Controversial Israeli Foreign Minister To Visit Australia

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Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman is set to visit Australia in late August, marking the first visit by a senior Israeli politician since the establishment of a shaky ceasefire between Hamas and the Israeli government.

The Australian Jewish News has reported that Mr Lieberman will visit Sydney and Melbourne, after the recent outburst of conflict forced Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to cancel a planned visit earlier in the year.

Mr Lieberman’s visit has been welcomed by prominent Jewish groups, but is likely to cause tension between pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian activists.

Initially a member of conservative Israeli party Likud, Lieberman went on to found and lead the right-wing nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu (‘Israel is Our Home’) party, which describes Gaza as “a terrorist entity”.

The party takes a hardline stance on issues central to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and has supported the right of settlers to live in the West Bank. In 2004, Lieberman was expelled from Cabinet after opposing then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s plan for unilateral Israeli withdrawal from Gaza.

Lieberman has previously said that Israeli-Arab members of Israel’s own parliament, the Knesset, should be executed if they engage in talks with Hamas.

It remains unclear whether Mr Lieberman will meet with Australian government officials or counterpart Julie Bishop. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade referred New Matilda’s enquiries to the Israeli Embassy, who are yet to comment.

Lieberman’s visit is likely to inflame tensions between local and pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian groups, who have both reported increased incidents of racism and racist violence since the bombing of Gaza began in July.

The Zionist Federation of Australia have welcomed Mr Lieberman’s trip.

“As Israel’s Minister of Foreign Affairs it is particularly poignant that he will be coming here at such a difficult time for Israel,” Dr Danny Lamm, president of the Federation, told the Australian Jewish News.

“We look forward to him providing us with a first-hand account on the situation in Israel and affording us his personal and professional insight. It is truly a privilege and we look forward to welcoming him.”

While the NSW Board of Deputies made similar comments, progressive Jewish organisation the Australian Jewish Democratic Society has expressed concern at the news.

“Lieberman represents the worst racist, extremist and exclusivist aspects of Israeli society, and so it’s disappointing that he’ll be coming to speak at a Melbourne Jewish community function,” said member Dr Jordy Silverstein.

“At this point in time we need to instead be hearing from those people who work for justice and peace.”

A ceasefire agreement in Gaza appears to be holding for now, with negotiators agreeing to a five-day extension yesterday.

The shelling and ground invasion of Gaza, in which Israeli forces demolished tunnels allegedly used by Hamas, killed up to 2,000 Palestinians, the vast majority of whom were civilians.

In total, 67 Israelis were killed in the operation, including three civilians.

The Abbott Government has come under pressure for comments contrary to both international law and conventional understanding of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In June, Attorney-General George Brandis was forced to back away from comments he made at a senate estimates hearing, in which he described East Jerusalem as “disputed” rather than “occupied”.

Earlier in the year, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said Israeli settlements in the West Bank were not illegal under international law, going against the grain of international opinion.

Max Chalmers

Max Chalmers is a former New Matilda journalist and editorial staff member. His main areas of interest are asylum seekers, higher education and politics.

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