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Thursday, 19 February 1987
Page: 275


Senator MASON —by leave-The Australian Democrats feel that the statement by the Prime Minister (Mr Hawke) is realistic and in many respects courageous.


Senator Hill —Are you speaking for all the Democrats?


Senator MASON —I think so. We have a fairly common view on such matters, regardless of propaganda to the contrary. As I said, the Democrats feel that this statement by the Prime Minister is realistic and in many respects courageous because it addresses some of the vital issues in what is plainly one of the most important areas of tension and conflict in the world-the Middle East. I say this with the advantage of a state visit to Israel which the Government of that country kindly offered me last year. In this context I must thank the Israeli Government and all the Israelis I met for the diligence, thoroughness and honesty with which they were prepared to discuss issues of importance to that country.

In recent years Israel has not been engaged in major wars against its neighbours, nor has it suffered from major patterns of insurgency. At first a casual visitor might be forgiven for perceiving simply a prosperous and hard-working community whose major problem is an increasingly serious shortage of water, but closer contact reveals the enormous tension under which the events of the last decades have placed the region. I was fortunate enough to have half an hour of discussion with the Israeli Prime Minister, Mr Shamir. I will confirm, as Senator Chaney said, that Mr Shamir raised with me the question of the cancellation of the Sinai force. I do not think that he overstated it. It did not appear to me to be a matter of grave consequence between the two countries. It was the Democrats' policy, and the Government's, that the force should be concluded at that stage. I put to Mr Shamir the view that basically the force was becoming semi-permanent and only a certain amount of time could elapse in which such things could be carried out. Among other things, it was an economic burden to Australia. I feel that that was clearly understood.


Senator Hill —But it was a worthwhile contribution.


Senator MASON —I concede that it was a worthwhile contribution.


Senator Hill —We should have been prepared to pay the cost to make a worthwhile contribution in one of the most troubled areas in the world.


Senator MASON —If we were to do that in every troubled area of the world we would have great difficulty. It is a question of priorities. Mr Shamir agreed that the force had been a valuable contribution. However, I felt that the Israeli Government was prepared to put the matter in the past and that it would not be a major issue.

More important from our discussion-I repeat this with Mr Shamir's permission-was his belief that the main enemy, the main threat, to Israel now is Syria. He spoke with great emotion, passion and intensity about his belief in Syria's intention to pursue Israel, even to the extent of saying-here again I have his permission to state this publicly-that he believed that the Syrian Government was planning to use Russian missiles to attack Israel at some future time with biological weapons. At that stage I raised with him my view that surely no such atrocity could be tolerated by the rest of the world, but he still maintained his view that that was a likely possibility. Whatever one might feel about the possibility of such an attack, it is important that an Israeli Prime Minister should feel so strongly about it. That is, of course, due at least in part to the Israeli feeling that the nation is in a virtually permanent state of seige.

This highly charged atmosphere, this tension, somehow must be relaxed and in this context I feel that the Prime Minister has displayed perception in the statement that we are debating. He spoke of the need for a Palestinian homeland and this is something with which I would agree. Certainly, short term visitors to any place should be cautious as to how they comment about that place, but it does seem self-evident that a good deal of tension would disappear from the Middle East if a homeland could be provided for the Palestinians-for them to achieve, after all, no more than what so many Israelis fought and died for with such determination and passion.

There is a view among Israel's neighbours-I found this too-that Israel is land hungry and that she wants to acquire southern Lebanon. Some of these neighbours point out that whenever Israel has gone to war she has acquired territory which she has hung on to. That also, of course, is true and needs to be said. The tension in the Middle East would probably be greatly alleviated if Israel voluntarily yielded back land to provide a Palestinian homeland, and I find the Prime Minister's comment on page 5 of his statement that it might well be in confederation with Jordan to be a perceptive one. While it would seem that in the interests of the city itself Jerusalem should remain totally under the control of a single government-I think the history of Jerusalem certainly indicates that as being desirable from the point of view of the city and all its communities-other areas of the West bank, territory which indeed even now is legally Jordanian, could perhaps become such a homeland. It could be considered at least for such a homeland. Of course it is mainly desert but there are important exceptions, such as the land along the Jordan River and in particular the fertile section around the city of Jericho.

I am glad to see that the Prime Minister discussed trade contacts with Israel at the highest level possible. While I was there, as it happened, a unilateral decision was taken by a senior Israeli official to cancel very considerable contracts for Australian coal. If that cancellation had been maintained it would have resulted in very considerable additional unemployment-even in my own electorate in the New South Wales coalfields from where, as it happened, that coal would come. I was able to make some small contribution-at least some forceful comments-on the view that I thought this Parliament, and certainly the people of New South Wales, would have on that especially since those contracts had been maintained through times when they were advantageous to Israel. I put the view to Mr Shamir and others that it would seem rather bad if they were cancelled purely because of cheaper oil prices and the feeling that at this stage there was some economic advantage in cancelling them. Of course the oil situation might not last into the future. Happily, that decision was reversed. This is an interesting example of the extent to which such matters require constant minding in the very competitive international market. The agreement signed by the Prime Minister and mentioned by him on page 9 of the statement has obvious value in that context.

I especially refer to the agreement on science and technology which, as the Prime Minister points out, was trail blazed by the Minister for Science, Mr Barry Jones. I visited the Weisman Institute and other places in Israel and was greatly impressed-as anybody who went there must be-at the extent and value of the Israeli research effort and at its initiative and personal view of things. It actually blazes the trail in important areas. It does not follow other areas of research. The fact that a small nation like Israel, working in such an unfavourable and poor piece of terrain, can achieve prosperity, even wealth, for its citizens in spite of the huge demands that defence has made on it, begs the question as to why a resource-rich favoured nation like Australia without heavy defence commitments can do so badly, and we are doing extremely badly. I commend this thought to the Leader of the Government: Perhaps we could do with some Israeli advisers in Australia to tell us how to get together effective competitive export industries, how best to use our resources and perhaps how to motivate our people to be successful. I put that thought to the Government seriously.