Topics:  Visit to Israel; Israel-Hamas conflict;

09:25AM AEDT
8 December 2023


Laura Jayes:  Joining me now is the Shadow Foreign Minister, Simon Birmingham, who will also lead a bipartisan delegation to the region next week. He joins me live now. Good to see you. Thanks so much for your time, Senator.


Simon Birmingham: Good morning, LJ.


Simon Birmingham: Penny Wong, going [to Israel] in the new year. Is that the right timing for her?


Simon Birmingham: We would have much preferred to see the government act sooner. Essentially, most of Australia’s like-minded partner nations have had presidents, prime ministers, foreign or defence ministers already visit. Israel do so very quickly after 7th of October, Hamas massacres and attacks. And so, it would have been much more appropriate for the Albanese Government to move quickly, as you would recall and viewers would recall, we offered bipartisan support and encouragement for Prime Minister Albanese to add a visit to Israel on to one of his various overseas trips in the last couple of months. Unfortunately, he didn’t do that, nor has any other senior government minister. We don’t yet know the timing of this visit by the foreign minister. Of course, we want to see it happen and we want to see it happen as quickly as possible. But it really is a case that the Albanese Government has taken a very long time to do this, and far longer than comparable or like-minded nations.


Laura Jayes: I get the optics, but what would it actually achieve? I mean, Israel is in the midst of a war at the moment and we are not the US. I know Blinken has made a number of visits to Israel and the West Bank, so what would it actually achieve? I mean, what are you going to achieve next week?


Simon Birmingham: So, it’s not just the US. Many European countries, many other nations, democratic liberal democracies, like-minded countries have, as I said, seen presidents, foreign, defence ministers, prime ministers visit. Australia is something of an outlier in that regard. And yet we are a country that has one of the largest populations of Jewish peoples who were part of resettlement following the Holocaust. So, we have strong ties, and a symbol of solidarity is important in terms of support for Israel, its inherent right to self-defence and its right to seek to remove Hamas as a terrorist threat to the Israeli people, as well as being a threat to the ongoing safety and well-being of people across Gaza. It’s also important to seize these opportunities, to listen and learn firsthand, to ensure that the understanding and knowledge you have to these circumstances is greater, and to be able to convey important messages, those messages of solidarity, but also messages of expectations about respect for international law and the desire to see humanitarian assistance and ultimately to understand the longer terms as to how it is we are going to try to support a move to an environment where Israelis can live with safety and security and peace and indeed Palestinian peoples can see their legitimate hopes and aspirations for peaceful existence realised, too.


Laura Jayes: I mean, you and the government, all sides of politics, really, in Australia and right around the world have urged exactly what you’re talking about this morning, respect for international law. That is being flouted daily by both Israel and Hamas against international law, is having any kind of munitions or weapons in hospitals or schools that has been routinely uncovered. Then there’s a law of proportionality that Israel seems to have violated. Do you agree?


Simon Birmingham: LJ, there will be experts in international law who will make these assessments over time, and I’m not going to seek to be able to make those views. I mean, it’s very clear that what happened on October 7th was a horrific incident very clearly in terms of the deliberate targeting and killing of women, children, babies, the elderly at the taking of hostages. I think these are black and white instances, for sure. Indeed, the ongoing concerns about the use of civilian populations of human shields. Those are legitimate issues, questions of other factors in terms of the level of civilian deaths relative to the military targets that are sought. They are very complex ones and of course, they go to each specific operation that is undertaken. We know that Israel continues to provide warnings in this part of southern Gaza being well reported, that those warnings are more targeted than they had been in terms of the evacuation orders given across northern Gaza. These are complex issues, but when you boil them all down, it is Hamas, a terrorist organisation who saw some 1,200 Israelis lose their lives on October 7th, the largest number of Jews killed on a single day since the Holocaust. Yes, the tragic loss of all innocent lives, be they Jewish or Palestinian, is awful. The footage that you screened before is heartbreaking for any to see, as so much of the footage has been. The best way this could end would be for Hamas to release the remaining hostages and to actually surrender, cease fighting and offer up its terrorist capabilities and terrorist leaders rather than continuing to put the Palestinian people in such harm’s way.


Laura Jayes: Yes, that would be the best way for this war to end, but I cannot see that happening any time soon. It doesn’t even appear to be in the realms of possibility. What is Australia’s position? Is the Opposition and the Government have a bipartisan position here as to what the message is to Benjamin Netanyahu?


Simon Birmingham: Well, LJ it is a message of support for Israel. We spoke with one bipartisan voice in the passage of a parliamentary motion after the October 7th attacks. That recognised Israel’s inherent right to defend itself. It recognised the importance of removing Hamas. It also recognised the legitimate aspirations of the Palestinian people and how they were hurt and harmed by the operations of Hamas. So, yes, we have clear positions that I think are held across policy lines. Obviously, some different Albanese Government ministers have spoken in different ways, but I trust that the delegation that I will be a part of is one that will be able to engage consistently with a common purpose…


Laura Jayes: Sure. But, Senator, if. Sorry to interrupt here, but to say, you know, Israel has a right to defend itself and, you know, there is sympathy for Palestinians who are hurt and killed on the other side. To me, isn’t that the bare minimum we can say without, you know, getting in political crosshairs?


Simon Birmingham: Well, there are many sensitivities and complexities that that can go back quite some time, there’s no doubt in that. But we have common ground in terms of what ultimately everybody wishes to see. Our Parliament has spoken across at least parties of government with a common voice, including the need for respect for international law. But we will be there, clearly indicating the support that Australia has demonstrated for Israel. In terms of the views, I think of very many Australians after seeing those terrorist attacks of October 7th, and we will be doing so in a very consistent and clear cut way with the positions that have been taken to date. It has been disappointing, as I said at the outset, that the government has not taken the lead in this regard. And of course, government to government dialogue can have a different level of impact and status than a parliamentary delegation, a senior opposition shadow minister or the like. But I am pleased to take the first opportunity to do so, to be the first to be able to convey those messages in Israel, at least from the Australian Parliament, from the Australian Opposition, and to make sure that that we are clear in that and in our support and our desire to see ultimately a future where a terrorist operation like Hamas is not pretending to govern the people of Gaza and putting them in harm’s way, as well as posing a threat to those Israeli peoples who live alongside them.


Laura Jayes: The level of anti-Semitism in Australia has been alarming to Jews and non-Jews alike. I think over the last two months or so. Perhaps anti-Semitism is too much of a hackneyed term now, should we call it what it is? What has bubbled to the surface is a level of hatred, it would seem, for people, because they’re Jewish.


Simon Birmingham: That, I mean, that LJ is tragically what we are seeing in all too many circumstances. When we got to the point of seeing protests happen at a hotel where the families of hostage victims and murder victims were staying, I mean, that’s just a horrific intimidatory targeting of people who have been through enormous trauma and grief. Everyone has a right to peaceful protest in Australia, and they have a right to peaceful protest in ways that should be respectful of others. Now, I’m deeply disappointed that Prime Minister Albanese missed the opportunity at National Cabinet this week to make a united stand and statement against anti-Semitism. The chance was there with every single state and territory leader, for Prime Minister Albanese to come out with a united statement against anti-Semitism and been clear about the steps in education, policing and elsewhere that the Commonwealth and states and territories could take. Tragically, that opportunity was missed. And I would urge the government to look at how it can take a leadership role in addressing this, because Australia is a country that has a proud history, as I said earlier, of having welcomed some of the largest populations of post Holocaust settlers to our country, and the fact that this week Israel changed its travel advisory to suggest people needed to exercise caution or care or precautions when they came to Australia is a stain on our country, and it should be a top priority of the government to have that stain removed by addressing the serious issues of anti-Semitism.


Laura Jayes: Indeed, some of Birmingham. Thanks for your time as always. We’ll see you soon.


Simon Birmingham: Thanks, LJ. All the best.