Australia-Israel ties are heating up, and it has nothing to do with politics.
In August, before he assumed the premiership on September 15, Malcolm Turnbull told the Jewish Journal, “I don’t think there is any country in the world that has better relations with Israel.”
“So what I think we should be doing – and I’m a promoter of this – is collaborating more with Israel particularly on matters of science and technology. We do that, but we should do even more of that… The more we could do with Israel, the better.”
Since Turnbull assumed office there has indeed been a flurry of official visits between the two countries.
There was a delegation to Israel led by Australia’s innovation minister in November; at the end of the month Israel’s Chief Scientist visited Australia; and this week Australia’s Minister for Industry, Innovation and Science Christopher Pyne arrived in Israel to meet with high-tech industry leaders.
On December 7, Turnbull’s government announced an innovation package worth over $1 billion that includes setting up a “landing pad” for Australian business people and entrepreneurs in Tel Aviv.
“In the last two months there’s been more activity than I’ve seen in the last two years,” Australia’s ambassador to Israel Dave Sharma told The Times of Israel.
Sharma says that while Israel has always been a willing partner, for Australia the recent interest in Israel stems from a slowdown in China’s growth which in turn has slowed demand for Australian coal, iron ore and minerals.
“Our economy is still growing but suddenly the mining sector isn’t this huge employer,” explained Sharma. “Policymakers, politicians and businesspeople have all been saying, so what do we do now?”
That’s where Israel comes in.
“We decided we need to encourage a more entrepreneurial creative startup-oriented business culture in Australia.”
Part of that is learning from the best startup cultures overseas. Tel Aviv will be the location of one of five “landing pads” overseas. Another one will be located in Silicon Valley and the other three locations have yet to be determined.
“It’s a big vote of confidence in Tel Aviv and Israel. I think that reflects the fact that we see Israel as a startup capital alongside Silicon Valley. We think a bigger Australian presence here, more Australian interaction with the ecosystem here will help inject that spark that we need in Australia.”
An ‘absorption center’ for Australians
Sharma compares the landing pad to what the absorption ministry used to do for Jews from around the world who immigrated to Israel.
“If you haven’t been here and you don’t have the family connection or national or religious connection, it can be quite intimidating place to land — everything from the visa system to dealing with the Interior Ministry to signing a lease.”
The landing pad will be a home away from home for Australians who want to do business in Israel. It will be a physical space, probably located near Tel Aviv’s trendy Rothschild Boulevard, that will provide desk space, Internet, coffee and concierge services that will help its patrons navigate the local scene.
“We’ll put them in touch with venture capitalists, people to collaborate with, tech conferences to attend, as well as hold pitch nights and social events.”
A typical user of the space will be an Australian investor, an entrepreneur with nothing more than an idea, or executives from big Australian companies that are looking to inject tech into their business operations. The budget for the space will be about $2.5 million over four years.
Asked how Australia’s new prime minister feels about Israel, Sharma said, “we’re a very supportive country of Israel and we’ve always been and always will be. We believe in Israel’s right to exist in secure borders.”
“In terms of the landing pad, that’s separate. We see Israel as a normal country and we have normal interactions and this is a normal kind of interaction. This is sort of pragmatic. Even if we didn’t have a very close political relationship — but we do — we’re looking to do this because it’s in our mutual interest.”
Indeed, as recently as a year and a half ago, Australia took diplomatic positions that revealed it to be one of the Israeli government’s closest friends in the international community. At the time, Australia decided to stop referring to East Jerusalem as “occupied,” and did not take any position on the legality or illegality of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
Asked what he has learned in his last two and a half years as ambassador Sharma replied, first “that Israel is a very normal country in many respects.”
“If you haven’t been to Israel and you follow the media it’s quite a one-dimensional impression of Israel that’s basically always involving conflict with its neighbors. And of course when you get here, that’s part of the national preoccupation but so are a lot of other things, like housing prices, education, traffic congestion, jobs or the oil and gas sector.”
A second thing Sharma learned is that “Israel’s geopolitical situation, its relationship with its neighbors, the Israel-Palestinian dispute, the closer you get and the longer you spend here the more you realize why it’s been such a difficult problem to solve and why it remains so intractable. Because it’s not as straightforward as it might appear from afar. There are a lot of deep historical civilizational forces at work that make peace quite a difficult thing to achieve.”
Aside from high-tech, Sharma says there are a lot of little-known areas of cooperation between Australia and Israel.
“There’s youth mental health. We have an Australian NGO called Headspace and there are people here who have picked up on the idea and are rolling it out in Israel.” There is also joint marine biology research into coral reefs as well as three or four Australian universities that send students here for archaeological digs.
“It’s one of few places in this part of world where you can dig safely, without worrying about the danger.”