First published in The Spectator Australia, 29 December 2016

‘To know how the world goes without America, look at Aleppo’. That’s the kind of insight (from the head of one of Israel’s security agencies) you get at the Australia-Israel-UK Leadership Dialogue. The brain-child of Melbourne businessman and jazz musician Albert Dadon, the Dialogue has been going since 2009 and in its present format since 2011. It was four days of discussions, just before Christmas, between MPs, officials and analysts of the three countries. The Australian delegation included Opposition leader Bill Shorten, Trade Minister Steve Ciobo and ten other federal and state parliamentarians.

Originally intended as another forum to familiarise Australia’s leaders with Israel, the Dialogue has become an opportunity for leaders from like-minded countries to consider issues in common, as well as to analyse in-depth the security problems of Israel and the wider Middle East. Along with the ‘two state solution’ to the Palestinian question, the challenge of Iran and Syria, the Sunni-Shia divide, the interplay of religious and economic grievances, and the consequences of United States’ and Russian policy in the region, there were vigorous discussions of Brexit, border protection, housing affordability, fiscal and monetary policy and the science of climate change – which turns out to be far less settled than most people think.

We often forget the role that Australians have played in this part of the world long before our FA18s and our military trainers joined today’s fight against the death cult in Syria and northern Iraq. In the Great War, the Australian Light Horse formed the spearhead of General Allenby’s British army that liberated Beersheba, Jerusalem and Damascus from the Ottoman Turks. In World War Two, Australia’s Seventh Division was the bulk of the British force that freed Syria and Lebanon from the Vichy French. And long before we were taught to think of ourselves as a multicultural country, Jews had been Australia’s chief justice, army commander and head of state (as that’s what our governor-general is). Indeed, we’re the only country with this distinction other than Israel itself.

In a witches’ brew of complexity and danger, Palestine is no longer the region’s most intractable problem. As we learnt, Israel’s establishment is clear-eyed about what’s happening: Iranian policy is a mix of ancient Persian imperialism with apocalyptic Islam; Turkey’s President Erdogan hankers to be a modern version of Suleiman the Magnificent; Russia has opportunistically used America’s diffidence to realise its historic dream of access to a warm water port; Syria will continue to be a graveyard or it will evolve into a series of semi-autonomous state-lets. The bottom line, as Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu makes abundantly clear, is that Iran cannot be allowed to become a nuclear power.

The good news is that Israel probably has more friends in its own region than ever before. Egypt and Israel are partners in the fight against ISIL in the Sinai Peninsula. Jordan and Israel are sharing water and electricity. There is now informal Israeli security cooperation with the Saudis and the Emiratis. The bad news is that Iran (whose official policy is to destroy Israel and whose aim of world dominance is identical – only in Shia form – to that of the so-called caliphate) now dominates Iraq and Syria while Iran’s proxy, Hezbollah, has more capability than ever to ravage northern Israel, despite all the advances in anti-missile systems. To give the Obama administration a short-term win, sanctions have largely been lifted in return for a mere decade’s pause in the Iranian nuclear weapons programme.

In discussions with the Australian MPs, Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah claimed that his people accepted Israel’s right to exist behind secure borders; but this is hard to credit given Palestinian TV’s consistent glorification of suicide bombers, reference to Jews as the ‘sons of monkeys and pigs’ and claims that the state of Israel is a ‘satanic project”.

Israel’s GDP per person is about $40,000 a year. Palestine’s is about $2000. This is not due to inherent riches on one side of the line of control. As Yuval Rotem joked (Israel’s former ambassador to Australia, now head of the department of foreign affairs): Moses managed to lead the Israelites to the one part of the Middle East that lacked oil! It’s true that Palestine has problems getting goods through security. For instance, Australia’s highly-regarded ambassador to Israel, Dave Sharma, noted that it can cost as much to ship a case of Palestinian beer from the West Bank to port at Haifa than from there to Japan. The basic problem, though, is a focus on politics over economics and the all-pervading sense of grievance.

Of course, there should be a permanent settlement for a Palestinian state where Jews have the same rights as Palestinians have in Israel. The alternative is a kind of apartheid that’s at odds with Israel’s own values. But there are lots of lesser issues that could be fixed before this one is resolved. It should be easier for people and goods to move from Palestine into Israel and Jordan. The UAE should join Jordan and Egypt in operating direct flights into Tel Aviv. And Australia should cut our $40 million a year in aid to the Palestinian Authority while it keeps paying pensions to terrorists and their families. Another way for Australia to demonstrate its unswerving support for Israel, as the Middle East’s only liberal, pluralist democracy, might be to join any move by the Trump administration to move its embassy to Jerusalem.

On these sorts of dialogues even the most battle-eager politicians enter a kind of de-militarised zone – or enjoy a 1914-style Christmas truce singing carols in no man’s land. It was good to go for a fraternal jog with Bill Shorten around Jerusalem’s old city: sacred to all monotheistic faiths yet fought over for three thousand years. Still, appreciation of what both sides of Australian politics have in common can only be taken so far. On the last morning, Professor Nir Shaviv of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem methodically debunked the climate change theories peddled by the UN Panel. If he’s right, and carbon dioxide makes much less difference than is supposed, countries like ours have been inflicting pointless economic pain upon themselves. Sadly, none of Australia’s Labor MPs turned up to hear him.