The Prime Minster of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, arrives in Australia today and will be here from the 22-25 February. Netanyahu, who is the first sitting Israeli PM to visit Australia, and the Turnbull government are expected to sign two bilateral agreements on technology and innovation, and air services. Some are expecting Netanyahu’s visit to be met with scorn not just from important Australians past and present, but from regular citizens outraged by Israel’s settlement drive into the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights. Canberra should not be deterred by these protests and should use this historic visit to ensure Australia-Israel relations deepen. Australia should not step away from its commitment to a two-state solution, but overall, the focus should be on strengthening bilateral relations to serve each other’s national interest. “It will be necessary to select areas for cooperation that bring the highest mutual benefit.” Water management could be one of those areas. Israeli water management is among the best in the world and Australia would be wise to make water security a central discussion point of the visit.
Netanyahu’s visit to Australia is likely to strengthen Australia’s ties with Israel. The issue of settlements by Israel has led to demands for Australia to recognise a Palestinian state, but Australia’s stance on the issue is fair and a positive move for bilateral relations. Australia has constantly held itself to a two-state solution that must be worked out by Palestine and Israel. Australia has not always accommodated Israeli expansion. Earlier this year the Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs Julie Bishop criticised Israeli settlements, cautioning Israel to refrain from any unilateral action. But in 2014, Australia refused to call the settlements illegal. In late 2016, Australia stepped outside international convention and declared Security Council Resolution 2334 “one-sided” and “deeply unsettling.” Australia supports a solution that includes both Palestinian and Israeli negotiations, and not a resolution pushed by the United Nations. Australia is doing well to ensure the back door approach to Palestinian statehood, via the UN, isn’t constantly being peddled and that realistic approaches, like negotiations, are followed. Furthermore, Australia’s stance on this issue, and by extension its visit from Netanyahu, demonstrates the strong diplomatic future facing Canberra and Tel Aviv.
This diplomatic support is a foundation for the improvement of bilateral relations. Long term relations can be solidified through bilateral co-operation in water management. This field can be used to achieve what is needed in Australia-Israel relations: a deeper understanding of how the two can tap into each other capabilities.
These agreements are indicative of the kind of relationship Australia and Israel must take: a realistically pragmatic approach that targets issues selectively according to the national interest. Israel is a pioneer in the water management industry and is thus a perfect candidate to provide wise council to Australia. Measures taken by Israel to improve its water security are many. Cutting water subsidies to agriculture, tackling leaks early, recycling waste water and investing in desalination are all measures that could be communicated better to Australia. There is ample room for companies, such as Sydney Water, to share information with their Israeli counterparts on water supply resilience and water management for smart cities (Israel has experience in irrigation in smart cities). Furthermore, Australian farming and dairy technology will stand to gain from strengthened relations as Turnbull announced the creation of an “operational and commercial farm around Wagga Wagga” that will allow Australian farmers to access leading Israeli agricultural and dairy technology.
This visit is a golden opportunity. The topics of discussion will range from cyber-security to the environment. Anthony Bergin of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute believes Australia can utilise defence to deepen bilateral relations, but coupling this policy area with water management, another sector both countries have a shared interest in, can act as a vital linchpin binding the two countries together. Both share hot climates, contend with desert and agricultural issues and aim to foster greater links between innovators from each country.
Overall, the implications of this visit are likely to be far reaching. Bilateral relations should not remain bilateral. Instead, Australia should use Israel to springboard itself further into the Asian markets. Israel has pivoted to Asia and many Israeli companies can be found across Asia. An Israeli presence in potential markets may make it easier for Australian companies to find openings. Israel also stands to gain from Australia: Canberra has years of experience negotiating trade deals in the Asia-Pacific. Furthermore, Australia’s measured and realistic settlements policy is positively received by Tel Aviv and as this visit demonstrates, long term respect and cooperation can be expected. The Australia-Israel relationship will not be without hindrances, but it is important they do not let settlement-related issues stall their cooperative efforts.