Complicit: Victorian government’s secret Israeli Defence Ministry MOU sparks outrage

Feb 12, 2024
3rd January 2019, Melbourne Australia : Front view of the Parliament of Victoria with name written on a board and old Victorian street lamp close-up in Melbourne Victoria Australia

Last month, news bubbled that the Victorian State government had inked a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with the Israeli Defence Ministry in December 2022. “As Australia’s advanced manufacturing capital, we are always exploring economic and trade opportunities for our state – especially those that create local jobs,” a government spokesperson stated in January.

In March 2023, Victoria’s Minister for Industry and Innovation, Ben Carroll, made a visit to Israel praising it for being “one of the world’s most innovative economies”. His trip – which cost in the order of $43,714 – was all “about making industry and business connections in Israel that will deliver new job opportunities for Victoria.” No direct mention of the MoU was made.

The circumstances of the agreement were obscure, and details non-existent. That is, if you were consulting anything at the Victorian level. No public announcement was made, nor any fanfare generated. The only evidence in Australia of the agreement’s existence comes in a listing on the Commonwealth’s Foreign Arrangements Scheme Register. Approval to Victoria to enter the agreement was given on October 17, 2022.

When asked about the content of the MoU, Minister for Government Services Gabrielle Williams denied that any “sort of deal” had been “struck as part of it”. Not that we would know. “Obviously, our commercial contracts with businesses and jurisdictions, particularly in defence, are highly sensitive.”

It takes a glance at Israeli sources to cast some light on this near-absent discussion taking place in the antipodes. Israel’s Ministry of Defence saw no reason to keep quiet about it, stating on social media outlets that its International Defence Cooperation Directorate (SIBAT) and the Victorian statement government had “signed an industrial defence cooperation statement” that December. “The statement is a formal framework that paves the way for continuing cooperation between the parties.”

Those present at the signing ceremony were SIBAT’s chief, the retired General Yair Kulas, and Penelope McKay, acting secretary for Victoria’s Department of Jobs, Precincts, and Regions.

The MoU with Israel continues the State’s freehanded approach to brokering deals with states of eclectic political hue. In April 2021, the previous Morrison government felt that the tendency had gone too far, terminating four agreements made by the Victorian government with government entities in Iran, Syria and China.

The agreements with Iran and Syria, signed in November 2004 and March 1999 respectively, were purportedly of an educational, scientific and training nature. The two agreements with China constituted an MoU and framework agreement with the National Development and Reform Commission of the PRC as part of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The reasoning of then Foreign Minister Marise Payne was terse: “I consider these four arrangements to be inconsistent with Australia’s foreign policy or adverse to our foreign relations in line with the relevant test in Australia’s Foreign Relations (State and Territory) Arrangements) Act 2020.”

The MoU was the fruit of a relationship between the state and Israel’s defence industry stretching back a decade. Elbit Systems, Israel Aerospace Industries and Rafael Advanced Defence Systems all have offices in Melbourne. Elbit Systems, Israel’s primary drone manufacturing company, has been particularly aggressive. Through Elbit Systems of Australia (ELSA), it established a Centre of Excellence in Human-Machine Teaming and Artificial Intelligence in Port Melbourne after announcing its plans to do so in February 2021.

One of its main co-sponsors is the state government’s Invest Victoria branch. The body is tasked with, in the tortured word of the government, “leading new entrant Foreign Direct Investment and investment opportunities of significance as well as enhancing the business investment environment, developing and providing whole-of-government levers and strengthening the governance of investment attraction activities.” RMIT University’s Centre for Industrial AI Research and Innovation also did its bit alongside the state government in furnishing support.

The two-year partnership with ELSA’s Centre of Excellence was billed as a peaceful endeavour. The company’s then managing director and retired Australian Major General Paul McLachlan wanted to impress his audience with the noble goals of developing drone technology, which entailed counting any “number of people in designated evacuation zones, then to co-ordinate and communicate the most efficient evacuation routes to everyone in the zone, as well as monitoring the area to ensure that everyone has been accounted for.”

McLachlan, in focusing on “the complex problems that emergency management organisations face during natural disasters” avoided the gruesome report card of the technology. Drones had been used to account for the killing and monitoring of Palestinians in Gaza, with its star performer being Elbit’s Hermes craft. A grisly fact from the summer months of July 2014, when the IDF was making much use of Elbit’s murderous products in Gaza, company profits increased by 6.1%.

It was telling that this record was of little concern to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s defence, strategy and national security program, Michael Shoebridge. As he told the ABC, the MoU “would have been entirely uncontroversial before the Israel-Hamas war. But now, of course, there’s a live domestic debate about the war, and … most people are concerned about civilian casualties.”

With that sort of reasoning, Israel’s historical record towards Palestinians can be dismissed as peripheral and inconsequential to the current bloodbath sparked by the October 7, 2023 attacks by Hamas. The Jewish state’s ethno-nationalist approach to controlling and dispossessing Palestinians in the West Bank and the stomping and suffocating of Gaza, can be then seen as “controversial” only in current terms.

The Victorian Greens have sought to push the state government to shred the MoU. On February 7, the party released a statement promising to introduce a motion calling on the Victorian government “to end its secretive relationship with the Israeli Ministry of Defence.” They also demanded the government “sever any ties with companies arming Israel’s Defence Force, which has killed 27,500 Palestinians in less than four months.”

This state of affairs has presented Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese with an ample opportunity. The Commonwealth’s termination of previous agreements entered into by Victoria deemed against the national interest comes into play as a formidable precedent. And it can hardly be said to be in the national interest to aid a state engaged in potentially genocidal acts. That claim, pressed on by South Africa, is currently under review before the International Court of Justice in The Hague. But as lawyers and judges ponder, the Victorian state government continues its stony silence on the subject.

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