Here’s What You Need to Remember: Beijing sees opportunities to expand its presence in the Middle East as the US confronts China more systemically in the Indo-Pacific. This creates opportunities for cooperation between Israel and Australia.
Israel and Australia face rapidly changing security environments with growing militarisation in their regions. Both are targets for terrorist attacks and are trying to meet the challenges of a more belligerent China.
Against this reality, delegations from Australia and Israel met online in November for the seventh annual Be’er Sheva Dialogue to discuss how the two nations can work together on areas of common strategic interest.
The dialogue is a partnership between ASPI and the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism at Reichman University and brings together officials, parliamentarians and analysts.
There was considerable agreement on the view that China was an increasingly intrusive and aggressive power in both the Indo-Pacific and the Middle East, but the perspectives on this from Israel and Australia were fundamentally different.
For Australian policymakers, the world was viewed through the prisms of Chinese power and the partnerships that help manage it, such as AUKUS, the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue and a string of other multilateral relationships.
For Israel, Iran is the wolf nearest the sled and the state that poses an existential risk through its continued nuclear-weapon ambitions and its cultivation, support and direction of violent proxy actors, notably Hamas and Hezbollah. They share the Iranian regime’s desire to obliterate the state of Israel.
How Beijing relates to Iran, Israel and other important Middle Eastern states is what makes China important to Israel. And how the engagement of the United States and of European powers with Iran and China either empowers or contains Iranian aggression is key here.
With these different prisms, there’s considerable opportunity for Australians and Israelis to implement policies and strategies that work for each nation and for the two nations collectively. Already, Israel has acted to stop sharing military technology with Beijing because of the now clear trajectory of the policies of the US and other security partners on China under Xi Jinping.
But the intermingled nature of the China challenge, with its strategic, technological and economic issues, means that things just aren’t that simple, for either Australia or Israel.
Beijing sees opportunities to expand its presence in the Middle East as the US confronts China more systemically in the Indo-Pacific. This illustrates the abiding dilemma of the US when it seeks to reprioritise and refocus geographically because it raises the prospects of creating pressure points to be used against it elsewhere. That kind of dilemma will become more familiar to China as it seeks more power and influence beyond its immediate region.
Australian Defence Minister Peter Dutton said geography alone had never determined Australia’s strategic focus and Australia was more secure when Israel was safe behind secure, internationally recognised borders. Dutton observed that the two states were experiencing ‘grey-zone’ activities falling short of armed conflict but designed to irritate, intimidate and injure. These included cyberattacks, trade interference, campaigns of disinformation, use of paramilitary forces and militarisation of disputed features.
Australian and Israeli defence officials began strategic talks in 2018, and in 2019 Australia appointed a defence attaché in Tel Aviv. The nations had agreed to cooperate closely on cyber issues. ‘We’re friends, and we’ve always stood together and always will,’ Dutton said.
Israel’s deputy prime minister and defence minister, Benny Gantz, said the dialogue highlighted strong strategic ties based on shared democratic values and common interests. He said there was scope to expand defence cooperation in research and development and in industry and highlighted Australia’s contribution to regional stability through peacekeeping.
Gantz said Iran was the biggest exporter of terrorism globally and regionally, and its pursuit of nuclear weapons threatened Israel. Iran was expanding its radical ideology, weapons, funding and manpower across the Middle East and he urged the international community to act.
He noted that Israel was building the city of Be’er Sheva as the Middle Eastern cyber centre and said the more Israel could strengthen its economy and security the more it could expand its relations with regional countries. The minister thanked Australia for supporting the Abraham Accords and suggested they should be expanded to additional states.
Participants discussed how the Taliban victory had boosted extremist movements globally. Afghanistan could face increasing internal conflict among the Taliban, Islamic State Khorasan and al-Qaeda-linked groups and become a magnet for foreign fighters who would ultimately seek to rebuild their ability to strike Western targets.
If the Taliban did consolidate control, it could run its extremist-state version of sharia law, and it could reach into Middle Eastern and Indo-Pacific politics in odd ways. A Taliban state recognising Hamas as the legitimate governing entity in Gaza and the West Bank or recognising violent separatist movements wanting to establish caliphates in Southeast Asia are two examples.
To Israel, the big winners from the Taliban victory were Pakistan and Iran.
An Australian delegate said the motivational boost to Islamist groups wouldn’t automatically translate to strategic momentum unless that was allowed to happen. And Russia, India, China and Iran would all have to focus more time and energy on managing their own interests and their relationships with each other in and around Afghanistan.
A striking observation about the future of terrorism and extremism that floated across the dialogue was on how the strange partnerships emerging with far-right groups inspired by the Taliban and Islamists were making a more dispersed, interlinked and amorphous threat. Far-right extremists praised the Taliban for their policies and behaviour towards women and celebrated the masculine warrior pictures propagated about Taliban fighters. They saw some parallels with ‘nativist’ behaviours they want in their own countries.
While Islamist terrorist violence would remain dangerous and damaging, an increase in far-right terrorist violence was in some ways a harder problem for governments. Some of the rhetoric and narratives they use is close to mainstream political debates and narratives, and they can directly threaten democratic institutions, creating the classic counterterrorism dilemma—how to defend democracy while not allowing terrorism to erode it.
Even if the level of violence from far-right attacks remains less dangerous than historical mass-casualty attacks, this appropriation of a domestic political narrative or worldview can be divisive and corrosive in democratic societies. The same will be true in a world of increasing violence and extremism over, say, environmental or climate change concerns.
Israelis welcomed Australia’s listing of Hezbollah as a terrorist organisation but expressed concern about what they saw as a rushed attempt by the US to revive the nuclear agreement despite Iran’s belligerence.
While Australians felt their nation was ‘the canary in the coalmine’ of China’s coercion, Israelis said they were just beginning to grapple with how China’s superpower status would play out in the Middle East. China is Israel’s third biggest trading partner after the US and the EU and has a strong interest in Israeli technology.
Several delegates said that in Europe, Britain and the US, Xi had driven a shift from a positive to a negative view of China. The development of both the Quad and AUKUS could be credited to him.
There was concern that China’s power and influence in the Middle East were growing as countries increasingly looked to Beijing as a long-term partner amid perceptions that the US was withdrawing from the region. Almost half of China’s energy needs comes from the region, particularly Iran. It has invested heavily in ports and infrastructure, including a new terminal at Israel’s Haifa port, operated by the state-owned Shanghai International Port Group.
China had a strategic ally in Iran, which was using China to bypass sanctions. In March, Beijing and Tehran signed a 25-year strategic agreement that’s likely to see China helping to develop Iran’s military capacities. China’s relations with Saudi Arabia and Gulf states are growing.
Because of concerns in Washington about China’s growing engagement with Israel, Israel has moved its foreign investment vetting committee to the National Security Council, under Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s control.
Both delegations were concerned that President Joe Biden was continuing the trend of recent administrations by diminishing the US presence in the Middle East. While Australia was concerned about China, and Israel mainly about Iran, the common denominator was doubts about America’s staying power.
It was suggested that Australia should work more closely with Israel in the Pacific islands region, given the goodwill there towards Israel. Israel could work with Australia on water and agriculture projects in the islands and it might establish an incubator for app development. With many blockchain projects and digital currencies being developed in the region, Israel could help strengthen e-commerce security systems. The Israel Defense Forces could help train militaries in Papua New Guinea, Fiji and Tonga.
With the Quad grouping of Australia, India, Japan and the US gaining momentum and emphasising critical technologies, Israel could contribute to its work. Israel is already working on critical technologies in ‘another Quad’ with the US, India and the United Arab Emirates.
The barriers to entry to the Quad are likely to be lower than for AUKUS, which is made up of some members of the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing group. Israel could collaborate with AUKUS in areas such as cybersecurity and artificial intelligence.