Almost 20 years ago, the Harvard scholar Joseph Nye coined the phrase “soft power” to give some meaning as to why governments spend billions in developing cultural and business ties with other countries as a means of obtaining influence or impacting on how their country is perceived by others, as opposed to dealing in the realm of “hard power”, or in other words military might.

When it comes to using “soft power”, in Australia, Israel takes the cake. Not only does it send politicians and journalists on junkets to Israel on a regular basis, but the Australia-Israel Chamber of Commerce wields clout well beyond what would be expected of a trading partner that is less important in dollar terms to Australia than Turkey, South Africa, the United Arab Emirates or Mexico.

Politicians, CEOs and other community leaders break their necks to speak at Australia-Israel Chamber of Commerce functions. The roll call of federal government ministers who have been, or will be guests of the chamber in 2008 and 2009 is impressive. Rudd, Swan, Gillard, Wong, Ferguson, McClelland, as well as the Rudd government’s national security chief Duncan Lewis. The CEOs of big corporates like Westpac, the Commonwealth Bank and McDonald’s have all been there over this same period.

This is a business chamber that punches well above it weight. According to Austrade’s latest figures Australian exports to Israel are worth just over $250 million, while imports run at $685 million. By contrast China, our biggest export partner is worth $27 billion in exports and $30 billion in imports.

Israel’ s trade relationship with Australia is less valuable in dollar terms than those we have with say South Africa, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey and Mexico:

Australian exports to South Africa are worth $$2.4 billion, and imports $1.49 billion; to the UAE the numbers are $3.6 billion in exports and $231 million in imports; to Turkey exports are worth $655 million and imports total $404 million; and for Mexico the numbers are $551 million in exports and $1,2 billion in imports.

Each of those trading partners has a bilateral chamber of commerce with Australia but none has the clout, profile or the speaker and crowd pulling capacity of Israel, despite the fact that they represent trading relationships of greater importance to Australia.

Israel it seems is effectively using its Australian chamber of commerce activities as part of its armoury of foreign policy. It is an example of what Nye described in 2007 as not just “soft power” but “smart power”. Describing the need for the US to use such power, Nye argued “It is an approach that underscores the necessity of a strong military, but also invests heavily in alliances, partnerships, and institutions at all levels to expand American influence and establish the legitimacy of American action.”

Exactly the same might be said of Israel.

The Australian-Israel Chamber of Commerce is more about keeping Australia’s political and business elite onside than it is about growing a trade relationship — the figures attest to that fact.