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February 27, 2017 7:48 am

Netanyahu’s Australia Visit: Sunny Outlook on Bilateral Ties, Cloudy Picture on Two-State Solution

avatar by Sean Savage / JNS.org

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) speaks at the Central Synagogue in Sydney, Australia, Feb. 22, 2017. Credit: Haim Zach/GPO.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) speaks at the Central Synagogue in Sydney, Australia, Feb. 22, 2017. Credit: Haim Zach/GPO.

JNS.org – Fresh off his first official visit with US President Donald Trump, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shifted his focus to Australia, which he visited from February 22-27, in an effort to refresh Israel’s economic and political relations with an important and longtime ally.

But Netanyahu’s visit also came at a time of questions over the future of the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as well as international concern about the Jewish state’s settlement policy in the disputed territories.

Israeli Presidents Chaim Herzog, in 1986, and Moshe Katsav, in 2005, visited Australia, and Netanyahu was forced to cancel a scheduled trip there in 2014, due to that summer’s Israel-Hamas war. Netanyahu’s visit to Australia last week put an end to the historical anomaly of an Israeli prime minister never visiting one of Israel’s closest allies.

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“Australia and Israel have a strong relationship, which is evident in a number of ways — not least of which has been Australian support for Israel politically, with economic ties growing dramatically in recent years,” Jeremy Jones, director of international affairs for the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council (AIJAC), told JNS.org.

“The major political parties [in Australia], both the center-Right Liberal and National parties and the center-Left Labor Party, have historically had pro-Israel majorities, although at different times and to different degrees, there have also been not insignificant minorities [supporting Israel] on the center-left and center-right,” he added.

Netanyahu’s trip also came amid a growing focus on building Israeli relations with Asia. Prior to visiting Australia, Netanyahu traveled to Singapore, where he declared that Israel “is pivoting towards Asia in a very clear and purposeful way.” The prime minister is also scheduled to visit China next month.

“It is not unreasonable to think that the development of Israel’s ties with Asia has given Australia … a higher significance in Israeli diplomatic thinking,” Jones said.

Growing economic ties

Israel and Australia already enjoy strong bilateral trade, which currently stands at $1.1 billion annually. But Netanyahu said that he hopes to substantially increase the countries’ economic relationship.

“Our trade is $1 billion. It should be at least double or triple that,” Netanyahu told Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and a group of business leaders.

Turnbull and Netanyahu signed a number of bilateral agreements during the visit, including a pact to “bolster ties on education and innovation, and to explore opportunities for future collaboration in the fields of agriculture, water, energy, and environmental protection,” according to the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office.

“Politically, Israel’s leadership presented strong arguments for concern with Iran,” AIJAC’s Jones told JNS.org.

“The visit [also] helped Australian policymakers in their understanding of the challenges in peacemaking, counter-terrorism and geo-strategy in the era of Donald Trump, the growth of Asian economic power and political changes in Europe,” he said.

‘Vigorous campaign’ for Palestinian statehood

Netanyahu’s visit came amid calls by former Labor Party prime ministers, Kevin Rudd and Bob Hawke, for their country to recognize Palestinian statehood.

“My deepest fear is we are drifting toward the disintegration and death of an independent Palestinian state. This would be a tragedy for both the Palestinian and Israeli people,” Rudd said in an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald.

“For Israel, the isolation of Palestine and the removal of the prospect of both land and statehood may well lead to the re-radicalization of the Palestinian people,” he added. “I deeply fear the possibility of a third intifada. And so, the time has come for Australia to join countries like Sweden and the Holy See in formally recognizing the Palestinian state.”

Jones told JNS.org that there is a “vigorous campaign” underway in Australia for the recognition of a Palestinian state. The effort, he said, “is being run by people who do not accept the legitimacy of Israel, but is [also] supported by some who claim [that] they support ‘two states.’”

At the same time, Professor Anthony Billingsley, an international relations and Middle East expert at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) in Sydney, believes that reports about the Labor Party’s push to recognize Palestinian statehood have been “overstated.”

“Labor is deeply divided over the question of Israel and Palestine to the point of near impotence,” Billingsley told JNS.org.

“These suggestions [to recognize Palestinian statehood] are significant, but are unlikely to be enough to change the current uncomfortable balance of forces in the party,” he said.

Instead, Billingsley believes that Netanyahu’s visit marks an opportunity for Australia’s current prime minister to further divide his opposition on the issue of Israel and the Palestinians.

“Turnbull has adopted a very strong pro-Israel position over the past few days, largely to wedge the Labor Party by aggravating the internal divisions over the Israel-Palestine issue,” Billingsley said.

In a meeting with Netanyahu, opposition minister and Labor Party leader Bill Shorten raised concerns about Israeli settlements. There was no reported mention of a political push for recognizing Palestinian statehood, although Shorten did express general support for that concept.

“We want to see Israel safe and secure [in] its borders. We [also] support the rights of the Palestinian people to have their own state,” Shorten told reporters after the meeting, according to the Associated Press. He added that “settlements and their expansion are a roadblock to peace.”

Australia and the two-state solution

In the week before Netanyahu’s visit, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, a member of the Liberal Party, suggested that Australia may be open to alternatives to a two-state solution.

“If they can come up with another solution that they were prepared to live with that ensure[s] that the Israelis and the Palestinians could live side by side, live together behind internationally recognized boundaries, then of course the world should support that,” she said.

Her statement came shortly after Netanyahu’s White House meeting with Trump, who seemingly abandoned the longstanding unequivocal US support for two states. Turnbull, however, has maintained that Australia supports a two-state solution.

“We support an outcome which has two states where Israelis, the Israeli people, the Palestinian people live side-by-side as a result of direct negotiations between them — that is the fundamental point — and live together in peace and the security that they are entitled to expect,” he told Netanyahu during the visit. The Australian head of state’s comments were followed up by a joint statement from Netanyahu and Turnbull, in which Netanyahu notably did not endorse two states.

“Both countries re-stated their support for a directly negotiated peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Australia affirmed its support for a two-state solution,” the joint statement said.

UNSW’s Billingsley told JNS.org that Australia will likely stick to its support for a two-state solution as it seeks to maintain diplomatic relations abroad and a political consensus at home.

“On Middle East issues, Australia is not a party principal and has traditionally sought safety in numbers,” Billingsley said. “Supporting a two-state solution has been the safest [international] and smoothest [domestic] policy to pursue.”

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