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When times were better: Australia’s ties with Israel’s defence industry

February 9, 2024 at 10:48 am

Protesters show their support for Palestinians during a rally at State Library of Victoria in Melbourne on October 15, 2023. [MARTIN KEEP/AFP via Getty Images]

Times were supposedly better in 2022. That is, if you were a lawmaker in the Australian state of Victoria, a busy Israeli arms manufacturer, or cash counting corporate middleman keen to make a stash along the way between the two. That view is premised on the notion that what happened on 7 October 2023 in Israel was stunningly remarkable, a historical blot dripped and dribbled from nothingness, leaving the Jewish state vengeful and yearning to avenge 1,200 deaths and the taking of 240 hostages.

All things prior were dandy and uncontroversial.

Last month, word got out that the Victorian government had inked a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with the Israeli Defence Ministry in December 2022. “As Australia’s advanced manufacturing capital, we are always exploring economic and trade opportunities for our state – especially those that create local jobs,” a government spokesperson stated in January. It’s just business.

No one half observant to this should have been surprised, though no evidence of the MoU, in form or substance, exists on Victorian government websites. (It is, however, listed on the Australian government’s Foreign Arrangements Scheme register.) For one thing, Israel’s Ministry of Defence had happily trumpeted it, stating that its International Defence Cooperation Directorate (SIBAT) and the Victorian statement government had “signed an industrial defence cooperation statement” that December. Those present at the signing ceremony were retired General Yair Kulas, who heads SIBAT, and Penelope McKay, acting secretary for Victoria’s Department of Jobs, Precincts and Regions.

That an MoU should grow from this was a logical outcome, a feature of the state’s distinctly free approach to entering into agreements with foreign entities. In April 2021, the previous Morrison government terminated four agreements made by the Victorian government with Iran, Syria and China. The agreements with Iran and Syria, signed in November 2004 and March 1999 respectively, were intended as educational, scientific and training ventures. The two agreements with China came in the form of an MoU and framework agreement with the National Development and Reform Commission of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), both part of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

The Israeli arms industry has taken something of a shine to Victoria. One of its most aggressive, enterprising representatives has been Elbit Systems, Israel’s prolific drone manufacturing company. Through Elbit Systems of Australia (ELSA), it established a Centre of Excellence in Human-Machine Teaming and Artificial Intelligence in Port Melbourne after announcing its plans to do so in February 2021.

Read: The US courts, Gaza and genocide expose the dangers of complicity

One of its main co-sponsors is the state government’s Invest Victoria branch. The body is tasked with, in the tortured words of the government, “leading new entrant Foreign Direct Investment and investment opportunities of significance as well as enhancing the business investment environment, developing and providing whole-of-government levers and strengthening the governance of investment attraction activities.” RMIT University’s Centre for Industrial AI Research and Innovation also did its bit alongside the state government in furnishing support.

The two-year partnership with ELSA’s Centre of Excellence had rosy, arcadian goals. The company’s then managing director and retired Major General Paul McLachlan wanted to impress his audience with glossily innocent reasons behind developing drone technology, which entailed counting any “number of people in designated evacuation zones, then to co-ordinate and communicate the most efficient evacuation routes to everyone in the zone, as well as monitoring the area to ensure that everyone has been accounted for.”

McLachlan, in focusing on “the complex problems that emergency management organisations face during natural disasters” skipped around the nastily obvious fact that the technology’s antecedents have been lethal in nature. They had been used to account for the killing and monitoring of Palestinians in Gaza, with its star performer being Elbit’s Hermes drone. A grisly fact from the summer months of July 2014, when the Israeli army was making much use of Elbit’s murderous products in Gaza, company profits increased by 6.1 per cent.

This was not a record that worried the director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s defence, strategy and national security program, Michael Shoebridge. As he told ABC, the MoU “would have been entirely uncontroversial before the Israel-Hamas war. But now, of course, there’s a live domestic debate about the war, and … most people are concerned about civilian casualties.”

It is exactly the slipshod reasoning that gives the think-tankers a bad name. It means that Israel’s predatory policies towards Palestinians since 1948 can be dismissed as peripheral and inconsequential to the current bloodbath. The racial-administrative policies of the Jewish state in terms of controlling and dispossessing Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and the trampling, sealing and suffocating of Gaza, can be put down to footnotes of varying, uncontroversial relevance.

The Victorian Greens disagree. On 7 February, the party released a statement promising to introduce a motion calling on the Victorian government “to end its secretive relationship with the Israeli Ministry of Defence.” They also demanded the government “sever any ties with companies arming Israel’s Defence Force, which has killed 27,500 Palestinians in less than four months.”

Given the federal government’s brusque termination of previous agreements entered into by Victoria with purportedly undesirable entities, the Albanese government has a useful precedent. With legal proceedings underway in the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague seeking to determine whether genocide is taking place in Gaza, along with an interim order warning Israel to abide by the UN Genocide Convention, a sound justification has presented itself. Complicity with genocide – actual, potential or as yet unassessed by a court – can hardly be in Canberra’s interest. Over to you, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.