Secret Agreements: The Australian-Israel Defence Memorandum Of Understanding – OpEd


While the Australian government continues to pirouette with shallow constancy on the issue of Israel’s war in Gaza, making vacuous utterances on Palestinian statehood even as it denies supplying the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) with weapons (spare parts, it would seem, are a different, footnoted matter), efforts made to unearth details of the defence relationship between the countries have so far come to naught.

The brief on Australian-Israel relations published by the Department of Trade and Foreign Affairs is deplorably skimpy, noting that both countries have, since 2017, “expanded cooperation on national security, defence and cyber security.”  Since 2018, we are told that annual talks have been conducted between defence officials, while Australia appointed, in early 2018, a resident Defence Attaché to the embassy in Tel Aviv.  What is conspicuously absent are details of the Memorandum of Understanding on defence cooperation both countries signed in 2017.

A little bit of scrapping around reveals that 2017 was something of a critical year, a true bumper return.  The Australia-Israel Defence Industry Cooperation Joint Working Group was created that October.  A following Australian Defence media release notes the group’s intention: “to strengthen ties between Australia and Israel, explore defence industry and innovation opportunities, identify export opportunities, and support our industries to cooperate in the development of innovative technologies for shared capability challenges.”

The intentions of the group were well borne out.  Defence contracts followed with sweet indulgence:  the February 2018 contract between Israel-based Rafael Advanced Defence Systems with Australia’s Bisalloy Steels worth A$900,000; an August 2018 joint venture between the Australian defence engineering company Varley Group and Rafael, behind such “leading weapons systems” as “the Spike LR2 anti-tank guided missile”; and the Electro Optic Systems-Elbit Systems agreement from 2019 responsible for developing “a modular medium-calibre turret that can be configured for a range of platforms, including lightweight reconnaissance and heavy fighting vehicles.”

In February this year, Elbit Systems, Israel’s notorious drone manufacturer and creator of the Hermes 450 aerial device responsible for this month’s killing of seven World Central Kitchen aid workers including the Australian national, Lalzawmi “Zomi” Frankcom, was rewarded with a A$917 million contract.  Business, even over bodies, exerts a corrupting force.

In a heartbeat after the outbreak of the latest Gaza War last October, the Australian Greens filed a Freedom of Information (FOI) request seeking a copy of the barely mentioned MOU.  After a period of three months, the Australian Defence Department reached the boring conclusion that the application should be rejected.  It fell, the argument went, within the category of exemptions so treasured by secretive bureaucrats keen to make sure the “freedom” in FOI is kept spare and bare.  

What follows is repulsive to intellect and denigrating to morality.  “The document within the scope of this request,” went the letter from the Defence Department, “contains information which, if released, could reasonably be expected to damage the international relations of the Commonwealth.” The MOU “contains information communicated to Australia by a foreign government and its officials under the expectation that it would not be disclosed.”  Releasing “such information could harm Australia’s international standing and reputation.”

A telling, and troubling role was played by Israel in the process.  With characteristic, jellied spinelessness, Australian defence officials notified Israel of the FOI request in December 2023.  In February, the Netanyahu government responded with its views, of which we can only speculate.  The Greens were duly informed by the Australian Information Commissioner (OAIC) that the relevant decision maker in Defence “will consider the foreign government’s consultation response to make an informed and robust decision.”  With such words, a negative response was nigh predictable.  

Greens Senator David Shoebridge, in responding to the decision, was adamant that, “There is no place for secret arms treaties and secret arms deals between countries.”  Furthermore, there was “no place for giving other countries veto power over what the Australian government tells the public about our government defence and arms deals.”  The case is even more pressing given allegations of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide taking place in the Gaza strip.

This regrettable episode retains a certain familiar repulsiveness.  Unfortunately for devotees of open government, a fraught term if ever there was one, Australia’s FOI regime remains stringently archaic and pathologically secretive.  

Decision makers are given directions to frustrate, not aid applications to reveal information, notably on sensitive topics such as security, defence and international relations.  Spurious notions about damage to international relations are advanced to ensure secrecy and the muzzling of debate.  The OAIC has also shown itself to be lamentably weak, tardy and inefficient in reviewing applications.  In March 2023, it was revealed that almost 600 unresolved FOI cases had bottled up over the course of three years.

The latest refusal from the Defence Department to disclose the Israel-Australian MOU to members of Parliament, a decision reached after discussions with a foreign power (that fact is staggering and disheartening in of itself), betrays much doubletalk regarding defence ties between Canberra, the IDF, and the Israeli government.  More than that, it confirms that those in Canberra are being steered by other interests, longing for the approval of foreign eyes and foreign interests.  

Binoy Kampmark

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: [email protected]

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