Lately it seems nobody has as much pulling power with the business community as the Australia-Israel Chamber of Commerce … but don’t mention the war.

In recent months in Sydney alone the AICC has hosted Business Council president Catherine Livingstone, Qantas chief Alan Joyce and Telstra chief David Thodey — star attractions at mega-lunches — with hundreds of business types turning up for a decent three-course meal, glass of wine and good-humoured promotion of Israel’s attractions.

The audience hears from high-powered delegates who have recently returned from one of the trade missions hosted constantly by the chamber, and publicly at least, their impressions are highly favourable. Venture capital funding and R&D are recurring themes as Israel touts its credentials as a technology investment destination — the “start-up nation”, with the second-most NASDAQ-listed firms outside Silicon Valley.

The pro-Israel commercial message is softened by the good-humoured shtick of bow-tied MC Kim Jacobs, the chamber’s longtime state president, with self-deprecating charm.

Palestine is not mentioned, in my experience, and perhaps that’s to be expected at a business lunch where politics is touched on lightly, if at all. Now, however, there is a war on in Gaza, Australians are watching the shocking images nightly, and the casualties and destruction are overwhelmingly on the Palestinian side.

Perhaps there would be a drop in numbers? Some discussion? Not a bit of it.

UniSuper chairman and former head of Colonial Chris Cuffe made an oblique reference to how his recent tour of Israel with the chamber had been useful in understanding the “current tensions”. Very polite. Arguably too polite, given what is going on in Gaza has already triggered a United Nations war crimes investigation, and ceasefires are not holding.

When I asked Jacobs and Livingstone at the event about the possible impact of the war in Gaza on business relations between Australia and Israel — for example through boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS), they demurred at the time.

Today Jacobs, speaking as managing director of corporate strategy business Inteq Ltd, told Crikey it was a valid question but one he and Livingstone chose not to answer yesterday, given the AICC was “apolitical”.

Jacobs says the chamber’s members have not raised concerns about the war in Gaza, and he was not surprised by the strong turnout yesterday. “Why would Catherine Livingstone speak at our function as an opening address if she thought there was an issue? We really appreciate the support.”

On the prospect of BDS, Jacobs points to an opinion piece published in The Jerusalem Post by former Business Council president Graham Bradley in 2011, when he led a mission to Israel, which said BDS had “no credibility … none of it has any traction in senior government or business circles in Australia”.

Jacobs came back last week from a five-day trade mission led by NAB chief Cameron Clyne. For most of the 26 people who went, it was their first time in Israel. “Some were concerned at the situation,” said Jacobs. “When they arrived they were pleased we were mainly in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Sirens went off once or twice a day, but the Iron Dome was very effective. Everyone felt very safe and secure, and quite a bit of business was done between the two countries.”

Jacobs says the trade missions try to give people a people a balanced view, but of course it is not safe to go into Gaza. “All we, as any organisation would want, is for no one else on either side to be injured and for there to be at least a ceasefire, if not a peace. Economic trade and business is the way to continue to ensure that there is a reason to work towards a peace.”

Livingstone is also chair of Telstra, which has important contracts in Israel. In his March speech, chief Thodey described Israel as the “epicentre of world innovation”.

Thodey said:

“It’s interesting when you look at Telstra, and you look at the number of software companies that we actually use that come from Israel. We’ve already talked about Verint, all our provisioning systems come from a company called Amdocs, which is critical to the operation of Telstra every day. And I could go through a list of about 10 companies … that had their genesis in Israel, some of them now based in New York, that we use and are absolutely dependent on, on a daily basis.”

There is no such business support for Palestine, which has no chamber of commerce here.

Suzannah Moss-Wright, chief executive of the Australia Arab Chamber of Commerce and Industry, did not even have a figure for our bilateral trade with Palestine, but said Australia has exports worth $8 billion to the 22 Arab League countries, compared with imports of $2.3 billion — a trade that runs heavily in our favour — and she added, “if there is one thing that unites the Arab world, it’s support for Palestine”.

By contrast, Australia’s exports to Israel in 2013 were $228 million, while imports were $619 million.

Moss-Wright says conflict between Israel and Palestine has been going on since 1948, and anyone doing business there would have factored in the risk of war. “Those people who have engaged in trade with the region have already calculated that risk.”

It will be increasingly impossible to avoid the discussion.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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