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Benjamin Netanyahu's visit is a chance for Australia to forge stronger ties with Israel

Anthony BerginAuthor: Anthony Bergin 

Benjamin Netanyahu will be the first sitting Israeli Prime Minister to visit Australia.  The relationship between Australia and the small Jewish state is warm, despite occasional problems. Australia has always been seen as friendly by Israel, although it's rarely been a major focus of policy efforts in Jerusalem.

Although there's bipartisan for a two-state solution, and calls from the Left for unilateral recognition of a Palestinian state, this hasn't translated into support for the Palestinians' campaign to downgrade our relations with Israel.

At the ALP's national conference two years ago, the party voted to move closer to a position of support for unilateral recognition of Palestine, but not to endorse that position as yet. Labor's national conference voted to reject the boycotts, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel. The Coalition and most minor parties condemn BDS. Even the Greens don't support it, (although they won't condemn it).

Both Australia and Israel have strong economic ties to Asia. Israel is negotiating free trade agreements with four countries in Asia. Israel trades more with China (its third largest trade partner), India, and Japan than it does with its major ally, the United States. (None of the Asian giants link their economic ties with Israel to the Palestine issue).

Israel has long standing defence links with Singapore and is improving its ties with Vietnam. There's been growing trade and tourism ties to Jakarta, although Indonesia doesn't recognise Israel.

Our two countries share serious strategic concerns. But there's been almost no high-level military exchanges between them. Israel doesn't have a uniformed military attaché in Canberra and our defence attaché to Israel is based in Turkey. Australia should upgrade security relations with Israel to tap into its expertise in counter-terrorism, hi-tech weapons systems and cyber security.

Our two armed forces would benefit from enhanced co-operation: both operate American equipment and have invested heavily in world class technology. Israel, whose military doctrine is based on self-reliance, can learn from Australia's experience in military coalitions. Israel has experience in urban warfare and in the development of unmanned aerial systems for intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, and combat, an area in which the Australian air force is developing.

Beyond security, social resilience is an area where information can be shared. Israel has managed to preserve social cohesion even when hit by terror attacks. It's endured decades of conflict, yet has still succeeded in building a flourishing economy and vibrant democracy. The two countries can share expertise on water management. Israel is a world leader in dryland farming, drip irrigation, and waste water recycling.

An enhanced relationship with Israel won't damage our standing in the Arab or Muslim world. Israel has peace treaties with Egypt, the most important Arab state, and with Jordan. Other Arab countries are quietly getting closer to Israel because of the rise of Iran in the region and the shared fear of radical Islam. Jerusalem has good relations with the Muslim states in Central Asia and the Caucasus.

There's really no country in the Middle East whose interests are more closely aligned with Australia's than Israel. But neither state has sufficiently recognised the extent to which they contribute to one another's national interests. There's a lot of rhetoric from both sides about the relationship, but not a lot of substance. The relationship is in many ways underachieving.

This year marks the centenary of the battle of Beersheba. The Australian Light Horse's battlefield prowess in Palestine during WW1 helped lay the groundwork for the eventual creation of the Jewish state.

Our two countries will need to be as bold as the 4th Light Horse Brigade if we're to succeed in forging a new strategic partnership. This week's historic visit by the Israeli Prime Minister is a good start to maximising the potential for enhanced relations.

But if Jerusalem were to make it clear that it didn't believe in negotiations with the Palestinians or supported a one-state solution to the Israeli-Palestine conflict, that would obviously set a ceiling on advancing to a closer partnership.

Anthony Bergin is a senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute and ANU's National Security College. He is the co-author of The Wattle and the Olive: A new chapter in Australia and Israel working together.

Originally published: Sydney Morning Herald. 21 Feb 2017