It’s diplomatic etiquette for ambassadors to say nice things about their host countries before they leave. But at his farewell party Sunday in Tel Aviv, Dave Sharma, the outgoing Australian envoy to Israel, went above and beyond, using an unconventional metaphor to describe his family’s attachment to the Jewish state.
“I can honestly say that Israel will always be in our hearts. Israel will always be in our blood,” he told his guests at the Peres Center for Peace, speaking in Hebrew.
“Maybe it works better in English than it does in Hebrew, I’m not sure. But it basically means that Israel is part of our soul now,” Sharma told The Times of Israel on Wednesday, one day before he, his wife Rachel Lord, and their three young children were set to leave Israel after four years.
“Israel will have had a formative imprint not only on my life but on that of my wife and my children,” the unimposing and affable diplomat said. “That’s something we’ll always take with us — not just the memories from here and the relations and friendships we’ve made here, but also some of the life lessons we’ve drawn from here. In that sense, Israel is in our veins. We’ll carry it with us wherever we go.”
Undeniably, Sharma’s job was made easier by the fact that bilateral relations are consistently excellent. Canberra is one of Jerusalem’s staunchest allies and best friends in the international community. In 2014, Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop surprisingly refused to call Israeli settlements illegal, defying international consensus. And when 14 out of 15 members of the United Nations Security Council voted in favor of an anti-settlements resolution (with the US abstaining) in December, Australia was the only country to publicly say it would have opposed the text.
That is not to say that Australia always sees eye to eye with the policies of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who rejects the oft-made claim that Israeli settlements in the West Bank are an obstacle to peace.
“We’re opposed to any unilateral move that undermines the viability of the two-state solution. Settlement are one of those,” said Sharma. The issue was brought up during Bishop’s visit to Israel in September and also during Netanyahu’s meeting with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in February in Sydney, during the first-ever visit down under by an Israeli leader.
“We are committed to the two-state solution,” Sharma said. “But we’ve always taken the view that final-status issues, which include borders and the status of Jerusalem and things like that, can and should only be resolved by negotiations between the parties.”
Building new settlements and expanding existing ones is “unhelpful,” the ambassador said, adding that Australia also opposes incitement to violence and Palestinian efforts to gain unilateral statehood recognition in multilateral forums.
Jerusalem and Canberra had other differences as well during his four-year term, Sharma said, though he declined to provide more detail.
“We had a few disagreements during my time here. But in the nature of our strong relations we keep and resolve them in private,” he said. Israelis and Australians are both frank and honest people, and he always found that he could sort out problems easily and in a friendly atmosphere, he noted.
Were there moments when was furious at his Israeli interlocutors? “No,” he replied immediately. He did have some “difficult conversations” with people but they usually took place in the context of good friendship. “I have never felt white-hot fury or anything like that.”
Indeed, Sharma — who has not been assigned to a new posting yet — said Israel-Australia ties today are the “strongest they have been than in a long time, perhaps since the early days of Israel’s founding.”
Even though Australia was one of the first countries to recognize the State of Israel, opening an embassy here in 1949, no sitting Israeli prime minister had visited down under until Netanyahu’s four-day trip to Sydney in late February.
Indeed, several cancellations of planned visits in the past had threatened to cast a pall over the otherwise rosy bilateral relationship. Netanyahu had reportedly considered canceling or postponing this year’s trip, too, but sensing that Canberra would not take it well, he went ahead with it.
“It was very important that the visit happened as a recognition to the strength of the relationship. The fact that there hadn’t been a visit in the past was becoming an irritant in the relationship,” Sharma said. “If the visit hadn’t happened, that irritant would have only grown at the time. It was an overdue but very welcome recognition of the importance of the Australia-Israel relationship and the importance of Australian support for Israel.”
Netanyahu’s visit also had a “forward-looking agenda,” as his talks focused on promoting bilateral cooperation in fields like cybersecurity, high-tech, aviation, research and development, double taxation and others, Sharma said. “It did deliver a substantial agenda and set a pathway for the future of the relationship in the next couple of years.”
Sharma’s successor, Chris Cannan, is scheduled to arrive in Israel on Sunday and to start working on Monday. Like Sharma, he is a career diplomat and Israel is his first ambassadorial posting.
Sharma’s main advice for Cannan is to be a good listener. “There are a lot of complexities in this part of the world,” he said. “Try to hear as many perspectives and to learn from as many people as you can. It’s quite important to come here and be ready to hear all sides and listen to all arguments. Prepare to hear all views, that’s the key to doing well here.”