Exercise your rights: Vote!

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Next Tuesday, citizens of Israel will head to the polls to elect a new Knesset.

Voter turnout will likely be somewhere around 68%, meaning almost one in three eligible voters will choose not to exercise their democratic right.

In Australia, if you fail to vote in an election, you can face a fine and even potentially prosecution in court.

How can that be in a liberal democracy?

Australia is one of only a handful of countries around the world that enforces a system of compulsory voting. We’ve had it in place since 1924.

If you fail to vote in an Australian election, you risk being fined.

Usually it’s no more than NIS 60. But, coupled with a sense of civic duty, this is enough to persuade most people to get to the polling stations on election day.

As a result, turnout in Australian elections is exceptionally high by world standards. At the 2013 federal election, it was 93%.

Though it might seem at odds with the freedoms of a liberal society, in Australia we see compulsory voting as a bulwark of our democratic system.

As Australians see it, voting for elected representatives is one of the obligations of Australian citizenship.

Political scientists differ in their opinions over the advantages and disadvantages of such a system. There are debates over whether compulsory voting leads to a more or less engaged citizenry and a more or less representative parliament.

But one definite by-product of Australia’s compulsory voting is, at least to my mind, a less polarised and more centrist political debate than that seen in many other countries.

Political parties do not need to spend time energising and exciting their base or on get-out-the-vote campaigns.

Politics remains highly contested, and debates are as fierce as they are in other democracies.

But in a compulsory voting system it is a contest for the political centre, not the political fringes, which determines the outcome and the government.

Australia’s electoral system is far from perfect. But compulsory voting, now almost as old as our democracy itself, is one of its most valuable features. We intend to keep it.

2014: The Year in Review

Back in March I published a blog piece detailing a pretty normal week in the life of the Australian Embassy to Israel. It was intended to pull back the curtain on the work of the Australian Embassy and give a sense of our priorities and activities. In the same spirit, here are some of our highlights and lowlights for the year 2014, a particularly busy year for the Embassy.

January started with the passing of former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Sharon was a larger-than-life figure who featured prominently in Israeli public life over several decades. His career was not without controversy, and the legacy of his unilateral Israeli withdrawal from Gaza continues to be debated here. Foreign Minister Julie Bishop dropped everything and jumped on a plane in Perth to make it here in time for the funeral – a gesture that was noted and hugely appreciated. After barely 12 hours on the ground and discussions with several counterparts, including Prime Minister Netanyahu, she turned around and flew back home again. Amazing.

In February I made a trip to the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt to visit the Australian peacekeeping contingent there, part of the multinational force that observes and monitors the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt (MFO Sinai). Australia is a significant contributor to this mission, as well as to the mission observing the increasingly fractious truce between Israel and Syria on the Golan Heights. I also ran the Tel Aviv marathon on behalf of Holocaust survivors.

March saw a flurry of activity related to Woodside’s prospective investment into Israel’s gas sector, and particularly the large offshore gas field of Leviathan. Woodside got very close to finalising a deal, and the Embassy provided Woodside a lot of support, but unfortunately the deal collapsed in May. This was a deep disappointment – Woodside’s involvement in Israel had the potential to transform the bilateral economic relationship.

In April the Assistant Defence Minister, Stuart Robert MP, made a visit to Israel at the head of a high-tech business delegation. Whilst exploring the possibilities for greater defence cooperation, he also studied at close quarters the Israeli ‘Start-up Nation’ model and ecosystem. A visit to the Australian peacekeepers serving on the Golan Heights went down very well with our troops. Also in April, visiting former Prime Minister Julia Gillard stopped by the Embassy for a cup of tea. Staff were delighted to meet her. Endless selfies ensued.

May saw the unfortunate collapse of the effort lead by the United States to secure a ‘final-status’ peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. We supported this serious effort towards a two-state solution and were disappointed by its failure. Since that time little has happened by way of encouragement for those like us who support a two-state solution, but we remain committed to it as the most just and realistic outcome.

June was a very sad month. Three Israeli teenagers were abducted whilst hitchhiking. They were murdered, their bodies turning up 18 days later after an exhaustive nationwide search. A day after these three were buried, a 16 year old Palestinian resident of East Jerusalem was abducted and murdered in a gruesome fashion, as a reprisal killing. Temperatures were running very high.

July saw steadily escalating rocket fire from Hamas-controlled Gaza into Israel, matched by a steadily escalating Israeli response. A full-fledged conflict soon broke out, the third such war with Gaza in the past six years, leading to large-scale casualties and suffering on both sides of the divide. The conflict continued for 50-odd days, running well into August. The Embassy was kept busy in helping to evacuate Australians from Gaza and providing increased humanitarian assistance to Gaza, interspersed with frequent dashes for the bomb shelter to take refuge from incoming rockets.

Remarkably, two high-level Australian delegations kept to their plans and visited Israel during this conflict. Education Minister Christopher Pyne MP came for the Australia Israel UK Leadership Dialogue and National Australia Bank CEO Cameron Clyne headed a business delegation. The first item of discussion at any meeting during these two months was to point out the nearest bomb shelter and evacuation route. Prime Minister Netanyahu, who was due to make an historic visit to Australia – he would have become the first ever sitting Israeli Prime Minister to do so – understandably had to cancel his visit.

Much of September was taken up with trying to achieve a durable and sustainable ceasefire agreement with respect to Gaza, which provided for reconstruction but also prevented re-armament of Hamas and permitted the Palestinian Authority to return to Gaza. Unfortunately, such an agreement proved elusive. Gaza remains an unstable place and the Gazan civilian population continues to suffer. Fijian peacekeepers serving with the UN mission on the Golan Heights were also kidnapped in September, a reminder of the instability which now exists on nearly all Israel’s borders.

In October we had some happier news. We signed the Australia-Israel Work and Holiday visa arrangement, providing for easier travel between our two countries for young Australians and Israelis. We also held our annual commemoration of the Battle of Be’ersheva, a victory in which Australian troops featured prominently and which shaped the outcome of the First World War in the Middle East. 2017 will mark the 100 year anniversary of this battle, and we are determined to make it a focal point for the relationship.

In November the Embassy fielded a large contingent to participate in Movember, a concept entirely new to Israel. Every meeting I had during this month usually began with a statement by way of explanation for my half-hearted attempt at a moustache. In addition to raising eyebrows wherever we went with our facial adornments, we raised several thousand dollars and did a lot to put men’s health issues on the map in Israel – suicide is one of the highest killers of young males in Israel.

December was another sad month, this time because of events in Australia – the Sydney café siege and the tragic deaths of two hostages. Israelis, who are unfortunately quite used to seeing such events in their own country, were quick to offer their support and condolences. Our two-year term on the UN Security Council came to a dramatic conclusion, with our final vote as a Council member on a resolution related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. On a personal note, I managed to get my father to make his first ever trip to Israel. Taking him to the Old City of Jerusalem, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and the Western Wall was a memorable experience. No-one ever forgets such places.

Battle of Be’ersheva

Speech at the Commonwealth War Graves Cemetry, Be’ersheva
31 October 2014

97 years ago, on this very day, as the sun began to sink over the horizon of the Negev Desert, horsemen of the 4th and 12th Australian Light Horse Regiments lined up on the high ground, to the south east of Ottoman-held Be’er Sheva.

It was late in the day.

The attack on Be’er Sheva had commenced at 555 that morning, with an artillery barrage. The morning offensives had been largely successful. British infantry had destroyed Turkish defences to the south-west of town, and Australian forces had cut the road running northeast from Be’er Sheva to Hebron.

But the capture of Tel el Saba, a hill three kilometres to the east of the town, had taken longer than expected, and only after fierce and resolute fighting from the New Zealand brigade.

Turkish defenders continued to hold the town, and the all-important wells of Be’er Sheva.

And so a last desperate push was required if the town of Be’ersheva was to be captured on this first day, as General Allenby’s campaign plan demanded, and as he had ordered General Harry Chauvel, commander of the Desert Mounted Corps, by telegraph only hours earlier.

If the defenders of Be’ersheva had held on until darkness fell, the Ottoman high command might be able to send reinforcements or make an orderly withdrawal and destroy the precious wells.

Two earlier Allied attempts to break the Turkish defensive line running from Gaza on the coast to Be’er Sheva 43 kilometres inland – the First and Second Battles of Gaza – had failed. This was the third attempt.

So as the sun was shifting low in the sky, Chauvel mulled over his options for a final push on Be’er Sheva.

Had Tel el Saba fallen earlier, a dismounted attack would surely have been the preferred course of action. But with day light steadily fading, this was no longer an option.

The only remaining option was a galloping charge. The commander of the 4th Light Horse Brigade, Grant, and the commander of the 5th Mounted Yeomanry Brigade, Fitzgerald, pleaded with Chauvel for the honour to lead it.

Fitzgerald’s yeomanry had their swords and were close behind Chauvel’s headquarters. Grant’s Australians had only their rifles and bayonets, but were nearer Be’er Sheva. Chauvel chose to give the lead to the light horsemen.

And so it was that at 430pm that afternoon, the 4th and 12th Light Horse regiments drew up behind a ridge some four miles to the south-east of the town.

Somewhere between them and the town lay a system of enemy trenches, captured in aerial photographs but not able to be definitively located.

“Already the horses were casting long shadows as troop after troop moved into position, and the light, although still clear, had that uncertain quality which marks the failing day.”

The two regiments moved off at the trot, deploying at once until there was a space of five yards between the horsemen.

Surprise and speed were their one chance, and almost at once their pace quickened to a gallop.

Following close behind were supporting forces, from the 11th Light Horse Regiment and from the 5th and 7th Mounted Brigades.

Facing sustained enemy fire, but moving fast, the horsemen quickly fell upon enemy lines, jumping the trenches, dismounting their horses, and then entering the trenches on foot, clearing them with both rifle and bayonet.

Other parts of the force rode on, heading directly for the town.

The momentum of the surprise attack carried them, though outnumbered, through Turkish defences.

As the official Australian war history recounts, “the swift, thundering rush of successive waves of horsemen over the dusty ground in the failing light had bewildered and deceived the Turkish infantry”, who believed the attacking force to be at least a division strong.

The light horsemen took less than an hour to overrun the trenches and enter Be’er Sheva. Some 750 Turkish and German soldiers were taken prisoner.

The cavalry equivalent of ‘shock and awe’ had worked.

“The enemy had been beaten rather by the sheer recklessness of the charge than by the very limited fighting power of this handful of Australians”.

The capture of Be’er sheva was complete by nightfall, and the Gaza-Be’ersheva defensive line broken.

Most importantly, the precious wells were secured.

Not since the days of Abraham had the water in the old wells of the patriarchs been such welcome relief.

The stronghold of Gaza itself fell one week later.

Looking back now, with the benefit of hindsight, the outcome of the First World War has an almost pre-ordained quality.

But in October 1917 it looked quite different.

At that time, the Ottoman Empire, Austria-Hungary and Germany were holding firm.

And it was the governments who had brought the Allied Powers into the war – the Asquith Government in Britain, the Viviani Government in France, and the Czar in Russia – which had collapsed or been overthrown.

The failure of the Dardanelles campaign and military catastrophes and setbacks in Mesopotamia and on the Western Front had greatly damaged Allied morale, as had defeats in the first and second battles of Gaza earlier that year.

Of only peripheral importance when the First World War broke out in 1914, by 1917 the Middle East theatre had become critical to the outcome.

The success of General Allenby’s campaign – which began here, on this day, 97 years ago – turned the outcome of the war.

Most importantly, it helped frame the shape of the post-war settlement – which still reverberates across the Middle East even today.

After Be’er Sheva, Allied troops went on to capture Jericho and Jerusalem, Damascus and Aleppo.

The so-called Sykes-Picot settlement – the borders and states of the modern Middle East – is under strain elsewhere. But one element in particular of it endures.

For it was on this very same day, 31 October 1917, that the British War Cabinet approved the text for what would become the Balfour Declaration, a declaration of sympathy for Zionist aspirations.

Setting off a chain of events that would eventually lead to the creation of the modern state of Israel in 1948.

The Battle of Be’er Sheva, though mild by the standards of the bloody Western Front, nonetheless exacted its share of human tragedy.

31 Light Horsemen were killed in the charge. But the heaviest Allied losses were suffered by the British infantry. New Zealand also suffered for its heroic effort in taking Tel el Saba.

Brave Turkish and German troops died that day as well, defending their lines, and in large numbers.

Jewish-Australians made up part of the ANZAC contingent. Most famous amongst them was Major Eric Montague Hyman, who was raised in Tamworth and lead the A Squadron of the 12th Light Horse Regiment.

He was awarded a Distinguished Service Order for his role in the charge, for “conspicuous gallantry and dash in action”.

In the cemetery around us, 1241 Commonwealth soldiers who gave their lives in service of their country, are buried, some of whom fought in this very battle we are commemorating.

We come here today to pay our respects to those men of all countries and nations who fought in this deadly theatre of the First World War.

We recognise that those who were ready to sacrifice their life in service of their country displayed values of the highest order that we hold so dear: honour, courage, loyalty and duty.

Today, we honour their memory.

Break Hamas Stranglehold on Gaza

Earlier this week I visited one of the communities on the Gaza periphery, Kibbutz Nahal Oz. Notwithstanding the optimism and strength of the residents, it felt a long way from normal.

Ten metre high concrete blast walls had been erected around the kindergarten. Many of the kibbutz families were yet to return, too fearful and uncertain about the future. To the residents, the current calm seemed tentative and fragile. Throughout the south, the mood seems much the same.

The fifty day conflict with Gaza took a heavy toll on both sides. But the current ceasefire agreement is fragile. Unless the current status quo begins to change, the prospect of rocket fire resuming towards Israel is all too real.

All through the conflict, Israel kept oil and cooking gas and other essentials moving through Kerem Shalom, and kept the crossing at Erez open.

Following the ceasefire, Israel has helped alleviate humanitarian needs in Gaza. The fishing zone for Gazans has been expanded from three to six nautical miles.

The goods crossing at Kerem Shalom is moving four hundred truckloads of goods across the border each day. From sacks of flour to cartons of nappies, from Australian cattle and cooking gas to roofing and watermelon seeds – I saw it all moving into Gaza when I visited Kerem Shalom earlier this week.

These are positive first steps, but more is now needed.

That is why the agreement announced earlier this week between Israel, the Palestinian Authority and the United Nations to facilitate the reconstruction and economic recovery of Gaza is such a welcome development.

Israel has legitimate security concerns that need to be addressed in any new cross-border mechanism.

No-one in the international community will tolerate seeing sacks of cement being used to rebuild the terror attack tunnels, or discovering that materials intended for reconstruction have been diverted to rocket factories.

But provided we can find a way to protect Israel’s security concerns, improving economic conditions for ordinary Gazans is a goal Israel and the international community can agree upon.

Gaza’s reconstruction needs are real and significant. Just as importantly, however, economic opportunities for Gazans to earn a living on their own behalf must improve. Aid is no substitute for a strong private sector.

When I visited Gaza several months ago, I was shocked by the stranglehold that Hamas exercised over all forms of economic activity.

If people had a job, they either worked for Hamas or were employed by an aid agency.

Much of the population subsisted on welfare and handouts. The economy was closed and stagnant.

The traditional merchant families of Gaza were marginalised. Generating wealth, adding value or any sort of entrepreneurialism was nigh impossible. Rent-seeking was rife. It was a sad picture of a place renowned throughout history as one of merchants and traders.

A new cross-border mechanism with robust monitoring and verification could change this equation.

If goods can move more freely in and out of Gaza, if exports can resume, if people have outlets for trade and entrepreneurialism, if a private sector can emerge, then the life and the politics of Gaza can be transformed.

Gazan strawberry and carnation growers could sell their goods into the West Bank, where incomes are three times as high.

Palestinians in the West Bank could become a big source of tourists for Gaza, taking their children on beach holidays.

This will not happen overnight, but if we can break Hamas’ stranglehold on the Gazan economy, then their political dominance will soon come under challenge.

The Ad Hoc Liaison Committee, the main donor coordination mechanism for the Palestinian people, is meeting in New York next week.

This provides the opportunity to mobilise the international community behind this effort. Australia and others are keen to support a new cross-border mechanism agreed between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, and to help flesh out the detail.

In the absence of any sort of accountable or responsible actor on the Gazan side, four hundred truckloads of goods are moving across Israel’s border with Gaza each day.

If the right safeguards and mechanisms are put in place, this figure could be several multiples higher, and goods and people could move both ways.

This is an outcome that would benefit both the security of Israel and the people of Gaza.

Originally published in Yedioth Ahronoth and YNet News (http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-4573537,00.html) in Sep 2014

What can 1914 teach us about 2014?

Oped published in Haaretz, 6 July 2014: http://www.haaretz.com/opinion/.premium-1.603438

With the centenary of the outbreak of World War One fast approaching, books analyzing the causes of that conflict are finding a niche on the new arrivals shelves of bookstores. Special attention is paid to the shift in relative power between states – some rising, others declining – which is seen as a fundamental cause of World War One.

No historic parallel is ever exact, but the world order of 1914 is one that is very recognizable to us today – much more so than say 1939, or the Cold War era. Comparisons are invariably made between 1914 and 2014, with the looming question that follows – could today’s relative peace be threatened by a similar cataclysm in global affairs?

There is Max Hastings’ Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War; Margaret Macmillan’s The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914; and finally Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914.

I’ve read Clark’s book and reviews of the others, and my sense is that Clark’s is the more controversial and thought-provoking thesis. It certainly goes against the grain of conventional wisdom about the outbreak of World War One – at least the grain that sees World War One as almost inevitable (with the assassination at Sarajevo merely the incidental spark – The Guns of August view), and German militarism and aggression its prime cause (the so-called ‘Fischer thesis’).

Clark’s account refutes any simple chain of causality or binary attribution of blame. Clark is an Australian historian, at the University of Cambridge, and his research and scholarship for this book is clearly ground-breaking.

Here are eight lessons and observations I took from Clark’s account which challenged my prevailing views and assumptions about the outbreak of World War One. Some of them have obvious implications for us in today’s world;  others less so.

1. Untangling and predicting cause and effect in a dynamic, multipolar system is exceptionally difficult. The power structure of the crisis that lead to WW1 was exceptionally complicated. It involved five major powers (Britain, France, Germany, Austria-Hungary, Russia) and their relationships with one another, plus a host of other background actors (Serbia, the Ottoman Empire). The outbreak of World War One was effectively the product of upwards of ten separate bilateral relationships (Britain-France, France-Russia, Russia-Germany, Germany-Austria, etc), operating both in parallel and in sequence.

2. A minor act can spark a global conflagration. What started the war was an act of terrorism by a non-state actor operating extra-territorially. A squad of suicide bombers and assassins from a shadowy, state-sponsored terrorist organisation (the Black Hand) infiltrated across state lines to murder Archduke Ferdinand in furtherance of their political ambitions. What could be more profoundly modern and plausible in today’s world?

3. Context and circumstance matters. Serbia and the Balkans were at the heart of the war’s cause, and not a mere pretext or sideshow. Great power politics and ambitions certainly played their part, and major powers exploited Balkan politics for their own ends. But it was a Balkan crisis first and foremost – and it could have been managed as such, if major powers had not chosen the path of inflexibility and escalation, and had not elected to build a Balkan ‘trigger’ into their alliance relationships.

4. The First World War was a war of choice, not one of necessity. Far from being inevitable, the outbreak of a global conflict was improbable – at least until it actually happened. The consequences of the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand could have been managed and contained regionally. A reasonable, internationally-mediated response to Ferdinand’s assassination, and one that gave Vienna some dignity and honour, may have averted the war. Or a war between Austria and Serbia could have been contained to just that. There might have been a Third Balkan War – but need not have been a First World War.

5. Declining powers need to be handled with care, not just rising powers. The Dual Monarchy was effectively written off by Europe’s other powers. Austro-Hungarian security needs and imperatives were given short shrift, and there was little sympathy for the notion that Austria-Hungary should have the same right to defend its near neighbourhood interests as the other major European powers. Linked to this, there was little sympathy in some capitals for just how grave a provocation was the assassination of the heir to the Habsburg throne by a state-sponsored terrorist group from a neighbouring country with irredentist ambitions. For Austria, the Sarajevo murders were not a pretext, but a transformative event.

6. The logic of preventive war can be falsely compelling. If the balance of power is moving against you, better to check your enemy today rather than let them grow in strength. Germany thought it better to confront Russia sooner rather than later, before its strength grew further. Russia thought to fight early too, before Ottoman acquisition of dreadnought battleships in the Black Sea threatened its access to the Mediterranean.

7. The ‘tail’ of military planning should not be allowed to wag the ‘dog’ of strategy. In the days leading-up to the outbreak of World War One, military planning and needs often forced the hands of politicians and strategists, shutting off their options and limiting the scope for compromise. Preparations for war quickly made war almost inevitable. The timetables and dictates of Russian mobilisation schedules and the German war-fighting plan (the Schlieffen Plan) meant that once initial steps were taken, de-escalation or localisation became nigh impossible.

8. War has unintended and unpredictable consequences. World War One destroyed the international system and gave us the nation-states model of today. The Russian, Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires were destroyed; Britain’s decline as a world power began; and new states were brought into being. There were very few beneficiaries. In the direct words of Clark, none of the prizes for which the politicians of 1914 contended was worth the cataclysm that followed. But there was little evidence that the protagonists properly assessed the stakes and risks in advance. It is in this sense that the major players were ‘sleepwalkers’ – watchful but unseeing of the horror they were about to bring into the world.

Anzac Day: The lasting Middle East impact

Oped published in the Times of Israel, 25 April 2014
http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/anzacs-lasting-middle-east-impact/

99 years ago today, in the very early hours before dawn, some 1200km from Jerusalem, members of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps – or ANZACs – landed on the western shore of the Gallipoli Peninsula, in modern-day Turkey, at a place we now call Anzac Cove.

At roughly the same time, British forces landed at the southern tip of the Gallipoli Peninsula, at Cape Helles, whilst French forces went ashore at Kum Kale, on the Turkish mainland just opposite Cape Helles. Indian and Canadian troops later joined the campaign.

This multinational invasion force was to be the spearhead of one of the more audacious and imaginative strategies of the First World War – the Dardanelles Campaign.

With the western front grinding to a protracted stalemate, and with Russia under increasing pressure from German and Ottoman forces in the east, the Allied objective was to capture the heights of the Gallipoli Peninsula, force open the Dardanelles Strait for the British and French navies, and – within a short space of time – seize Constantinople.

If successful, this operation could have taken the Ottoman Empire out of the war, opened a new, southern front against the Austro-Hungarian empire, put considerable pressure on Germany, and re-established communication and supply lines with Russia.

It may well have brought World War One to an early conclusion, vastly altering the world we live in today – including the map and borders of today’s Middle East.

It would have been, in modern-day speak, a game-changer.

But it was not to be.

The Gallipoli landings were ultimately a military failure.

A tenuous Allied foothold was established on the peninsula, but no more.

Despite further reinforcements and offensives, the heights were not captured.

Turkish resistance proved fiercer and more determined and effective than anticipated.

The most successful part of the campaign was in fact the eventual withdrawal of the landing force, in December of that year.

By the time of this evacuation, more than 21,000 British, 10,000 French, 8,000 Australians, 2,700 New Zealanders, 1,300 Indians and 50 Canadians had been killed. Allied wounded totalled over 97,000.

These losses, though, were a mere portent of a World War that would cost all nations very dearly.

Gallipoli: a failed military campaign, and largely a sideshow in the greater sweep of World War One.

It seems, then, an odd event in which to invest much importance. But for Australia, Anzac Day is one of the most important days in our national calendar.

Part of Australia’s national character was forged, our identity constructed, and much of our national myth built, on the western shores of the Gallipoli Peninsula.

World War One was the first major military action by Australia as a newly federated and independent nation.

Gallipoli was the first battlefield that Australian troops encountered in World War One.

And it was those characteristics Australian troops displayed on that battlefield that have come to define, and benchmark, our national self-conception and character ever since.

These attributes cluster around several values: endurance, courage, ingenuity, good humour and, of course, mateship.

They are reflected in the self-sacrifice and self-effacement of the 9 Australians who were awarded our highest military honour, the Victoria Cross, for actions at Gallipoli.

Men such as Lieutenant Leonard Keysor, a Jewish-Australian who enlisted to fight only three months after emigrating to Australia.

He was awarded the Victoria Cross for his bravery at the Battle of Lone Pine, in retrieving live Turkish grenades from the trenches and throwing them back over no man’s land.

Having survived the horrors of World War One, Keysor volunteered once more for service when World War Two rolled around.

Men such as John Simpson Kirkpatrick, an undecorated Australian stretcher-bearer with a donkey as a companion.

He carried dozens of wounded Australians back from the front lines, saving their lives, before losing his own to a Turkish sniper’s bullet in Monash Gully three weeks after the landing.

I visited the battlefields and cemeteries of Gallipoli just last week, with my family, and Simpson’s headstone was there, along with those of many others.

The inscriptions I saw brought to life another well-known Australian trait, the gift for understatement.

Sparse and simple phrases, such as “Well done Ted” and “Thank you Harry”, are all that adorn the headstones of those who made the ultimate sacrifice, giving their lives in the service of their country.

The official Australian historian of World War One, Charles Bean, summarises the Anzac spirit thus.

“Anzac stood, and still stands, for reckless valour in a good cause, for enterprise, resourcefulness, fidelity, comradeship, and endurance that will never own defeat”.

The First World War still casts a long shadow over Australia.

Of the 102,000 total Australian war dead, 60,000 fell in the First World War.

One in five who served overseas were killed in action, including many of the 2300 Jewish Australians who volunteered to fight.

But it also casts a long shadow over the modern Middle East.

Some of those who survived Gallipoli went on to serve in the successful 1917 Palestine campaign, including the liberation of Jerusalem in December that year.

178 Anzacs lie in the graves of the military cemetery at Mount Scopus, a reminder of this history.

The Dardanelles campaign of 1915 was a failure, but the Palestine campaign of 1917 was a resounding success.

Victory in the Battle of Be’ersheva, the liberation of Jerusalem six weeks later, and finally the capture of Damascus and Aleppo.

By liberating much of the Middle East from Ottoman control, these victories helped dictate the shape of the post-war settlement in the Middle East.

In a quirky symmetry of history, the day the Battle of Be’ersheva was being waged and won – 31 October 1917 – was the very day the British War Cabinet approved the text for the Balfour Declaration.

Both events were critical enablers for realising Zionist aspirations, and set the stage for the eventual creation of the State of Israel.

As we approach the centenary of the outbreak of World War One, we should continue to honour and remember our dead and fallen. But we should also reflect and be thankful for the enduring legacy of their sacrifice.

Lest we forget.

Edited version of remarks at Anzac Day ceremony, 25 April 2014, Mt Scopus War Cemetry, Jerusalem.

http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/anzacs-lasting-middle-east-impact/

Why House of Cards is a good cure for political cynicism

Like a lot of Israelis, I am a big fan of US culture. And like a lot of people who work in my field, US politics is an abiding interest and passion.

Put the two together, and the result is a vaguely unhealthy obsession.

The latest incarnation of this obsession is House of Cards, the made-for- Netflix political thriller starring Kevin Spacey as Frank Underwood. Underwood starts life as Majority Whip in the US Congress and rises, by the end of season two, to the cusp of the presidency.

Underwood is Machiavelli on steroids. Everything is pure political calculation. And everything is on the table if it furthers Underwood’s ambition.

Morality plays absolutely no role in Underwood’s life. Sentimentality and loyalty get only short shrift. Laws are there only to be skirted. It is pure pragmatism all the way. It is a bracing view of political life, but one which is refreshingly honest. And it is fast becoming a cultural reference point.

I’m amazed at how many conversations I have in Israel where House of Cards comes up. Increasingly it is finding its way into the opinion pages of newspapers, where Israeli ministers and politicians are measured up against the benchmark of Frank Underwood – and usually found wanting. Kurt Campbell, writing in The Financial Times earlier this month, noted the show has a huge following among the senior Chinese leadership in Beijing.

Apparently, the show confirms the suspicion and cynicism of many about how Washington actually works.

Even at home, my wife and I often ask one another – sometimes in jest, sometimes in earnest – “What would Frank Underwood do?” The House of Cards phenomenon seems to be part of a growing zeitgeist in how we view and analyze politics.

Only 10 years ago, our view of US politics was that enshrined by The West Wing and the biennial Bob Woodward books which documented the intrigues inside the US administration of the day.

These were dramas populated by larger-than-life figures and colossal policy struggles or questions of right and wrong. While sizeable egos were abundant, the ultimate story line was one of public service, not private ambition. It was about people striving to improve their country and the welfare of the citizenry. It was policy first, politics and personal advancement second.

But these days, the story line is very much about politics and personal advancement first, with policy a distant second. Mark Leibovich captured this mood with his bitingly cynical account of political life in Washington, DC, This Town. The HBO comedy Veep is the farcical – but deeply plausible – account of an ambitious vice-president struggling for relevance and advancement.

House of Cards lacks the comedy or light touch which infuses these other two, but it exceeds them both in portraying the dark arts of politics at an entirely new level of professionalism.

One cannot help but grudgingly admire the grand strategy and sheer cunning Frank Underwood brings to politics.

Commentators and politicians tend to bemoan the growing public disenchantment with politics, and the mistrust with which they view their political class. This is a trend just as evident in Australia as it is in Israel or the United States. And many will decry House of Cards for further fueling such cynicism.

But I question whether such a trend is in fact malignant. Too often public disapproval of politicians stems from unrealistic expectations about how much power and freedom elected politicians actually enjoy. People vote for an individual or party expecting them to implement their ambitious mandate and deliver on their (usually inflated) promises.

But once in office, politicians find themselves hemmed in from all sides – by their colleagues, their opponents, the checks and balances built into the system, pressure groups, continual polling and a relentless and probing media on a 24-hour news cycle.

Getting anything done proves difficult, never mind implementing your grandiose promises. Nasty compromises, unholy alliances and unpalatable trade-offs are the stock in trade if you want to make progress. Public disappointment and disillusionment invariably follow. My suspicion, though, is that politics is not getting any worse – but that what has changed is the level of realism by which we judge politicians. We tend to delude ourselves that there was a time when elected officials put country first and base political motives played no part.

But it has never been thus, even during times of war or existential crisis.

Anyone who has read Quintus Cicero’s advice to his older brother, Marcus, about how to run for Roman Consul in the elections of 64 BCE, will know that cynicism in politics is one of the few givens.

House of Cards gives people a taste of politics as it really is, rather than the highly idealized West Wing version of how we might wish politics to be. In that sense it may be, counterintuitively, one of the best cures for public disenchantment with politics.

http://www.jpost.com/Opinion/Op-Ed-Contributors/House-of-Cards-A-cure-for-political-cynicism-347819

A Week in the Life: Australian Embassy, Tel Aviv

People often ask me – with all sincerity – what it is the Embassy actually does. It’s a fair enough question. Beyond the issuing of visas and passports, most of the Embassy and its work is done behind closed doors, out of the public eye. In an effort to open these doors (and to dispel the myth that diplomacy is all cocktail parties in exotic locales), here are twelve things your Embassy staff in Tel Aviv did last week.
 
  1. Organised, opened and hosted GasTech – the first oil and gas conference of its kind in Israel. Recent offshore gas discoveries have the potential to transform Israel’s energy security and its relations with its neighbours. But building a gas industry is not easy, and Israel needs help from experienced partners like Australia. Woodside already has a foot in the door here – to which we provide ongoing support – and the follow-on commercial opportunities for Australian firms are immense.
  2. Sent a team to Gaza to check up on Australian citizens there. They also looked at Australian aid projects in Gaza and gathered a first-hand sense of the political, security and humanitarian situation. With Hamas still in control of Gaza, the new government in Egypt shutting down many of the smuggling routes, and the economic outlook poor, the risk of Gaza erupting as a security flashpoint is real.
  3. Met with the Mayor of Tel Aviv to talk about the Creative Cities network (both Sydney and Melbourne are members; Tel Aviv wants to join) and hear about his ambitions for the city. With Tel Aviv positioning itself as a young, vibrant, green and creative city – much like many Australian cities – there are lots of potential link-ups here in the areas of urban planning and town management.
  4. Visited the organisation that looks after disabled veterans in Israel. With 50,000 disabled veterans in Israel – almost the size of the entire Australian Defence Force – there are great opportunities to learn from Israel’s experience in rehabilitating wounded and injured soldiers.
  5. Followed the impassioned debate in the Israeli Knesset on the status of the Temple Mount/Haram al Sharif – a holy site for both Muslims and Jews. The status quo here is fragile, so any changes to current arrangements could have serious repercussions and lead to violence.
  6. Prepared analysis for government officials in Canberra on regional developments in the Middle East. With the region more volatile and unstable than it has been for many years, Israel is a relative oasis of quiet. But it watches the neighbourhood closely and has some of the best analysts and thinkers in the region.
  7. Caught up with several senior Israeli journalists to swap notes. Israel is the most open society in the Middle East, with a fiercely independent, free and effective media. Journalists are some of the best-informed people here on current events, so they are vital contacts. 
  8. Met with visiting leaders from the Australian Jewish community to talk about the relationship and swap notes on upcoming events and priorities. 
  9. Spent a day touring the border regions of Israel and the Palestinian territories to get a sense of security needs and what would constitute ‘defensible borders’ – a key concept in the current US-led peace initiative.
  10. Helped an Australian who has just relocated his family to Israel for work find a school for his son and navigate the admissions process.
  11. Ran the Tel Aviv marathon (okay, it was only the half marathon) on behalf of an NGO that helps protect the welfare and look out for the interests of Holocaust survivors. Australia has one of the highest number of Holocaust survivors outside of Israel.  With the average age of this group now in the 80s, these survivors – who have already been through so much – deserve our help and support to live out their last years with dignity and self-respect.
  12. Spoke at the first ever International Congress for Child Protection Organisations in the Jewish Community, in Jerusalem. Again, this is about sharing lessons and experiences. There was a lot of interest in Australia’s Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse and how we are grappling with the challenge. 

Which State Has the Vision to Find Common Ground With Israel?

Originally published as an oped in Haaretz, 29 Oct 2013
http://www.haaretz.com/opinion/.premium-1.555103

The current turmoil in the Middle East and its consequences are there for all to see. What began as a popular movement labelled the ‘Arab Spring’ has long since been hijacked by a number of malevolent forces.This is most obviously on display in Syria, where the conflict being waged involves a host of unsavory actors. But right across the region we have seen extremist actors seek to exploit a popular desire for change across the Arab world to advance their own narrow and intolerant agendas.For Israel, this is a deep worry. Uncertainty and instability is re-ordering the Middle East, and no-one knows just how the new strategic environment will look. But amidst the clouds of disruption, there is the hint of a silver lining.

The old organizing principle of the region – Arab antagonism towards Israel – is crumbling. New fault lines are emerging in its place, organised around the common threats of Iran’s nuclear ambitions and the growth of terrorism and extremism. Speaking at the opening of the Knesset’s winter session last week, Prime Minister Netanyahu touched upon this. “For the first time since the establishment of the State of Israel, a growing understanding is taking root in the Arab world, and it is not always said softly. This understanding, that Israel is not the enemy of Arabs and that we have a united front on many issues, might advance new possibilities in our region,” he told the Knesset.

The challenge now is to see if this growing understanding can be converted into something more tangible and enduring, for the benefit of Israel’s security and for greater peace and stability in the wider Middle East.
Southeast Asia faced a similar period of turmoil in the mid-1960s. In 1965, the Cold War was at its height and a major geopolitical fault line ran through Southeast Asia. The Vietnam War, already raging for several years, was escalating and embroiling its neighbours, Laos and Cambodia. All the non-communist countries of Southeast Asia faced serious internal threats from communist insurgencies or subversive movements, supported by a revolutionary government in China that was then launching the Cultural Revolution.

Trust between these non-communist states was low. Singapore had just been expelled from the Malaysian federation. Indonesia was pursuing a policy of confrontation (“konfrontasi”) against Malaysia. Brunei had put down an internal rebellion backed by Indonesia. There were irredentist pressures on the borders between Malaysia and Thailand and between the Philippines and Indonesia.It was in such unpropitious circumstances that Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore and the Philippines came together to create the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN.

It was a case of putting aside smaller differences to focus on the larger picture. As Singapore’s elder statesman, Lee Kuan Yew. described it, “ASEAN was formed so that the non-communist states in Southeast Asia could contain and manage their differences to meet the greater threat from the communists.” ASEAN worked. Whilst territorial disputes, border skirmishes and political tensions persisted between members, they were kept at a manageable level. Member countries were freed up to focus on bigger challenges. No major conflicts erupted, and the spread of communism was contained.

After the Cold War ended, ASEAN gradually enlarged to 10 members, taking in nearly all of Southeast Asia, and has since become the primary platform for engaging the major powers in Asia, including the United States, Russia and China.
ASEAN frequently comes in for criticism for its slow pace of integration, its inability to resolve fundamental territorial and other disputes between its members and its unwillingness to coerce or pressure member states.

But ASEAN has never aspired to the level of integration and pooled sovereignty pursued by, for instance, the European Union. Its cardinal principles have been non-interference in internal affairs, strict respect for the political systems of its members, the utmost regard for sovereignty and decisions taken only by consensus. Its basic premise is that countries can disagree on some significant issues and yet still share an interest in more fundamental concerns.

There are obvious parallels with the situation in today’s Middle East. Countries with diverse political systems, territorial disputes and some long-standing disagreements nonetheless recognise that the existential threats and challenges they face warrant greater coordination and cooperation. There is a recognition that old differences and enmities on some issues should not be allowed to frustrate a united front on the main picture.

But trust and familiarity are low and habits of open cooperation almost non-existent.

It is no secret that Israel and the Arab states need to find a way to work more closely together to address common threats. The challenge is to create a mechanism to do so, and for an Arab state with vision and ambition to step forward and make it happen. It might start with something quite small, such as inviting an Israeli delegation led by think-tankers to the annual Manama Dialogue in Bahrain this December. The equivalent event in Asia, the Shangri-La Dialogue, held yearly in Singapore, has been an excellent forum over the years for building trust between unlikely partners.No-one is under any illusion that this will be easy, but Asia’s example shows that it can be done.

Israeli Compassion Amidst the Atrocities

Published as an oped in the Times of Israel, 28 Aug 2013
http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/israeli-compassion-amidst-the-atrocities/

As the world’s capitals and leaders discuss how to respond to last week’s chemical weapons attack in Damascus – the most repugnant in a series of atrocities committed in the war that is raging in Syria – it can be easy to lose sight of the daily human toll this conflict is extracting. Though Damascus is only some two hundred kilometres from Jerusalem (or shorter than the distance between Canberra and Sydney, as I tell my Australian friends), the conflict in Syria can feel like a world away.

But in the town of Safed in the north of Israel, better known as one of Judaism’s Four Holy Cities, the front-line of the conflict in Syria feels very close. At Ziv Medical Centre, without fanfare or publicity, they are treating a steady and growing stream of wounded Syrians from the conflict. Some 72 Syrian patients have been admitted to Ziv Medical Centre since February.

When I visited earlier this week, 15 hospital beds were being used to treat such victims, the youngest a girl of only eight. They have harrowing stories and horrific injuries. Suffering from shrapnel and bullet wounds, burns and crush injuries, they have somehow managed to limp to the border with Israel, from where they are then transferred to Ziv Medical Centre. On admission they are malnourished, fatigued and traumatised. Many have lost family members. But they are immensely relieved. If they had remained in Syria, the extent of their injuries means most would have died or been left permanently incapacitated.

At Ziv Hospital they get the best medical care on offer to any Israeli, from surgeons and physicians who are quite literally the best in their field, having authored textbooks on the treatment of injuries from armed conflict. On the day I visited I saw how doctors had managed to save the leg of an 8-year old girl from amputation by use of some of the most advanced surgical techniques and injury treatment protocols. A 15-year old girl whose leg was amputated in Syria had been fitted with a prosthetic limb. Against the odds, the doctors at Ziv had managed to save her other leg. This girl was now learning to walk again, taking her first steps.

Arabic-speaking doctors, nurses and social workers are all available to communicate with the Syrian patients and help ease their anxieties. They are provided time and space to recover and rehabilitate and supplied with basic provisions, including clothes and toiletries donated by generous residents from Safed. The multi-ethnic staff at Ziv Hospital – drawn from the Jewish, Arab and Druze communities – reflect the diversity of Israel. They are dedicated and compassionate professionals driven by a profound sense of humanitarianism. They do not stop to ask the patient’s nationality or religion as she is wheeled into the emergency theatre in a critical condition. They simply do their utmost to save life and treat injury.

Ziv Hospital is a profound example of humanity and decency at its most compelling. It is Israel at its very best, and a side of Israel that the world too rarely sees or acknowledges. With all the tales of human woe and misery that continue to emerge from Syria, such small stories of hope should be cherished.