Netanyahu’s visit in perspective

After the extraordinary attention accorded to the visit to Australia by the leader of a country whose economic importance to us is limited – if prospective – it might not be a bad idea to put all this into perspective.

This is especially so when the presence in Australia of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is set against the significance of a forthcoming visit by China’s second-ranking official, Premier Li Keqiang.

Let’s compare respective trading relationships:

  • In 2015-16, Australia’s two-way trading partnership with China was worth A$150 billion, with trade heavily in our favour. Australian exports amounted to A$89 billion.
  • By contrast, the trading partnership between Australia and Israel amounts to less than 1% of the Australia-China trading relationship.
  • In 2015 Australia ranked 37th globally as a source of Israel’s imports (trade in goods and services), and 23rd as a destination for Israeli exports.
  • On another measure, merchandise exports to Israel amounted to 0.1% of Australia’s exports, or a ranking of 44th among our trading partners.

These numbers don’t address the significant opportunities that exist for co-operation and investment in technical innovations between the two countries, including cyber-security – where Israel is a world leader.

However, set against the importance of China, Israel’s economic relationship is a sideshow – and one that is not without cost when Australia’s broader Middle East interests are taken into account.

Li will be here next month at a critical moment in our consideration of how we might adjust to a new US administration and its policies in the Asia-Pacific.

These are legacy issues in contrast to whatever might be taking place in the Middle East, where – at best – we can exert marginal influence while remaining ultra-cautious about deepening involvement.

While the diplomatic overreach – accompanied by extraordinary journalistic hyperbole – associated with Netanyahu’s four-day visit may be justified in the minds of some in conservative ranks by the exigencies of Australian domestic politics, it might be worth reminding ourselves where our real interests lie.

Tempted to wedge a Labor Party conflicted over the Arab-Israel dispute with no fewer than two former prime ministers and two former foreign ministers advocating recognition of Palestine, the Turnbull government has aligned itself with Israel in ways that go beyond diplomatic prudence.

Turnbull’s remarks about Australia’s opposition to UN resolutions in any way critical of Israel risk being regarded as an open-ended commitment given not all Israel’s actions should be regarded as off-limits for UN sanction.

This is one conclusion that might be drawn from Turnbull’s criticisms of UN attempts to hold Israel to account over its continued settlement-building activities, about which the Turnbull government seems prepared to be more indulgent than other like-minded western governments.

Put simply, our interests will not always align with those of a country that has demonstrated its willingness to disregard international norms when it comes to extending its territorial ambitions.

In contrast to other western nations, the Turnbull government remained silent over the passage of a recent Knesset law that enabled the expropriation of private Palestinian land retroactively. This silence was both surprising and disappointing.

The so-called settler’s law will be challenged in Israel’s Supreme Court. Its deliberations will be closely scrutinised by the international community as a test case for Israel’s claim of judicial independence.

Then there is a matter of Netanyahu himself. Israel’s prime minister is a controversial figure whose relations with successive Democratic presidents – namely Bill Clinton and Barack Obama – have been fraught.

Put simply, Netanyahu has been regarded in the US not as a facilitator for a near moribund peace process, but as an obstacle.

And yet, references during his Australian visit – as far as the peace process was concerned – were sparse at best to Israel’s continued and provocative settlement-expansion activities, not simply in the West Bank, but also in and around Jerusalem itself.

Now, to Li’s visit, which is assuming more-than-usual importance given the stakes involved.

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop set the stage for important discussions with Li at a meeting earlier this month with her Chinese counterpart Wang Yi, and in sessions in Washington with Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and new national security adviser H. R. McMaster.

Those discussions will provide a foundation for Canberra’s interactions with Beijing in the next stage. Significantly, Bishop told the Americans that Australia would not be joining bolder naval actions such as sailing close to disputed islands in the South China Sea. This is to avoid an escalation in tensions.

Australia’s approach, in consultation with its principal allies in the region, is to lessen tensions where possible, and in the process seek to draw China into a reasonable discussion about what might and might not be acceptable.

On the other hand, policymakers in Canberra and elsewhere will not have overlooked, nor will they be sanguine about, recent Chinese naval exercises that have spread to the eastern Indian Ocean.

China’s naval build-up, accompanied by bolder exercises in waters that have not previously been included in such exercises, is – and should be – a matter for concern.

Li’s visit is significant for another reason, and it has to do with Chinese domestic politics. Beijing is gearing up for the most important political event on the domestic calendar: the Communist Party’s 19th National Congress, which is to be held in the second half of the year.

This will both endorse newcomers to the seven-member Standing Committee of the Politburo (the body that effectively runs China), and set new guidelines for the country’s economic development. These are hugely significant political events held every five years.

Li, who ranks second in the hierarchy behind President Xi Jinping, seems likely to get a second five-year term, and will thus continue to be a significant player in China’s interactions with the outside world.

Might we suggest the Turnbull government devotes at least as much energy to ensuring the success of the Li visit as it has to amplifying Australia’s relations with Israel, beyond what might be justified by our economic relationship and cultural ties.

The article first appeared in The Conversation.

Photo: AAP/Dean Lewins