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Interview by David Speers of Sky News with Foreign Minister Stephen Smith

Main topic: Expulsion of Israeli diplomat, UN resolutions on Israel and Palestine

Transcript, proof E&OE

25 May 2010

DAVID SPEERS: A political divide has opened up over one of Australia's most sensitive diplomatic relationships.

The Australian Government yesterday decided to expel an Israeli diplomat after concluding, following a three month investigation, that Israel was responsible for faking four Australian passports allegedly used in the assassination of a senior Hamas leader in Dubai earlier this year.

The Opposition said it was an over-reaction by the Australian Government and suspects that part of the reason may be because Australia is trying to win votes on the UN Security Council.

Here was the Shadow Foreign Minister talking to us yesterday.

JULIE BISHOP: Now in the absence of proof it's appropriate to reprimand, appropriate to chastise, but to expel a diplomat is essentially stating we are of the view that the Israeli Government did it even though we don't have actual proof.

Now, you ask what political reasoning there could be for it. Well, the Government is facing an election. The Government is also seeking to pursue a seat on the Security Council. The Government is keen to curry favour within the Arab community and there are all sorts of reasons why the Government could be making a calculated political decision at this time.

DAVID SPEERS: Well, to answer this charge and explain the Government's decision, I'm joined now by the Foreign Minister, Stephen Smith.

Minister, welcome.

STEPHEN SMITH: Thank you.

DAVID SPEERS: Julie Bishop is saying there was no hard evidence. She said this after receiving a briefing from the very security agencies who brief you. So can I ask you, was there hard evidence that Israel faked these Australian passports?

STEPHEN SMITH: We had advice from all of our key national security agencies, the Australian Federal Police, ASIO, ASIS and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to the effect that I outlined in the Parliament: that the four Australians were innocent victims; that this was such a quality counterfeit, it could only have been done by an expert agency, namely a state security agency and that Israel was responsible.

Ms Bishop had exactly the same briefing as I had. I have found the reaction from Mr Abbott and Ms Bishop frankly extraordinary.

What it does show is that the Liberal Party is not fit to govern. The Liberal Party is not fit to manage our national security interests and the Liberal Party would turn a blind eye to the abuse of our passport system, to the abuse of our national security integrity and to the abuse of our sovereignty.

DAVID SPEERS: You've both received the same information and this is where it gets confusing because I can understand you don't want to share that information publicly, but you're saying there was hard evidence that fingered Israel for faking these passports.

STEPHEN SMITH: The advice that we had from those agencies was accurately reflected by me in the Parliament yesterday and in my media conference.

DAVID SPEERS: That there was hard evidence?

STEPHEN SMITH: Ms Bishop had precisely the same advice. Now Ms Bishop is saying that there was no absolute proof.

She is effectively saying that to make a judgment about our national security interests, to make the tough and difficult decisions about protecting the interests of the Australian travelling public, about protecting the interests of Australia generally, that we should somehow adopt the standard that you might adopt in a criminal trial: beyond reasonable doubt.

DAVID SPEERS: But this morning you were saying… STEPHEN SMITH: No, no. She is saying that we don't have evidence beyond reasonable doubt. In these matters, you have to make a judgment and that's what we did on the basis of…

DAVID SPEERS: So there was no hard proof is what you are saying?

STEPHEN SMITH: On the basis of the advice we had from the Australian Federal Police, from ASIO, from ASIS, from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, we were left in no doubt that Israel was responsible for the abuse of Australian passports.

DAVID SPEERS: Based on an assumption or based on proof?

STEPHEN SMITH: Based on the advice we had from our agencies. We did a very careful investigation.

DAVID SPEERS: But did they give you evidence…

STEPHEN SMITH: Just listen David. The Australian Federal Police went to Israel, conducted an investigation. The Director-General of ASIO went to Israel, spoke to his counterparts. I received advice which I took to the National Security Committee of the Cabinet.

Now Ms Bishop is saying there wasn't proof here, for example, that you could take to a criminal court trial beyond reasonable doubt. It's an arcane distinction.

In matters of protecting our national security interests, we have to make judgments. This was a difficult decision. This was yes, a difficult judgment, but it was absolutely the correct judgment to do.

The Liberal Party is out there. Mr Abbott, let's not forget that Mr Abbott, before the Australian Federal Police had even finished their enquiries, said that the Australian Government should take no action.

But even more concerning is that after Ms Bishop has had the same advice that we've had, she has gone out there and said this is somehow political.

Well David, I have got to tell you, when the Australian Federal Police, when ASIO, when ASIS and when the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade give us advice, they have neither politics nor when we are dealing with national security matters of this nature, the United Nations Security Council in their mind.

DAVID SPEERS: Well, given Israel is not admitting to doing this and it described your response as regrettable, what can you point us to? What advice did you receive? Is there any shred of evidence that you can point to?

STEPHEN SMITH: We had advice that the abuse of the Australian passports, that the cloning and the counterfeiting could only have been conducted by people with the relevant expertise.

DAVID SPEERS: Because of the quality of the fakes.

STEPHEN SMITH: Because of the quality of the fakes, firstly. Secondly, all of the evidence, all of the investigations pointed to Israel.

Now this is the same conclusion that the United Kingdom Government came to when they did their own enquiry. We did not mirror or just simply follow the United Kingdom. They conducted their enquiry. We conducted ours. We have come to the same conclusion on the basis of different credible investigations.

DAVID SPEERS: The British, while Gordon Brown was still in office, made the same decision to expel an Israeli diplomat, but other countries caught up in this fake passport affair, France, Germany and Ireland did not. So why has Australia…

STEPHEN SMITH: And France, Germany and Ireland have ongoing investigations, that's the first point. Secondly, I've seen the criticism from Ms Bishop and others that somehow in the matter we were just mirroring Gordon Brown.

People should remember that the then Shadow Foreign Secretary, William Hague, supported fully David Miliband and the British Government's decision.

I spoke to Mr Hague last night. He welcomed our decision. He believed that it was a sensible judgment which was consistent with a decision made by a previous government which he fully endorsed.

So when we are dealing with these very important national security issues, you cannot turn a blind eye to the abuse of your passport system. And that is essentially what the Liberal Party, Mr Abbott and Ms Bishop are saying.

That we can allow another country to ride roughshod over our sovereignty, we can allow another country to abuse our passport system and somehow we say that's okay.

Bear in mind the point I made in the Parliament yesterday. This is not the first occasion that our passports have been misused by Israel. As a consequence of that…

DAVID SPEERS: It's the first time an Israeli diplomat has been expelled…

STEPHEN SMITH: No, that's not right either, that is not right either.

Our passports have previously been misused by Israel firstly. Secondly as a consequence of that, there was an understanding between Australia and Israel that it would not happen again. That's been broken.

In 2004, not related to passport matters, but in 2004 Alexander Downer saw the expulsion of an Israeli diplomat from the Israeli Embassy.

DAVID SPEERS: But not over a passport.

STEPHEN SMITH: Not over passports, but no one suggested then at the time that that was to use a phrase that I've seen, an over-reaction.

DAVID SPEERS: That was over a different matter. This Government…

STEPHEN SMITH: It was over a different matter which went to national security interests. The then Government, of which Mr Abbott and Ms Bishop were members of the Cabinet, made a national security judgment.

You might want to ask Ms Bishop and Mr Abbott what was their motivation when they saw the expulsion of a diplomat from the Israeli Embassy in 2004.

DAVID SPEERS: Well let me ask you about this matter, was Israel right in assassinating this Hamas leader?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I have not been drawn on the question of the assassination for a very good reason. There is an ongoing investigation in Dubai by the Dubai and United Arab Emirates authority and it would be completely inappropriate for me to make any remarks that might get in the way of subsequent criminal or legal matters.

DAVID SPEERS: Putting aside who killed him, are you glad he is gone?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I'm not going to make any pejorative comments about that matter because there is an ongoing investigation into that matter.

What our focus has been, the protection of the integrity of the Australian passport system, the protection of the Australian travelling public and our national security interests. And on the basis of deliberate, considered, thoughtful advice following investigations by all of our key national security agencies, the Australian Federal Police, ASIO, ASIS and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, we have made a difficult but sensible judgement with an appropriate response asking Israel to remove one of its diplomats.

DAVID SPEERS: Just a final…

STEPHEN SMITH: The Liberal Party would say just ignore all of that.

Allow people to ride roughshod over your sovereignty and your national security interests.

DAVID SPEERS: Well, I think they're saying you still condemn Israel but you don't go as far as taking the very strong diplomatic reaction of expelling a diplomat.

Let me ask you about…

STEPHEN SMITH: What they are saying David, is turn a blind eye. Turn a blind eye to the abuse of our sovereignty. They are not fit to manage our national security interests.

DAVID SPEERS: Well, they are saying express concern, condemn Israel, but not expel a diplomat. This is not a zero sum game.

STEPHEN SMITH: They're just turning a blind eye.

DAVID SPEERS: Let me ask you about the Rudd Government's position on Israel, because it's not just the expulsion of this diplomat, Australia has also voted not to oppose an anti Israeli report in the United Nations.

It's taken very tough language in condemning settlement to the West Bank…

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, that is not true. You are referring there to the Goldstone Report. Australia, with like-minded countries has consistently opposed resolutions about the Goldstone Report.

DAVID SPEERS: But that decision didn't change?

STEPHEN SMITH: A couple of months ago when there was a resolution before the General Assembly calling on both the Palestinian authority and Israel to continue their investigations of the Gaza conflict, Australia abstained, as did a range of like-minded countries, because it was a qualitatively different resolution.

DAVID SPEERS: Has the Australian Government been urged by some of Israel's enemies in the region to take a tough line in order to — on Israel — in order to win their support for a UN Security Council seat?

STEPHEN SMITH: There are a range of countries who are strongly critical of Australia's longstanding strong support and defence of Israel.

We make our judgments on the United Nations General Assembly resolutions on the merits where we make sure that it falls within our policy framework which is supporting the peace process in the Middle East and supporting the right of Israel to exist.

Let me give you another example. Last week there was a resolution before the World Health Organisation, the world health assembly. It was critical of Israel. Australia was one of less than 10 countries who opposed that resolution and supported Israel.

We have not let this matter get in the way of our longstanding view about Israel, its right to exist and the need for ongoing peace processes in the Middle East.

But we will not, as the Liberal Party would do, as Mr Abbott and Ms Bishop would do, stand idly by and turn a blind eye to the shredding of our national security interests, to the abuse of our passport system and to the trampling of our sovereignty.

DAVID SPEERS: Stephen Smith, thank you for joining us.

END

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