s, Israel’s economy was sclerotic, inefficient, and overly centralised.

Only as a result of conscious national decisions, taken from the early 1990s onwards, when staring down the barrel of a crisis, did Israel’s economy begin to change. Today, Israel has one of the most competitive and productive innovation ecosystems in the world. But this system has been built and engineered every step of the way. A start-up scene did not just emerge organically. National policy and national leadership brought about this transformation, harnessing strengths but within a coherent and consistent framework, where the incentives were all aligned and the obstacles and disincentives removed.

What are the secrets to Israel’s innovation system? It is a question I have spent the better part of two years in Israel thinking about. I think the answer can be broken down into four C’s: culture, capital, coherence and clusters.

Firstly, culture. It is true that Israel has some unique national circumstances which – though we would not wish them upon any country – nonetheless have contributed to Israel’s risk-taking culture. A small nation, lacking natural resources and surrounded by hostility, can only survive by dint of ingenuity, cleverness, and a degree of ‘chutzpah’. In Israel, ideas are prized, experimentation and creativity are encouraged. Failure is seen as valuable experience, not a character blemish. Social hierarchy is almost non-existent, so good ideas can come from anywhere within an organisation. Compulsory military service in a high-technology army, and the large degree of autonomy given to young soldiers in the field, further contribute. The small size of the Israeli market gives rise to a ‘global from day one’ perspective.

Secondly, capital. The ready availability of early-stage, high-risk venture capital drives a vibrant and thriving innovation ecosystem – without this, risky but disruptive ideas (the possible ‘unicorns’) never emerge from someone’s sketch on the back of a napkin. Israel is not naturally endowed with capital – it’s a small economy in a geopolitically risky environment. But it has managed to create a thriving venture capital sector through two major government initiatives. The first was the Yozma program in the early 1990s, which created Israel’s VC industry from scratch.

The second is the series of programs and funds now run by the Office of the Chief Scientist, which provides financial support to early stage start-ups without taking equity. This helps drive a sizeable pipeline of deals to feed the VC industry at the next stage of development. The Office of the Chief Scientist manages a budget in the order of $450 million per year (this equates to about $1.5 billion in Australian terms, given the relative size of our economy) to support industrial R&D and early-stage start-ups. This might look at first blush like generous corporate welfare. But in fact this spending delivers a very high return on investment when viewed across the economy. The Chief Scientist calculates that every dollar it spends to support R&D generates an additional $1.50 in private sector R&D expenditure and translates into an additional $5 – $10 of GDP generated. It is seen as a good use of public money.

Competitive tax policies and settings, which encourage and privilege venture capital over other forms of investment – in recognition of the outsized multiplier effect such investment has on the rest of the economy – also play a part. Getting the optimal policy settings in areas such as crowd-sourced equity funding, tax treatment of angel investors, and employee share ownership (ESOP) schemes has been critical to Israel’s success.

Thirdly, coherence. Creating an innovative ecosystem requires getting the incentives right and removing roadblocks across the policy sphere. Taxation, industry policy, science, education, financial regulation, immigration – all these policy areas need to be aligned. In Israel, Avi Hasson and his office provide the single point of accountability and responsibility within Israel for supporting innovation. He has a single mandate – to create the best environment for innovation in the world – and he has the authority to address the obstacles to making this a reality, and prevent new measures which would set it back. He is guardian and gatekeeper.

Fourthly, clusters. Israel is a small country, in size and population, with often no more than three degrees of separation. So clusters tend to form almost naturally. The military is a big part of life, and you often find people who served in the same military units then founding a start-up together. Beyond this, there is the connection between the academy and industry. Universities play a huge part in the innovation ecosystem, and do so enthusiastically. Researchers see potential commercial application as a vital partner in their work, not a distraction. Universities have in-house structures and specialists to help develop products and applications from research breakthroughs: they seek to value-add to their research before selling the IP out the door. Taken together, the close interaction between the military and industry and between the universities and the commercial world, and the characteristics of a small society, make for a high degree of collision and interaction. This is how ideas are formed, refined, improved and eventually commercialised. It’s like the whole country is a version of Silicon Valley. The government has taken steps to promote this – building a cyber hub in Beersheva, for instance.

What does all this mean for Australia? For me, the take-out is positive. Israel created a more innovative economy, and so can we.

Our baseline strengths to be a more innovative nation are good. We have strong research credentials and a highly-educated workforce. We have a sizeable and sophisticated capital market, supported by our large super funds. We embrace technology. Our population is still small enough to be manageable. We run a big migration program, meaning our country is also importing new talent and ideas. We too are a nation known for innovation and a healthy disregard for the usual way of doing things – disruption comes naturally to us. We are plugged into the growth markets of Asia, including through our network of recently-concluded FTAs and regional trade agreements.

Importantly, we have a high degree of political commitment and buy-in to now take the policy steps needed to realise our potential. Innovation has become a national priority, which means resources and political will can be mobilised behind it.

As we go about building a more innovative Australian economy, we need to ensure it remains uniquely Australian, and plays to our own natural strengths and advantages. We should not be seeking to replicate Israel or Silicon Valley or, indeed, anywhere else. ‘Cut and paste’ will not work. We will need to come up with our own policies and initiatives to foster more innovation.

But we can and should learn from the experiences of countries such as Israel, and adapt them to our own national circumstances.

Israel’s Chief Scientist, Avi Hasson, embarks on a one-week visit to Australia starting today (23 November 2015). He is visiting as a guest of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, under the Special Visits Program.

Youth mental health, and what Israel has learnt from Australia


Headspace: A New Australian/Israeli Start-Up

As we pass the first anniversary of the outbreak of last summer’s war with Gaza, people are quite properly remembering the suffering and pain that this war caused, in both Israel and Gaza.

Some of these scars are visible. Others, equally as painful, are hidden from the eye. We rightly remember the physical cost of this war. But the toll taken on mental health – and especially amongst young people – was equally high.

A few weeks back I attended the opening of the Headspace clinic in Bat Yam, the very first centre in Israel dedicated solely to treating youth mental health issues.

Any parent knows that the teenage and young adult years are some of the most difficult in a child’s life. It is a time of immense transition and challenge. Depression, anxiety, relationship breakdowns, bullying, military service, peer pressure, drug use, social isolation, self-image and sexuality – these are just some of the challenges faced.

Add to this the emotional toll of living in a state of war for over 50 days, and it is little wonder that youth mental health problems spiked in the aftermath of Operation Protective Edge.

Mental health issues are in fact the biggest health issue facing young people. One in four young people will experience a mental health problem by the age of 25. Suicide is the second most common cause of death amongst young people in Israel. Every day in Israel, on average, 17 Israelis attempt suicide. Hundreds more suicide attempts by teenagers go unreported.

These are sobering statistics, and they make a compelling case for improved mental health treatment for youth in Israel.

Headspace clinics were first established in Australia in 2006, with a view to improving the mental health of our youth population. The motto of Headspace is simple: “We help young people going through a tough time.”

There are now over one hundred Headspace centres operating around Australia, with more opening each year. The secret to the effectiveness of these centres is three-fold.

Firstly, mental health needs are just as acute and just as prevalent amongst youth populations as they are amongst the adult population.

Secondly, youth need their own treatment facilities for mental health. The stigma of mental health, insecurities, and family and societal pressures all mean that adult mental health facilities are not up to the task of dealing with young patients. A different environment and approach is needed – one that is friendly, accessible, private and non-judgemental.

Thirdly, early identification and treatment of mental health issues is essential. If options for early treatment are not available, mistakes and decisions are often made which have long-term and damaging consequences. The impact on the lives of those involved, their families, and society at large, can be immense, and stretch for decades. And the costs to the public health system are orders of magnitude larger.

In six short months only, Headspace Bat Yam has learnt these lessons and more. It has conducted over three hundred consultations and treated over two hundred patients. It has tapped a previously unmet and unmeasured demand for youth mental health services in Israel. And its early intervention model promises better lives and better public health outcomes.

Australia has been a proud supporter of these efforts. Not only has Headspace Australia helped establish the model here in Israel, but many Australian Jewish families – the Pratt, Lowy, Gandel, Saunders and Smorgon families – have provided financial support to this Israeli pilot.

We have taken to heart the view that the best way to ensure the future success of Israel is to help invest in Israel’s youth.

Headspace is a genuine example of an Australian/Israeli Start-Up – disruptive, innovative, consumer-driven, results-oriented, and life-transformative.

#Diplomacy in the Digital Age



On 27 June I delivered the graduation speech for the Public Diplomacy major students at Hebrew Reali School in Haifa, one of Israel’s oldest and most well-regarded educational institutions. Below is what I had to say on the challenges of diplomacy in the digital era.


I’ve been asked to talk to you this evening about some of the challenges facing the practice or profession of modern-day diplomacy.

In particular, the disruptive effect of modern communications, social and mass media, globalisation, and the 24-hour news cycle on what is surely one of the world’s oldest professions.

I think it would be uncontroversial to say that the role of a diplomat has changed vastly in the past one hundred years.

Partly, these changes are the result of the same advances in technology and communications that have disrupted so many professions.

Partly, they are the result of the changing nature of the body politic, and of the growth in public accountability of governments.

But I am not sure if people in my profession – of diplomacy – have really thought through what all these changes mean for how we do our work.

Diplomacy in years past was a largely closed profession, which enjoyed significant monopolies.

Your archetypal ambassador back then was usually drawn from the aristocratic classes or the elite.

He – and it was always a he – served several key functions.

In his country of residence, he was the main reporter and interpreter of events and their significance to his home country.

He was the primary means of communication between his home state and his state of residence.

In his country of residence, he was the sole representative of his country, authorised to speak and negotiate on his country’s behalf.

If any of you are familiar with Hilary Mantel’s novels about Tudor England, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, or if you have watched the BBC television mini-series showing here in Israel, then Chapuys – the envoy of Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, to England during the reign of Henry VIII – is the archetypal example.

Such an ambassador enjoyed an effective monopoly in each of these three domains – information, communication, and representation.

Let’s take Chapuys as an example.

There was no global media, so Henry VIII’s marital turmoil and his fractious relations with the Pope could not be read about in the tabloid press.

Charles V would hear all this intrigue primarily from his ambassador in England, Chapuys.

If you were the King of England and wanted to pass a message to Charles V, to test his interest in renewing your alliance after you had divorced his aunt, Catherine of Aragon, you could not just telephone him.

You certainly couldn’t direct message him on Twitter or WhatsApp him. Or write on his Facebook wall.

Instead, you would convey your message through Chapuys.

At the same time, direct relationships between rulers and their court officials with counterparts in other countries were almost non-existent. Capital-to-capital and leader-to-leader diplomacy was exceedingly rare, simply because rulers didn’t usually leave their kingdoms.

So when Charles V responds positively to Henry’s overture, through his ambassador Chapuys, how does Henry go about negotiating the terms of this new alliance?

You do not up and move your entire court and go and visit Ghent or Vienna or wherever Charles V happened to be residing at the time.

You might – just might – send over a trusted adviser to make the hazardous voyage. But more than likely you would negotiate directly the terms of a new alliance with the ambassador in country, Chapuys.

Chapuys would have some sort of basic instructions from the Emperor about bottom lines, but within these parameters he would be free to negotiate as best he saw fit. There was no checking in with Ghent overnight.

In the modern-day world, as an ambassador, all this has changed.

Let me use myself as an example here.

As ambassador, I no longer enjoy a monopoly on information.

Leaders and decision-makers back in Canberra know what is going on in Israel.

They can read Haaretz or the Jerusalem Post or YNet online. If it’s a big story, they will see the headline scroll by on the ticker tape of the 24-hour news service they have continuously playing on their television, or read it in their Twitter feed.

Sometimes, if events happen overnight, they know before I do.

I still get those moments of cold panic when my phone rings in the middle of the night and the number is an Australian one.

The fear is they are going to ask me about something that has just happened in Israel about which – because I’ve been asleep – I know absolutely nothing, and will have to somehow bluff my way through.

They also don’t need me to analyse developments. They can read papers from thinktanks or universities, or read the columnists in the quality global media.

People from Australia – business people, politicians, journalists, Jewish community leaders – travel to and from Israel all the time, and the political class back in Canberra will often call on them – not me – for an understanding and assessment of what is going on here in Israel.

I also no longer enjoy a monopoly on communication.

If Prime Minister Abbott wants to talk to Prime Minister Netanyahu, he will likely just ring him directly. If my Foreign Minister wants to talk to Israel’s Foreign Minister, she might just text to set up a call.

If I’m lucky, I’ll hear about the calls. If I’m good at my job, I’ll find out what was discussed.

But the point is, I’m not needed. I’m dispensable.

Leaders do not need me to facilitate their communications with one another. Nor do large numbers of government officials, who have direct relationships and lines of communication with their counterparts in other capitals.

Lastly, I no longer enjoy a monopoly on representation.

In my credentials letter, which I presented to President Peres in a ceremony in August 2013, I am described as ‘Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary’.

This means that – technically – I am vested with the full powers to represent the Government of Australia here in Israel.

I can sign and negotiate treaties. I can propose new areas for cooperation. I can declare Australia’s policy on controversial issues, such as the BDS campaign, or Israel’s conduct of the Gaza war last summer.

In Chapuys’ time, this would have given me some real latitude for action. Communication with your capital was slow and difficult. Ambassadors and delegations were expected to improvise and make decisions about policy within a wide area of discretion.

But today, everything, or nearly everything, is checked with your capital first, and policy is made at home, not abroad.

Modern communications mean you can get revised instructions on how to handle an issue instantaneously or overnight. On sensitive issues, it is career suicide not to do otherwise.

And usually, on the bigger issues, it is your political leaders who are the spokespeople. All the ambassador does is transmit the message to the in-country audience.

Nor am I the only diplomat at work on this relationship.

Political leaders, defence forces, intelligence agencies, ministries of finance, civil society and community groups – all these frequently have direct relations and interactions with their counterparts in other countries.

To sum it all up, the diplomatic service no longer enjoys exclusive rights when it comes to diplomacy.

My job is vastly different to that of Chapuys. Even compared to an ambassador of one hundred years ago, my role and powers are more limited.

I no longer enjoy the natural monopolies on information, communication, and representation enjoyed by my professional ancestors.

Technology has disrupted the profession of diplomacy.

Natural monopolies have been destroyed.

Margins of advantage have been eroded.

Diplomacy these days is a much more contested and competitive space.

On top of these changes, wrought largely by technology, I would also single out another driver of change.

And that is the increasingly democratic and pluralistic nature of the nations in which we live.

In days past, the ambassador was the personal representative of the sovereign. Often the ambassador was drawn from the ruling family, or was minor nobility or aristocracy.

Today, ambassadors are still appointed by the sovereign. I was appointed by the Governor-General, for instance, the representative in Australia of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.

Yes – Australia is still a monarchy.

But the notion that you are only the representative of the sovereign is today an illusion.

Today, an ambassador is expected to represent his or her nation in the broadest sense – its rulers, its people, its society, its values, its diversity. Even, at times, its divisions and debates.

Diplomacy is a much more accountable profession – to both your home government and your home public.

And today people expect their ambassadors to be drawn from all strata and facets of society, not just an elite minority.

The other change caused by the increasingly democratic and pluralistic nature of our countries is this.

The nature of the job – of who it is you are trying to persuade and influence – has changed.

In the days of Chapuys, his efforts would have been focused on the royal court of Henry VIII.

The king himself, the senior nobility, royals and clergy around him, his close advisers and office-holders, possibly his romantic interests.

It was a narrow target audience.

But today this target audience is much broader, especially in democratic countries with a free and lively political debate.

It is not just concentrated on a single person and the establishment around him or her.

An ambassador today still seeks to influence the people at the apex of power and decision-making in a country.

But power today in democratic countries is dispersed.

It spans numerous arms of government and spreads across the political and bureaucratic class.

It extends into the business and commercial realm. It includes the media, influential opinion-makers, academics, thinktanks, religious figures, political movements, NGOs, and minority groups.

This is your target audience as a diplomat. To be a good diplomat today, you cannot just restrict yourself to speaking to your host government.

You need to be speaking to everyone – the public, the media, activists, opinion-makers, NGOs, minority groups, business people, and people representing views right across the political spectrum.

Just as importantly, you need to be talking to the people who disagree with you. And you need to be trying to persuade them.

I am amazed at how many diplomats still seem to think that their primary contacts should be at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and other diplomats.

Sure, these are important people to know. But your networks have to be much broader than that.

As I tell every new arrival in my Embassy, you are here to get to know and understand Israelis, not other foreigners.

And, because you are seeking to inform and influence people who are guided by political considerations, your role cannot be limited to speaking only to them in terms of your own country’s national interests.

Part of your role has to be to shape the political debate within the country, appeal to political instincts, and – perhaps most controversially – at times build or at least foster and promote political coalitions and debates which suit your own country’s interests.

At times, this brushes up quite closely against one of those hallowed principles governing the interaction between states, and that is the principle of non-interference in internal affairs.

But it is an essential part of the modern role of diplomacy.

For all this, you need to have an active public profile and presence. And you need to be engaged in topical debates. A willingness to do media, plus use of social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook, are immensely important in this regard.

This is a deeply uncomfortable position for many diplomats, especially those of an older era, who are more used to operating in the shadows and behind closed doors, and who tend to shun publicity.

I think it’s one reason why politicians are increasingly being used and seen as effective diplomats – because the skill-set you need as a modern diplomat overlaps in many respects with that of a good politician.

So, putting all this together, the role of diplomats today is more contested and more challenging – or at least so I would argue – than it has ever been.

Technological advance and the changing nature of government and society have thoroughly disrupted the old model of diplomacy.

This is not by way of complaint. In many ways, it represents an improvement.

The fact that an ambassador is no longer indispensable means more effort is spent in identifying and delivering genuine value.

If you’ve read any of the history about the lead-up to the outbreak of World War One, you’ll know that diplomats back then spent much of their time cutting out newspaper articles and editorials and mailing them back to their home countries.

There is not a lot of value-add in such an effort today.

And the fact that ambassadors today are expected to represent and be drawn from the full spectrum of the country they represent is undoubtedly an advance for equality. This is also a good thing.

But what all this change does mean is that you need to think quite carefully about what purpose and value a diplomat can still serve today, and to define and embrace the role accordingly.

Today, when I think of my own role, I tend to do so in the following terms.

I am one part lobbyist, one part thinktank, and one part spokesperson.

Let me break that down.

As a lobbyist, I should have an excellent set of networks and relationships across-the-board; understand the dynamics of issues; know how, where and why decisions are made; and be in a position to influence those decisions and actions where necessary on behalf of my client – the government and people of Australia.

This sounds a little tawdry when I put it like that, but it is basically what it boils down to.

As I mentioned before, I no longer have a monopoly over representation, and I’m really just one option amongst many for my country to use to represent its views to a foreign country.

So the distinctive value of my role comes from the in-country networks and knowledge that only living in a country can bring, and which ensures that these views have the best chance of being heard and acted upon – what some people call the “last three feet” of diplomacy.

This is as true whether I am attempting to help an Australian citizen in trouble or trying to encourage the development of regulations in the oil and gas sector so they are attractive to foreign investors.

As a thinktank, I am not meant to be a news or wires service for my country.

When it comes to reporting news, a diplomat cannot compete with the media – this is the loss of monopoly over information, which I mentioned earlier.

Instead, the value comes from providing some explanation, judgement and interpretation for your country around events, tailored to your own country’s views and interests.

Part of your role here is helping to filter and identify the significant from what is a continuous and otherwise overwhelming news stream.

Finally, as a spokesperson, I’m no longer the sole official voice of Australia here in Israel – this is the loss of monopoly over communication I spoke of earlier.

Where I can add value though, is in helping to tailor a message to a local audience, finding a way to explain our views or position in a way which resonates and makes sense, and identifying the best channels and outlets to use to push our message.

Where I can also add value is in being a vigilant guardian of my country’s message and reputation within country.

With the 24-hour news cycle, this means being quick to respond to questions or queries and ensuring that false assertions are countered or contested as quickly as possible.

A quick response is at a premium here, but the compressed timeline is something that foreign ministries, as large and bureaucratic organisations, naturally struggle with.

I’ve spoken tonight about the challenges of how you conduct modern day diplomacy.

I hope I’ve managed to convince you that diplomats still have a role to play in today’s world.

I think at the least, in being forced to write this speech, I have managed to convince myself.

And I would say – perhaps because of the challenges you face, perhaps because of your innovative and adaptive character – Israel produces some of the best diplomats in the world.

What I have not mentioned tonight though is the subject matter of modern day diplomacy – that is, what are the challenges that modern day diplomacy is and should be addressing.

This is a much harder topic.

It goes to the heart of what sort of world we will be living in within the next generation, and the concept of global order.

It has become a little commonplace to say that the current global order, the rules-based international system enshrined in the post World War 2 settlement, is under threat. But I genuinely think it is.

In many respects, we seem to be heading for a late 19th century or early 20th century world.

A world of rising, dominant and declining states, jostling for influence and respect.

A world that is largely free from ideological contest but less constrained by norms and rules.

With the key difference being that we now live in a single international system in many respects – for the first time in history – where disorder and threats in one part of the system are readily transmissible to other parts.

These are topics you will all wrestle with as you leave school and embark on your professional lives.

In one capacity or another, you will all be serving as ambassadors for your country.

In that endeavour, I wish you all the success in the world.

Israel: Don’t let your gas languish underground


Watching the debate unfold in Israel about how to manage an emerging offshore oil gas industry, I’ve been reminded of similar debates in Australia.

Today Australia is a major energy exporter. We are the world’s 4th largest exporter of liquefied natural gas (LNG) and are on track to become the world’s largest producer of natural gas by 2020.

But as we found, building a world-class gas industry is a challenging task.

In many ways, the discovery of the resource – the stage Israel is still at with the Leviathan field – is actually the easiest part.

Many countries throughout the world have extensive natural resources. Very few have successful and well-managed resource industries.

The difference usually comes down to policy and governance.

The discussions underway in Israel about how to build a competitive gas industry are healthy and understandable.

How do you ensure the citizens, the ultimate owners of the resource, benefit from it?

How do you ensure competition in a sector where big players tend to dominate?

How do you protect the environment, create jobs and ensure worker safety?

Over a matter of such great public interest, these are all legitimate debates to have. We had them ourselves in Australia a few decades ago. They involve difficult choices.

At the end of the day, it is about finding an appropriate balance between a range of competing interests and priorities.

Did we get everything right in Australia? Absolutely not.

But we managed to create a world-class LNG industry which has created jobs and prosperity, enjoys broad public support, and is well-managed and regulated.

We learnt several lessons from our experience, which are just as relevant for Israel as they were for Australia.

First, foreign investment is a critical partner. The significant capital and risk involved in a big natural resource project means it is usually beyond the scope of a small domestic market to finance. The right foreign investor can also bring relevant technical expertise and access to markets.

Second, foreign investors are ruled by commercial considerations. They are not philanthropists or Zionists. The only reason they will get involved in a project is if they think they can make a decent, risk-adjusted return on capital.

Third, a certain and stable regulatory environment is essential. Given the size of the capital investment required and the decades-long life of these projects, investors need to know the rules of the game in advance – certainty – and be confident that these rules will not be changed arbitrarily over the life of the project – stability.

Fourth, the oil and gas sector is a highly competitive one. New gas field discoveries are made all the time. You have to create an attractive package to lure investors, or they will go elsewhere.

I was very disappointed when Woodside terminated its interest in Leviathan in 2014, because it is exactly the sort of major outside investor needed to help Israel’s fledgling gas sector realise its full potential.

Since that time, the headlines coming out of Israel’s oil and gas sector have not been reassuring, with several developments creating new sources of uncertainty.

Coupled with falling global gas prices, this has further hurt confidence in the sector.

If an oil and gas sector gets off the ground in Israel, it would be an immense strategic asset for the country.

It would create new sources of economic growth, increase government revenue (which could be used for social spending), diversify the economy and lessen Israel’s reliance on the high-tech sector, and even help Israel’s relationships with its neighbours.

But if things continue as they are, I fear the resources may remain under ground and under utilised. This would truly constitute a missed opportunity.

Exercise your rights: Vote!


Next Tuesday, citizens of Israel will head to the polls to elect a new Knesset.

Voter turnout will likely be somewhere around 68%, meaning almost one in three eligible voters will choose not to exercise their democratic right.

In Australia, if you fail to vote in an election, you can face a fine and even potentially prosecution in court.

How can that be in a liberal democracy?

Australia is one of only a handful of countries around the world that enforces a system of compulsory voting. We’ve had it in place since 1924.

If you fail to vote in an Australian election, you risk being fined.

Usually it’s no more than NIS 60. But, coupled with a sense of civic duty, this is enough to persuade most people to get to the polling stations on election day.

As a result, turnout in Australian elections is exceptionally high by world standards. At the 2013 federal election, it was 93%.

Though it might seem at odds with the freedoms of a liberal society, in Australia we see compulsory voting as a bulwark of our democratic system.

As Australians see it, voting for elected representatives is one of the obligations of Australian citizenship.

Political scientists differ in their opinions over the advantages and disadvantages of such a system. There are debates over whether compulsory voting leads to a more or less engaged citizenry and a more or less representative parliament.

But one definite by-product of Australia’s compulsory voting is, at least to my mind, a less polarised and more centrist political debate than that seen in many other countries.

Political parties do not need to spend time energising and exciting their base or on get-out-the-vote campaigns.

Politics remains highly contested, and debates are as fierce as they are in other democracies.

But in a compulsory voting system it is a contest for the political centre, not the political fringes, which determines the outcome and the government.

Australia’s electoral system is far from perfect. But compulsory voting, now almost as old as our democracy itself, is one of its most valuable features. We intend to keep it.

2014: The Year in Review

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.

Battle of Be’ersheva

Speech at the Commonwealth War Graves Cemetry, Be’ersheva
31 October 2014

97 years ago, on this very day, as the sun began to sink over the horizon of the Negev Desert, horsemen of the 4th and 12th Australian Light Horse Regiments lined up on the high ground, to the south east of Ottoman-held Be’er Sheva.

It was late in the day.

The attack on Be’er Sheva had commenced at 555 that morning, with an artillery barrage. The morning offensives had been largely successful. British infantry had destroyed Turkish defences to the south-west of town, and Australian forces had cut the road running northeast from Be’er Sheva to Hebron.

But the capture of Tel el Saba, a hill three kilometres to the east of the town, had taken longer than expected, and only after fierce and resolute fighting from the New Zealand brigade.

Turkish defenders continued to hold the town, and the all-important wells of Be’er Sheva.

And so a last desperate push was required if the town of Be’ersheva was to be captured on this first day, as General Allenby’s campaign plan demanded, and as he had ordered General Harry Chauvel, commander of the Desert Mounted Corps, by telegraph only hours earlier.

If the defenders of Be’ersheva had held on until darkness fell, the Ottoman high command might be able to send reinforcements or make an orderly withdrawal and destroy the precious wells.

Two earlier Allied attempts to break the Turkish defensive line running from Gaza on the coast to Be’er Sheva 43 kilometres inland – the First and Second Battles of Gaza – had failed. This was the third attempt.

So as the sun was shifting low in the sky, Chauvel mulled over his options for a final push on Be’er Sheva.

Had Tel el Saba fallen earlier, a dismounted attack would surely have been the preferred course of action. But with day light steadily fading, this was no longer an option.

The only remaining option was a galloping charge. The commander of the 4th Light Horse Brigade, Grant, and the commander of the 5th Mounted Yeomanry Brigade, Fitzgerald, pleaded with Chauvel for the honour to lead it.

Fitzgerald’s yeomanry had their swords and were close behind Chauvel’s headquarters. Grant’s Australians had only their rifles and bayonets, but were nearer Be’er Sheva. Chauvel chose to give the lead to the light horsemen.

And so it was that at 430pm that afternoon, the 4th and 12th Light Horse regiments drew up behind a ridge some four miles to the south-east of the town.

Somewhere between them and the town lay a system of enemy trenches, captured in aerial photographs but not able to be definitively located.

“Already the horses were casting long shadows as troop after troop moved into position, and the light, although still clear, had that uncertain quality which marks the failing day.”

The two regiments moved off at the trot, deploying at once until there was a space of five yards between the horsemen.

Surprise and speed were their one chance, and almost at once their pace quickened to a gallop.

Following close behind were supporting forces, from the 11th Light Horse Regiment and from the 5th and 7th Mounted Brigades.

Facing sustained enemy fire, but moving fast, the horsemen quickly fell upon enemy lines, jumping the trenches, dismounting their horses, and then entering the trenches on foot, clearing them with both rifle and bayonet.

Other parts of the force rode on, heading directly for the town.

The momentum of the surprise attack carried them, though outnumbered, through Turkish defences.

As the official Australian war history recounts, “the swift, thundering rush of successive waves of horsemen over the dusty ground in the failing light had bewildered and deceived the Turkish infantry”, who believed the attacking force to be at least a division strong.

The light horsemen took less than an hour to overrun the trenches and enter Be’er Sheva. Some 750 Turkish and German soldiers were taken prisoner.

The cavalry equivalent of ‘shock and awe’ had worked.

“The enemy had been beaten rather by the sheer recklessness of the charge than by the very limited fighting power of this handful of Australians”.

The capture of Be’er sheva was complete by nightfall, and the Gaza-Be’ersheva defensive line broken.

Most importantly, the precious wells were secured.

Not since the days of Abraham had the water in the old wells of the patriarchs been such welcome relief.

The stronghold of Gaza itself fell one week later.

Looking back now, with the benefit of hindsight, the outcome of the First World War has an almost pre-ordained quality.

But in October 1917 it looked quite different.

At that time, the Ottoman Empire, Austria-Hungary and Germany were holding firm.

And it was the governments who had brought the Allied Powers into the war – the Asquith Government in Britain, the Viviani Government in France, and the Czar in Russia – which had collapsed or been overthrown.

The failure of the Dardanelles campaign and military catastrophes and setbacks in Mesopotamia and on the Western Front had greatly damaged Allied morale, as had defeats in the first and second battles of Gaza earlier that year.

Of only peripheral importance when the First World War broke out in 1914, by 1917 the Middle East theatre had become critical to the outcome.

The success of General Allenby’s campaign – which began here, on this day, 97 years ago – turned the outcome of the war.

Most importantly, it helped frame the shape of the post-war settlement – which still reverberates across the Middle East even today.

After Be’er Sheva, Allied troops went on to capture Jericho and Jerusalem, Damascus and Aleppo.

The so-called Sykes-Picot settlement – the borders and states of the modern Middle East – is under strain elsewhere. But one element in particular of it endures.

For it was on this very same day, 31 October 1917, that the British War Cabinet approved the text for what would become the Balfour Declaration, a declaration of sympathy for Zionist aspirations.

Setting off a chain of events that would eventually lead to the creation of the modern state of Israel in 1948.

The Battle of Be’er Sheva, though mild by the standards of the bloody Western Front, nonetheless exacted its share of human tragedy.

31 Light Horsemen were killed in the charge. But the heaviest Allied losses were suffered by the British infantry. New Zealand also suffered for its heroic effort in taking Tel el Saba.

Brave Turkish and German troops died that day as well, defending their lines, and in large numbers.

Jewish-Australians made up part of the ANZAC contingent. Most famous amongst them was Major Eric Montague Hyman, who was raised in Tamworth and lead the A Squadron of the 12th Light Horse Regiment.

He was awarded a Distinguished Service Order for his role in the charge, for “conspicuous gallantry and dash in action”.

In the cemetery around us, 1241 Commonwealth soldiers who gave their lives in service of their country, are buried, some of whom fought in this very battle we are commemorating.

We come here today to pay our respects to those men of all countries and nations who fought in this deadly theatre of the First World War.

We recognise that those who were ready to sacrifice their life in service of their country displayed values of the highest order that we hold so dear: honour, courage, loyalty and duty.

Today, we honour their memory.

Break Hamas Stranglehold on Gaza

Earlier this week I visited one of the communities on the Gaza periphery, Kibbutz Nahal Oz. Notwithstanding the optimism and strength of the residents, it felt a long way from normal.

Ten metre high concrete blast walls had been erected around the kindergarten. Many of the kibbutz families were yet to return, too fearful and uncertain about the future. To the residents, the current calm seemed tentative and fragile. Throughout the south, the mood seems much the same.

The fifty day conflict with Gaza took a heavy toll on both sides. But the current ceasefire agreement is fragile. Unless the current status quo begins to change, the prospect of rocket fire resuming towards Israel is all too real.

All through the conflict, Israel kept oil and cooking gas and other essentials moving through Kerem Shalom, and kept the crossing at Erez open.

Following the ceasefire, Israel has helped alleviate humanitarian needs in Gaza. The fishing zone for Gazans has been expanded from three to six nautical miles.

The goods crossing at Kerem Shalom is moving four hundred truckloads of goods across the border each day. From sacks of flour to cartons of nappies, from Australian cattle and cooking gas to roofing and watermelon seeds – I saw it all moving into Gaza when I visited Kerem Shalom earlier this week.

These are positive first steps, but more is now needed.

That is why the agreement announced earlier this week between Israel, the Palestinian Authority and the United Nations to facilitate the reconstruction and economic recovery of Gaza is such a welcome development.

Israel has legitimate security concerns that need to be addressed in any new cross-border mechanism.

No-one in the international community will tolerate seeing sacks of cement being used to rebuild the terror attack tunnels, or discovering that materials intended for reconstruction have been diverted to rocket factories.

But provided we can find a way to protect Israel’s security concerns, improving economic conditions for ordinary Gazans is a goal Israel and the international community can agree upon.

Gaza’s reconstruction needs are real and significant. Just as importantly, however, economic opportunities for Gazans to earn a living on their own behalf must improve. Aid is no substitute for a strong private sector.

When I visited Gaza several months ago, I was shocked by the stranglehold that Hamas exercised over all forms of economic activity.

If people had a job, they either worked for Hamas or were employed by an aid agency.

Much of the population subsisted on welfare and handouts. The economy was closed and stagnant.

The traditional merchant families of Gaza were marginalised. Generating wealth, adding value or any sort of entrepreneurialism was nigh impossible. Rent-seeking was rife. It was a sad picture of a place renowned throughout history as one of merchants and traders.

A new cross-border mechanism with robust monitoring and verification could change this equation.

If goods can move more freely in and out of Gaza, if exports can resume, if people have outlets for trade and entrepreneurialism, if a private sector can emerge, then the life and the politics of Gaza can be transformed.

Gazan strawberry and carnation growers could sell their goods into the West Bank, where incomes are three times as high.

Palestinians in the West Bank could become a big source of tourists for Gaza, taking their children on beach holidays.

This will not happen overnight, but if we can break Hamas’ stranglehold on the Gazan economy, then their political dominance will soon come under challenge.

The Ad Hoc Liaison Committee, the main donor coordination mechanism for the Palestinian people, is meeting in New York next week.

This provides the opportunity to mobilise the international community behind this effort. Australia and others are keen to support a new cross-border mechanism agreed between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, and to help flesh out the detail.

In the absence of any sort of accountable or responsible actor on the Gazan side, four hundred truckloads of goods are moving across Israel’s border with Gaza each day.

If the right safeguards and mechanisms are put in place, this figure could be several multiples higher, and goods and people could move both ways.

This is an outcome that would benefit both the security of Israel and the people of Gaza.

Originally published in Yedioth Ahronoth and YNet News (,7340,L-4573537,00.html) in Sep 2014