The Australian | September 26, 2007
Israeli deal to boost defence
A SURGE in Israeli hi-tech investment and the transfer of world-leading military technology is set to be unleashed next year with the expected sealing of a free trade agreement between Australia and Israel.
The signing of the FTA on track for next year will signal an even closer defence relationship between the two countries involving high-end robotic technology, smart missiles and unmanned aerial drones — military areas in which Israel is a world leader.
Israel’s new ambassador to Australia, Yuval Rotem, said yesterday an FTA would pave the way for improved access by drought-stricken Australia to Israeli expertise in dryland agriculture technology.
"The political will is there — there are just a few issues to overcome, some technical elements," Mr Rotem said. He expected the deal to be concluded next year, to coincide with the 60th anniversary of the founding of the state of Israel.
Two-way trade in 2006 was worth $955 million in Israel’s favour. Australian exports to Israel, mostly live animals and coal, totalled $185 million compared with $644 million in imports of telecommunications equipment, gems and fertiliser from the Jewish state.
Training exchanges involving Australian Defence Force personnel and its Israeli counterpart are likely to be finalised soon, Mr Rotem told The Australian yesterday.
Confidential imports from Israel last year consisting of classified defence technology totalled $14 million — a figure projected for fast future growth.
"This is a very tough market. We compete with other countries in this market," Mr Rotem said yesterday. "But it’s true we’ve tried to maintain our edge technologically, because in our neighbourhood if you don’t have the upper hand you may not survive."
Israel had invested greatly in education and infrastructure to ensure the state remained a "hub of technology", he said.
Mr Rotem, 47, a career diplomat, has promised to bring "a new spirit and new energy" to the Canberra position — a posting regarded as one of Israel’s most important after the US, where he last served.
"We really want to put this (FTA) in practical terms and increase significantly the trade between our countries," he said.
"We’ll see if there is room for further co-operation on defence and security-related matters, and bring some investors from our side to your side."
When Mr Rotem presented his credentials last month, he became the first Israeli ambassador to Canberra born after the founding of Israel in 1948.
He has replaced Naftali Tamir, who became embroiled in controversy over remarks allegedly given to the Haaretz newspaper likening Australia and Israel as two white races in Asia, "without yellow skin and slanted eyes".
Mr Rotem branded as uninformed comments by senior Liberal ministerial staffer Peter Phelps, who likened Labor candidate Colonel Mike Kelly’s war service in Iraq to that of a Nazi concentration camp guard.
"Those who make this kind of comparison, I think, don’t have a clue what they are talking about," he said.
He said Australia was one of Israel’s closest allies.
"Australia, definitely, is one of the main and best allies we have," he said.
"I would even go beyond that. We are forever going to remain grateful to the Australian Government and people for siding with us."