Guests at Monday night’s annual Graf Oration honoured retiring Shalom CEO Hilton Immerman OAM with a standing ovation. The event, held in the packed ballroom of Sydney’s Shangri La Hotel, was sponsored by Shalom and featured a panel discussion on Israel’s and Australia’s positions in a changing geo-political environment.
Immerman announced his plans to retire in January. He has spent nearly three decades at Shalom’s helm, a period in which a number of hugely successful programmes were launched, benefitting not just the Jewish community but the wider community as well.
Some highlights of Immerman’s tenure at Shalom include the establishment of the Hebrew University’s Melton Adult Education Programme, the introduction of Limmud-Oz, the Sydney Jewish Writers’ Festival, Moishe House, PJ Library, Shalom Baby, and the Shalom Gamarada Indigenous Scholarship Program, which gives scholarships to indigenous students for tertiary education.
The Graf Oration panel discussion is another initiative launched by Shalom during Immerman’s tenure. Established to honour the memory of former Shalom president and life governor Ervin Graf, the oration is now in its sixth year. Past events have included such luminaries as iconic Israeli novelist Amos Oz, Deborah Lipstadt, leading Israeli writer Yossi Klein Halevi, and counterterrorism expert Professor Boaz Ganor.
This year’s panel consisted of Sydney Morning Herald international editor Peter Hartcher, Lowy Institute director for International Policy Anthony Bubalo, and the Centre for Social Impact’s national education director Leanne Piggott. The panel was moderated by NSW Jewish Board of Deputies CEO Vic Alhadeff.
Between China and the US
The panel’s first point of discussion was Australia’s role as a major US ally in the Asia-Pacific and the potential for conflict with China, our largest trading partner.
Hartcher said much had been made of this so-called balancing act, given our dependence on China for export revenue and the ongoing resilience of the US alliance. However, he said, there was no need to pick sides, a point that Bubalo and Piggott were in agreement with.
“Australia continues to have an extremely strong relationship with both countries. Our strategic relationship with the US has never been deeper, yet we recently concluded a concessional free trade agreement with China and we’ve even conducted joint defence exercises,” he said.
Hartcher and Bubalo said we were still trying to work out what kind of China would emerge; if it turns out to be more assertive than internationally responsible and cooperative that may be become cause for concern, but it is far too early to tell and that isn’t about to occur any time soon.
Israel and US ties deeper than ever
The discussion then turned to the US-Israel alliance and whether US disengagement from the Middle East would leave a power vacuum.
Bubalo said the US has been steadily recalibrating its position as the global policeman and that nowhere was this more apparent than in the Middle East. “The disasters of Afghanistan and Iraq coupled with the Global Financial Crisis have made most Americans extremely wary of interventionist behaviour,” he said.
However, as Hartcher pointed out, America’s support of Israel remains unflinching, as evidenced by the US$38 billion military aid deal over 10 years recently concluded between the two countries.
Bubalo also said the US in some ways is more reliant on Israel now that US-backed regimes like the ones in Egypt and Saudi Arabia had either fallen over or were likely to remain under increasing pressure.
“The US-Israel relationship is unique in the world, and while it too has undergone some re-calibration, support for Israel remains unwavering,” he added.
The Trump wildcard
While Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have fought for bragging rights as Israel’s staunchest supporter, the injection of Trump into the geo-political paradigm has left most analysts shaking their heads as to what ramifications his ascendency to the presidency might have.
One of the major differences between the candidates has been the Donald’s bluster regarding tearing up trade deals, dishonouring US debt, and pulling America out of alliances that he deems too expensive, or where the other parties are ‘not paying their fair share’.
Yet, as Piggott was quick to point out, alliances are an interconnected system, and once cracks appear in any of them, they may fall apart completely, and that could have huge flow-on effects in Europe, the Middle East and in Asia. “Trump seems to think that everything has to be measured in terms of financial gain or loss. While any sane person would be hoping he doesn’t get anywhere near the White House, he needs to understand that strong military alliances and trade deals and economic power are not mutually exclusive.”
At any rate, the consensus among the panel was that the chance of a Trump presidency remains remote.
Photo cr: Jack Hochfeld
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