Features Australia

Holy Land Diary

27 May 2017

9:00 AM

27 May 2017

9:00 AM

Last week, I was in Tel Aviv, to receive an honorary doctorate. The official party entered to the strains of Elgar’s pomp and circumstance march. ‘May I sing?’ I whispered to the university head. Alas, his look forbade it!

The degree was for ‘statesmanship in promoting freedom, democracy and human rights… compassionate support for the indigenous community… and unwavering support for the state of Israel’. Tel Aviv University also kindly noted that I was ‘a committed social advocate’ and regular ‘volunteer lifeguard and fireman’. Other awardees included Mario Draghi, head of the European central bank; Stuart Eisenstat, former US ambassador to the EU and adviser to Democrat presidents since Johnson; and Ratan Tata, who turned India’s largest business into a global conglomerate producing Jaguars and Range Rovers.

Another Australian was recognised in Israel last week: Julia Gillard received an honorary doctorate from Ben Gurion University. And good on Israeli institutions for acknowledging former Australian PMs as, sometimes, ‘prophets have no honour in their own country’.

Contemporary Israel is a tale of two cities: Jerusalem, the city that people fight over; and Tel Aviv, which has become a high-tech centre approaching Silicon Valley. Thirty years ago, Israel’s main export was oranges. Today, mostly out of Tel Aviv and its environs, Israel has 10 per cent of the world’s $70 billion a year, exponentially growing cyber-security market. Its standard of living is now comparable to that of Australia, despite spending 6 per cent of GDP on national security.

The need to develop fail-safe defences against rockets from Gaza, Lebanon and Iran has certainly had economic spin-offs. Encouraging the brightest school leavers to do their national service with an elite cyber warfare unit has helped too. Government policy to incentivise venture capitalists rather than just directly fund ventures has played a part. In the end, though, it’s that age-old determination to make the best of things. It has helped the Jewish people to survive centuries of persecution and is now turning Israel into a place to do serious business as well as make Aliya.

Our excellent ambassador Dave Sharma showed me around the Landing Pad that’s been established at Tel Aviv’s best IT business accelerator as part of our government’s innovation agenda. It’s introducing Australian start-up entrepreneurs to the world’s fastest growing bazaar for brains. One of them, Chris Drake, should soon be supplying more secure log-in software for billions of bank accounts. He was there because it’s easier to do IT business in Tel Aviv than in his native Noosa.

This is globalisation at its best: smart people in some countries helping smart people in other countries so that everyone in all countries can be better off. For the entrepreneurs I spoke to, making money was not the main point. What counted more was the thrill and satisfaction of finding new and better ways to do things.

Still, it’s impossible to spend time in the Middle East and not come back to the security situation. Jordanian Prime Minister Hani Malki talked about health, employment and workplace relations challenges, before getting onto security. Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu talked economics – and, of course, the impending Trump visit – as well as security. Incidentally, I hope we’re telling the Americans that we’ll move with them if the President eventually acts on his pre-election pledge to place the US embassy in Israel’s capital.

In some ways, Israel has never been more secure. There’s close police and intelligence cooperation with Jordan and Egypt and growing links with the Saudis and the Gulf states. Government-to-government relations are now warm – but people-to-people relations remain cold. Arab TV still demonises Jews. Palestinian Authority-sanctioned posters list alleged Israeli atrocities, even in the tourist area of Bethlehem. Israelis’ determination to have a strong national home so that the Holocaust can never be repeated runs bang into Palestinians’ determination to reverse the Nakhba (or catastrophe) of dispossession. Most Israelis would be happy to accept a Palestinian state that posed no security threat but any Palestinian advocating for co-existence with a Jewish state would risk much worse than ostracism.

A real peace would be the work of decades. It would require the spirit of ‘live and let live’ that hardly exists in the Middle East and is rare in official Islam. That’s why small things like easier access to Israel for trusted Palestinian workers (who can face hours a day queuing at checkpoints) and sports carnivals involving Israeli and Palestinian teams (almost unknown) might eventually lead to the more open minds and hearts that peace requires. To his credit, President Trump seemed to grasp this and came with declarations of support for Israel rather than gratuitous advice.

In troubled parts of the world, the more people-to-people contact the better. A spin-off of continuing to keep the Multinational Force and Observers in Sinai is the regular Israel-Egypt military dialogue that it necessitates. For Australia, our participation in the MFO means professional networking with the military of 13 other countries. For a couple of years now, in the northern Sinai, the local Daesh franchise has been killing Egyptian soldiers and police; so the MFO’s Australian commander is taking strong precautions lest their targets change. It was an honour to visit Major-General Stuart Simon and his Australian contingent. Wherever they serve, our armed forces add to our international standing.

I flew to Israel and back via Bangkok and Amman. The dire politics of the Middle East mean that travel from here involves lengthy detours or two stop-overs. But a direct flight between Perth and Tel Aviv is currently feasible and Tel Aviv-Melbourne will be do-able with the next generation of long range aircraft. The Netanyahu government is keen and flights should be full given Australians’ connectedness with Israel. Memo Qantas and Virgin: don’t miss a chance to profit.

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