A bond born at the Battle of Be’er Sheva
20 Nov 2015|

The Harel Brigade memorial sits atop Radar Hill (now known as Har Adar) on the outskirts of Jerusalem. The memorial’s tower affords a coastal panorama that takes in Gaza to the south and carries on up the coast through Ashkelon and the metropolis of Tel Aviv-Yafo. On a clear day, you can see all the way to Haifa in the north. Wheel around a little further to see the Palestinian city of Ramallah sprawling in front of you.

To take in much of the length and breadth of a country from one lookout is, for an Australian, staggering. And to come down off the mountain to travel around Israel likely remains the only way to fully and precisely appreciate the country’s strategic geography. Flying up to the Golan Heights in the Levant to stand at Israel’s borders with Syria and Lebanon is similarly eye-opening. Such experiences impart a knowledge that simply can’t be gleaned from accounts, analyses, maps or photographs—you simply have to be there.

I was fortunate to be in Israel recently for the inaugural Israel–Australia Be’er Sheva Dialogue, convened by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute and hosted by our friends at the Begin-Sadat (BESA) Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University.

The Australian delegation was led by ASPI Council Chair Stephen Loosley AM and included elected representatives from both houses and major parties, Australian diplomats including our Ambassador to Israel, a former senior intelligence official and senior Army officers both retired and serving. BESA Center Director Efraim Inbar headed the Israeli delegation which comprised former and current Foreign Affairs officials, strategists, leading academics and representatives from both defence industry and the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).

In its naming, the Dialogue commemorates the Battle of Be’er Sheva. On 31 October 1917, the 4th and 12th Regiments of the 4th Australian Light Horse Brigade galloped on Be’er Sheva; they took less than an hour to overrun the Turkish trenches and, in the evening, captured the city. The stunning tactical victory relied on shock, speed, daring and bravery from the Australian mounted infantry. Notably, it was the regiments’ first major conflict and marked a decisive turning point in both the battle for Gaza (which fell a week later) and in the allied campaign in World War One.

The Battle of Be’er Sheva is the deep and important historical connection between Australia and Israel today. Our countries are close friends with similar strategic and cultural world views. In the defence arena, both countries maintain high-quality, high-tech military forces with the capacity to interact as peers. Israel recognises the importance of maintaining a strategic presence and security ties beyond Europe, and both nations are grappling with the defence implications of a rising Asia, US rebalancing, Russian chauvinism and instability in the Middle East.

The inaugural Be’er Sheva Dialogue was a testament to the enduring warmth of the bilateral relationship, and demonstrated a swathe of areas where our countries can cooperate and learn from each other. Those range from coalition war-fighting, military education, countering improvised explosive devices, airpower developments, counterterrorism, societal resilience, defence planning, capability procurement, counterinsurgency, use of reservists and urban intelligence gathering, among others.

As the Dialogue unfolded I was struck by three points:

First, our Israeli counterparts maintain a huge interest in Indonesia, which one delegate designated to be ‘the great success story of modern times’. It was recognised that while some extremist elements persist, Indonesia’s successful transformation into the world’s only Muslim-majority democracy is ‘the great hope on the international stage’. Indonesia is a curiosity for Israeli strategists, who dream to see such (admittedly hard-fought) democracy proliferate throughout the Middle East.

Second, we were in Israel at a time when there’d been over 30 random attacks on Israelis. (The attacks continue today, with more people killed overnight.) The country has been dealing with Islamist terror and threats to its citizenry for a very long time. Human rights activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali recently argued that the kind of attacks seen last Friday in Paris ‘are now simply impossible for the terrorists to organize’ in Israel, and that it would make sense to bring Israeli expertise in developing a ‘coherent counterterror strategy’ to Europe. While the nature of the threat is vastly different between our two countries, there’s clearly room for Australia to learn from Israel’s counterterrorism experience.

Third, entrepreneurship and innovation rule the roost in Israel. The Start-up Nation has an informal culture that rewards risk-taking and having a go, and the country has in turn been rewarded with a flood of venture capital. Conscription allows entrepreneurs to refine a knowledge of the tools and tweaks needed by the IDF and how procurement processes work; they’ve also had the chance to forge relationships that endure into civilian life. It’s worth noting here the opportunities for collaboration presented by the Turnbull government’s sweeping innovation agenda—our time in Israel coincided with the visit of a 50-strong Australian ‘innovation delegation’ led by Wyatt Roy, the Assistant Minister for Innovation. And senior government visits aren’t one-way: Israel’s Chief Scientist Avi Hasson has a packed schedule for his first official trip to Australia next week.

The inaugural Be’er Sheva Dialogue demonstrated the potential of the Israel–Australia relationship, and ASPI looks forward to hosting round two in Australia next year.