Topics: Labor’s shambolic handling on Israel capital decision; China recruiting defence force pilots; 

07:48AM AEST
19 October 2022


Peter Stefanovic:  Joining us live now is the Shadow Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Birmingham. Simon, good to see you. Thanks for your time this morning. So what’s your response to this?


Simon Birmingham: G’day Pete, it’s good to be with you. Well, look, this is a completely unnecessary decision by the Albanese government. Handled in the most shambolic of ways. If we look through what’s occurred at the last election, senior Labor figures, the Attorney General, as he is now and others, reassuring Australia’s Jewish community there was no difference between the parties in relation to their support for Israel and their position on these sorts of matters. Then we had leaks coming out of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade earlier this week suggesting that there was to be a change in relation to Australia’s recognition of West Jerusalem as the Israeli capital. These were then emphatically denied by Minister Wong’s office itself, and it’s stating very clearly that there was no change in the position. And yet then hours later we have the Minister coming out and making an announcement that there has been a change in position. She did so on a holy day in the Jewish calendar, showing complete disrespect for the Israeli and Jewish communities, in particular with little to no consultation, it seems, and certainly none with the Israeli government themselves to give them forewarning that this decision was taking place and did so seemingly with no explanation for why it was in Australia’s national interest to make this decision to do it, particularly at a sensitive time, just two weeks from an Israeli election, and knowing that decisions like this by international governments will then play into what occurs within Israeli politics in an unnecessary way because of the timing of their decision.


Peter Stefanovic: The embassy will remain in Tel Aviv, though, until the final status of Jerusalem is determined. What harm could this really spell given this position just reverts to how things were pre-2018?


Simon Birmingham: Well, the harm is particularly in the way it’s been handled with the litany of problems I just went through, the poor timing in terms of disrespect to people of Jewish faith. Poor timing, because of the proximity to the Israeli elections. Poorly handled in terms of it being leaked, denied and then executed. So, all of those factors have elicited an extraordinary response where the decision has been welcomed by Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, but has been slammed by the serving Prime Minister of Israel. So you can see there that it has created a real divide and a very unfortunate divide in terms of the way in which Australia’s handling has been perceived.


Peter Stefanovic: Was it a cynical decision originally, though, to win over Jewish voters in the Wentworth by election?


Simon Birmingham: Well, no that goes back some time. And it was a decision that it appeared as if the Labor Party had come to accept. That was certainly the tone of the comments given to the Jewish community in Australia prior to the last election by the Labor Party and their representatives speaking to that community.


Peter Stefanovic: I mean, the timing, you must concede, though, was a little off in Wentworth where there is a high Jewish vote that was available to you. I mean, do you concede, though, there it does give weight to the argument that the government’s putting forth at the moment that it was a cynical attempt to win over those voters?


Simon Birmingham: Well Pete, two things on that one. On the substantive issue, which is that overwhelmingly it is accepted that under any peace settlement towards a two-state solution, West Jerusalem will be part of Israel. It is the functioning serving capital of Israel in terms of the way in which government activities operate in many different ways. When the decision was taken by Australia, it was very clear that the status of East Jerusalem was subject to final settlement as part of two state negotiations. And so it was not a decision taken by the then Morrison government that was universally welcomed in Israel because indeed it didn’t seek to proscribe that all of Jerusalem should be part of Israel. It made very clear the distinction between West Jerusalem and East Jerusalem and the role for negotiations to settle that. So that’s one important part around the substance of the matter. But then there is the reality that if the Labor Party was so committed to their belief that this was a cynical decision four years ago, as they call it, and that they believed it needed to be reversing, why weren’t they upfront about their intention to reverse it prior to the election? Why did they deceive voters by insinuating the opposite in terms of their position prior to the election? And why then were they denying a change in position even hours before they executed that change in position?


Peter Stefanovic: But are you still of the view that the embassy should stay where it is?


Simon Birmingham: Well, we don’t think this decision needed to be made in terms of the change for Australia’s recognition. We equally had made arrangements in relation to the opening of a trade office in West Jerusalem and the continuance in terms of the functional operation of Australia’s embassy, as it was and is in Tel Aviv.


Peter Stefanovic: Okay. So, other than, you know, some diplomatic awkward moments between our two nations at the moment, given you’re right. I mean, it does look like it was it was a bit all over the shop, how this decision was made, rushed even. Is there any potential dangers beyond that, i.e., trade, etc.?


Simon Birmingham: Well whilst I was trade minister and was continued by Dan Tehan, we began exploratory work around establishing a free trade agreement between Australia and Israel. I’d urge the new government to continue that work, but a decision like this won’t make that any easier. Israel is a key partner in a range of ways in terms of the sharing of innovation, of technology. It has been a key partner for many Australian businesses in enabling that launching of tech pads around not just that region but around the world. And of course, it is it is a key diplomatic partner in the world stage in terms of our work as democracies with common values.


Peter Stefanovic: Do you sit- just a final one here, do you think Anthony Albanese would have to get on the phone with the Yair Lapid ASAP?


Simon Birmingham: Well, he should have gone on the phone to him before this decision was made, consulted on the decision and advised and informed before it was being publicly announced. The test now is whether he’ll get on the phone and apologise for the shambolic way in which it was handled.


Peter Stefanovic: Right. So, he should, he should apologise?


Simon Birmingham: Absolutely. He should be apologising for failing to at least show the basic diplomatic courtesies of engagement prior to announcement.


Peter Stefanovic: Okay. Just a final one here, too. The government is investigating claims this morning that the Chinese were paying off our pilots to basically train pilots for China at a huge expense for them at about a half a million dollars. How troubled are you by this?


Simon Birmingham: Pete, these are quite concerning reports. We don’t spend enormous sums on Australia’s defence capabilities to then see the knowledge and skills of those trained personnel transferred in terms of them sharing their understanding, their knowledge of our defence operations with foreign countries. I see that similar suggestions have been made in relation to the United Kingdom and that they are already taking steps in relation to tightening some of the legal frameworks around where it is that pilots or people who hold sensitive information can work and how they can engage in the future. And I’d urge the Albanese Government to be looking as part of this review as quickly and comprehensively as possible as to how we can make sure we have similar protections put in place in Australia.


Peter Stefanovic: Okay, Simon Birmingham, the Shadow Foreign Affairs Minister, appreciate your time. Thank you. We’ll talk to you again soon.