06 March 2016

Rivlin’s regrettable cancellation of Australian state visit

From Isi Leibler, 2 March 2016:

Israel today has few genuine friends willing to stand up and defend the Jewish state and counter the many nations that apply bias and double standards in ongoing harassment.

Australia, an important Western middle power, has a track record of friendship dating back to the State of Israel’s birth that, with the exception of a few minor blips, would place it among the Jewish state’s most consistent and loyal friends.

Australian governments not only befriended Israel but played important and, to a large extent, unknown roles in other Jewish issues. These included the struggle for Soviet Jewry, the campaign to rescind the infamous U.N. “Zionism is racism” resolution and discreet initiatives that helped to pave the way for diplomatic relations between Israel and India and China.

The current government, headed by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, occupies a similar position of genuine friendship toward Israel as that held by Canada until recently, under former Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

Last month, President Reuven Rivlin announced a five-day state visit to Canberra, Melbourne and Sydney scheduled to commence on March 13. It was to have been the first visit to Australia by an Israeli president in over a decade.

Despite the short notice and the fact that requests from other foreign leaders had been postponed, the Australians went out of their way to lay out the red carpet for the visit. The Australian Governor General Peter Cosgrove canceled an overseas trip in order to host Rivlin, and Turnbull not only committed to hosting the president at a state dinner but also organized a luncheon in Canberra to which several hundred people were invited, including all federal parliamentarians.

Two weeks before the event, Rivlin informed the Australians that he was obliged to cancel the trip in order to fly to Moscow to see President Vladimir Putin.

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation reported that, not surprisingly, Australian government officials were offended and infuriated at the cancellation as a large amount of effort was invested into organizing events and dates were rescheduled to accommodate the president, only for Rivlin to cancel “for a better offer. … People feel angry and taken for granted. … The ABC understands Australian officials were left wondering whether their efforts as one of Israel’s closest allies were appreciated by Tel Aviv.”

Rivlin deflected much of the criticism by suggesting that the decision was taken only after consultations with the Foreign Ministry and the Prime Minister’s Office. These government offices purportedly decided that, in consideration of sensitive developments in the region, Rivlin’s meeting with Putin had important defense implications that demanded priority over what was to be primarily a ceremonial visit to Australia.

I am not privy to the background of Rivlin’s scheduled visit to Moscow and time may well demonstrate that the meeting with Putin was critical. But I am dubious. Surely the meeting could have been postponed for a week. Had this been Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, it would have made sense. But Rivlin is a ceremonial figure, a head of state with no executive authority. And I am not demeaning our president when I suggest that his political sophistication is surely unlikely to make a great impact on a tough leader like Putin.

Israel has undoubtedly offended one of its closest allies. Rivlin has announced that his visit was “postponed,” not canceled, but with impending elections, it is highly unlikely that the Australians will be able or inclined to reschedule a visit during the coming calendar year.

Australia must not be taken for granted. Its longstanding friendship with Israel dates back to troops serving in Palestine in both world wars. Since 1948, when Australian Labor Party leader Dr. H. V. Evatt served as U.N. General Assembly president at the time the Jewish state was created, with only two brief exceptions, a bipartisan policy of friendship toward Israel has applied irrespective of which government was in office.

The timing of this slight could not have been worse. Over the past year, former Labor Party Foreign Minister Bob Carr, who virtually overnight became rabidly anti-Israeli in the previous government, led a concerted drive to persuade his party to reverse its even-handed policy on Israel. At the annual Labor conference last month, his efforts were overwhelmingly defeated.

Why is it that a country so geographically distant has maintained such a longstanding warm relationship with Israel?

Although possibly biased by having served for many years as the head of the Australian Jewish community, I feel confident in asserting that much of the credit for the supportive government and evenhanded opposition approach to Israel can be credited to the passionately Zionist Jewish community -- which is deeply embarrassed by the last-minute Rivlin cancellation.

The genesis of the Jewish community dates from the end of the 18th century, when Jews were among the first convicts deported from England to Australia. It was a declining and rapidly assimilating community until World War II, when it was reinvigorated by Jews fleeing Nazi persecution and survivors from the concentration camps. Indeed, Australia’s Jewish community absorbed proportionately more Holocaust survivors than any other Jewish community aside from Israel.

Jewish cultural and religious life developed dramatically. The immigrants created an impressive network of Jewish day schools, ranging from secular Zionist to Chabad, from Reform to Modern Orthodox and even a Bundist school, which catered for most Jewish youngsters.

Since the 1980s, the Jewish community has been augmented by Russians and large numbers of South Africans, the latter financially independent and rapidly assuming important communal leadership roles.

Since the late 1940s, Jewish leaders invested enormous efforts toward promoting the case for Israel at the political level, not hesitating to confront governments they considered were displaying bias or double standards. This all-encompassing Jewish passion for Israel was the critical factor leading to the current bipartisan pro-Israel orientation of the mainstream political parties.

Today there is unfortunately a discernible change beyond the parliamentary framework. Australian trade unions, traditionally bastions of support for Israel, now endorse anti-Israeli boycotts. Anti-Israeli activity at universities is escalating and encouraged by the Green movement and a number of Jewish academics. Anti-Zionist Jewish splinter groups have emerged, although in contrast to the U.S., they are marginalized from the mainstream.

Notwithstanding these emerging challenges, if there were more Jewish communities like Australia, the future of Diaspora Jewry would be far more secure.

The Jewish community is united under the umbrella of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry. The Australia-Israel and Jewish Affairs Council, the community’s Israel advocacy organization, the counterpart of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, operates at an extraordinarily high professional level and could serve as a model for other Jewish communities to emulate. The Australia-Israel Chamber of Commerce is the most popular and efficient chamber in the country.

But Israel cannot afford to take its few genuine friends for granted and irrespective of the circumstances, Rivlin’s last minute cancellation of his state visit casts a blemish on Israel’s relationship with Australia. Our government must bend over backward to compensate for the insult. Despite the massive pressures facing Netanyahu, he would do well to commit himself to a visit Down Under after the Australian elections.