Why is Australia prioritising trade with Israel?

Apr 30, 2021

The department of Foreign Affairs and Trade is currently calling for submissions to a “feasibility study on strengthening trade and investment with Israel”. Later this year DFAT is reported to be undertaking similar studies with Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland.

A cynic might wonder why Israel with a population of 8.8 million has been afforded a priority in the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) queue given that Israel is only Australia’s 45th largest two-way trading partner and 50th largest export market. Two-way trade amounted to $1.3 billion in 2019-2020, of which Australian exports were a mere $345 million and imports from Israel totalled $1.02 billion.

The priority to Israel could rest in a number of places – a simple expansion of global trade in the churn of the bureaucracy, a search for new markets especially for agricultural products in anticipation of a further decline in relationships with China, a gesture toward the Jewish vote, the influence of the former ambassador to Israel as a Liberal backbencher or perhaps even, a new thrust in the defence and cybersecurity space,

Given Australia’s nominal adherence to universal human rights, the rule of law and rules based international law, it is hard to understand why we would be embracing further cooperation with a country which in its treatment of Palestinians and the blockade of Gaza is currently in breach of, or has been the subject of, over 30 UN Security Council resolutions directed at it for violations which it has never taken action to remedy.

Of major concern is Israel’s incursion in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) on the West Bank. The UN Security Council has called upon “Israel, as the occupying power to abide scrupulously” by the Fourth Geneva Convention and “….. not to transfer parts of its own civilian population into the occupied Arab territories”. The European Union’s position on settlements is clear. The former EU High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Catherine Ashton, stated on countless occasions that “all settlement construction is illegal under international law and constitutes an obstacle to peace”.4

Yet the scale of incursion only increases. The report by West Bank Jewish Population Stats shows the settler population has grown by around 13% since the start of 2017 to reach 475,481 Israelis relocated to occupy Palestinian lands.Israeli was a favourite of Trump and Israeli authorities advanced plans to build nearly 800 homes in West Bank settlements just days before Trump left office. Peace Now, an Israeli anti-settlement watchdog, says Israel approved or advanced construction of over 12,000 settlement homes in 2020, the highest number in any single year since it began recording statistics in 2012.

A 2010 judgment by the European Court of Justice strengthened the EU’s stance against Israel’s settlement policy in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, by permitting member states to refuse to grant preferential treatment to settlement products supplied by Israel. In 2019, The European Court of Justice ruled that EU countries must identify products made in Israeli settlements on their labels. Ireland has already passed a Bill imposing trade sanctions and the global BDS (Boycott Divestment Sanctions) Movement is gaining momentum including on campuses of some USA universities.

Israel is renowned for its military weapons, skills and expertise and exports these globally. Australia has signed MOUs on defence and security ties between the two countries. Elbit Systems, Israel’s largest arms company, market their weapons as ‘field tested’. In other words, they are tested to see whether such weapons can efficiently harm and kill Palestinians, primarily on Palestinians in Gaza through Israel’s repeated military operations. Twenty percent of Elbit’s 2018 profits came from supplying the Israeli army. Elbit Systems of Australia is a Canberra based company. Another Israeli government-owned military company, Rafael Advanced Defence Systems, has joined forces with an Australian firm to produce precision-guided missiles and other equipment for Australia’s military.

Last month, the Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, Fatou Bensouda, confirmed that her office will begin independent investigations into crimes committed in the Occupied Palestinian Territories since 13 June 2014.

In March this year, the UN Human Rights Council approved a resolution calling for an arms embargo against Israel. The resolution received the support of many European countries, including France, Germany, and Italy.

In addition, in a report released this week, ”A Threshold Crossed, Israeli Authorities and the Crimes of Apartheid and Persecution”, Human Rights Watch has called on countries, including Australia, to impose sanctions on Israel which it claims has committed crimes against humanity under international law

Within this context it is hard to see that Australia would wish to further extend its military purchases and cooperation with Israel.

Palestinian advocates will not be happy to see Israel as the next cab off the FTA rank. While it is unlikely that any sanctions regime is achievable, they will presumably insist that Australia take a stance against trade in goods from the settlements as well as an end to extending any military cooperation in good and services.

Given that the 2015 Inquiry into Commonwealth’s treaty-making process found that lack of access to information about confidential negotiations, and the impact of such a lack of information on the quality of stakeholder consultation, was of concern to the majority of submitters, it is hard to see that those who oppose extended trade with Israel can have any faith in the process. How would anyone know if any human rights conditions were included in any Agreement?

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