Tuesday, 25 April 2017

From the Lucky Country to Israel - Spring 2017 Salisbury Review

Here is my latest piece for the Salisbury Review: 

This past December I was fortunate to be a delegate at the Australia-Israel-UK Leadership Dialogue. The journey from the Lucky Country to Israel, while not as lengthy as the flight to London, reminded me of the endurance test of the latter. You can imagine my delight to hear Qantas’ recent announcement that from March 2018 they will have a non-stop flight from Perth to London. At 17.5 hours, it is still a long one in anybody’s terms, but it will mark an historical milestone: a new era of uninterrupted travel between the United Kingdom and Australia.

This development had me searching the bookshelves for Geoffrey Blainey’s The Tyranny of Distance (1967). Blainey’s theme, in a nutshell, is that Australia’s geographical isolation informed its economic evolution and character. And yet, as the author writes in a preface to the 1982 edition, ‘ideas have usually leaped with relative ease across the ocean’. Leap they might, but the transport of ideas in the current political climate is something of a cause for concern.
Seventeen-and-a-half hours from Perth’s Terminal 3 to Heathrow contrasts with the 27 days and 20 hours it took Sir Keith and Sir Ross Smith’s Vickers Vimy to fly from the United Kingdom to Australia in 1919. The brothers would have made quicker time, Blainey notes, if they’d booked their passage on the mail boat to Australia. Still, these heroic aviators and their two assistants deserved every penny of their £10,000 prize: ‘Sitting in an exposed cockpit they suffered from intense cold...they flew in low altitudes where the atmosphere and weather were most turbulent. Their cruising speed was 80 miles an hour, and if they flew at a speed of only 60 the engines stalled.’ The Middle-East-India-Singapore route they ‘haphazardly pioneered’ would later become the main airway from Europe to Australia for many decades.
Today most Australians heading to Europe skip Singapore and India layovers, flying directly to Dubai or Abu Dhabi. From either of these mega-airports an Aussie traveller can go un-interrupted to any European, African, Middle East or Asian destination – with the one exception of Israel. On the way to the Australia- Israel-UK Leadership Dialogue in Jerusalem, I discovered this first hand. At Abu Dhabi International you might hear a voice announcing, ‘Last call for Kiev’, but what you will never hear is ‘First call for Tel Aviv’.
The reason is that the Gulf States, not to mention Saudi Arabia and so many other Muslim-majority countries, do not have normal relations with the State of Israel. Jordan’s relationship with Israel is complicated and many of its citizens are filled with anti-Zionist fervour. Still, the government signed a peace treaty with its neighbour in 1994 and so I flew to Amman before embarking on a low-altitude hop – as per Sir Ross and Keith Smith – to Tel Aviv. On arrival at Ben-Gurion Airport I was presented with a tourist visa printed on a separate sheet; an official stamp in your passport, as even the Israelis acknowledge, can make travelling elsewhere a headache.
There are so many ironies – from a British or Australian point of view – about Israel being treated as an international pariah. Top of the list is the fact that Israel happens to be a fully-fledged democracy while those who express the greatest enmity towards it are, for the most part, the opposite of democracies. The same could be said about international organisations such as the United Nations. In April 2016, the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) declared the State of Israel to be the world’s top human rights violator.
The largest bloc in the 47-member UNHRC, needless to say, belongs to the Organisation of Islamic Co- operation. Two years ago, the UN chose none other than Saudi Arabia to chair a panel selecting ‘experts’ to investigate the rights of migrants, religious freedom and sexual orientation and, believe it or not, violence against women anywhere in the world.
The 2016 Leadership Dialogue in Jerusalem tackled the old conundrums – whether or not to persist with the so-called ‘two-state solution’ – plus some new questions as well, including the merit or otherwise of a Trump administration relocating the US embassy from to Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The overseas delegates, mostly Australian and British politicians, journalists and businessmen, visited the Knesset on our last full day in town where we listened to and quizzed a succession of Israeli parliamentarians about everything from the Iran Nuclear Deal to the high price of housing in Jerusalem. For half an hour, near the end of our visit, we waited expectantly in a lobby to meet Benjamin Netanyahu. Eventually his personal assistant stepped out of the elevator and informed our party that the prime minister had been diverted by pressing matters and would not be joining us on this occasion.
One of those pressing matters might have been President Obama’s farewell present for Prime Minister Netanyahu, UN Resolution 2334. The decree insists Israel unilaterally handover over the entirety of the West Bank, including East Jerusalem and the Jewish Quarter in the Old City, to its existential enemy. Two days before Resolution 2334 became headline news around the world, I wandered around the Old City and marvelled at its quietude and forbearing charm. The last time an Arab authority held sway over the Old City, between 1948 and 1967, thirty-five of the thirty- six synagogues in the Jewish Quarter were destroyed and all human remains in Jewish cemeteries removed.
Benjamin Netanyahu’s Israel First nationalism explains his falling out with Barack Obama over the Iran Nuclear Deal. Obama had his eye on the Big Picture, of bringing Tehran’s rogue regime in from the cold, while Netanyahu obsessed about safeguarding the Israeli people. The Age of Obama, at least in the beginning, offered the promise of visionary globalism trumping narrow-minded patriotism. Now we know it was all a delusion. As Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei recently explained on national television: ‘We have many small and big enemies, but foremost among them are America and this very evil Britain.’ In a sense Khamenei was right. British-style secular democracy, as practised in as disparate places as the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, the United States, and, yes, Israel, is by its very success a reproach to Sharia Law and Iran’s Guardian Council: either the people rule or the self-appointed representatives of God rule.
It was not inevitable that the Zionists would choose democracy over some version of theocracy or socialist autocracy. In the case of David Ben-Gurion, at least, it was his personal experience of the London Blitz and the resilience of the British people that convinced him of the superiority of democracy in times of national stress. After all, a sovereign people who enjoy both individual and national self-determination have something worth defending.
Progressives everywhere still acclaim President Obama as ‘The One’ and disparage President Trump – in the words of Australian actress Cate Blanchett – as ‘absurd and ridiculous’. They might have it the wrong way round. The contrasting attitudes of Barack Obama and Donald Trump to Brexit tell us much about the direction of the political tide in the Free World. A victory for UK self-determination, according to Obama, would prove a retrograde step, while Trump always embraced the idea. Who had it right? An Anglo-American free trade deal – something Australia established with the US in 2005 – is now in the offing. Today a truly independent UK and a newly assertive US can strike a blow for the cause of united democratic nations, a concept superior in every way to the United Nations itself.
Many criticised Israel for its West Bank Barrier and Australia for Operation Sovereign Borders. The same international condemnation resurfaced after the people of the United Kingdom opted for Brexit and, of course, when President Trump announced plans to restrict immigration and build his wall on the southern border. Israel, Australia, the United Kingdom and United States are four examples of what Karl Popper called the ‘Open Society’. The paradox is that in today’s world an Open Society cannot be safeguarded with an open border – the carefree days of Ross and Keith Smith, hopping haphazardly across the globe, are long behind us.
I relish the prospect of flying on a Perth-to-London Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner. The relentless shrinking of the world is an astonishing phenomenon, something our forefathers are unlikely to have imagined. That said, overcoming the tyranny of distance has brought with it dangers as well as blessings. Islamic revivalism, to give just one instance, reveres an open border. Uninterrupted flights between Australia and the United Kingdom will help unify our two democratic nations, but we shall remain – as the song goes – islands in the stream.