Shock and Humiliation in Australia After Israeli President Cancels Official Visit

The Australians had to postpone a visit by the Iranian foreign minister and make other schedule arrangements to accommodate Reuven Rivlin's travel plans. Imagine their surprise when the Israeli president chose to fly to Moscow instead.

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An illustration showing a kangaroo staring down Israeli President Rivlin.
Illustration. Credit: Amos Biderman
Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

Here’s a story that was paved with good intentions and led to diplomatic hell. Presidential visits abroad are usually initiated by the Foreign Ministry, based on Israel’s diplomatic and public-diplomacy needs. If the president gets an invitation from abroad, he will not respond affirmatively before getting a go-ahead from the Foreign Ministry.

In discussions held by the president’s bureau and the ministry, it was agreed that President Reuven Rivlin should visit both Australia, a very good friend of Israel, and Russia. A month ago, the president’s staff suggested to both Canberra and Moscow possible dates for a presidential visit. The earliest date on the list was March 17.

The Australians were surprised at the short notice. However, as they attach tremendous importance to what would be the first visit by an Israeli president in 11 years (and that was one they’d rather forget, by Moshe Katsav), they went out of their way and agreed to it. Australia’s governor general, who is Rivlin’s counterpart, canceled a scheduled trip abroad; the prime minister rearranged his schedule. The Jewish community was in seventh heaven. A series of meetings and festive meals was arranged for Rivlin with Australia’s elite, in three cities. “We admire Rivlin,” an official Australian source told me. “We consider him a positive figure, unifying and tolerant.”

But a few days after everything had been set up and official announcements were issued in both countries, the Kremlin informed the President’s Residence that Rivlin would be received in Moscow with pomp and circumstance on March 17, as requested. Vladimir Putin was looking forward to it.

The President’s Residence consulted with Foreign Ministry director general Dore Gold. In the meantime, Rivlin spoke to senior security officials. They were unanimous: There’s no alternative, apologize to the Australians, Putin is more important.

But Gold came back with the opposite advice: Rivlin should go to Australia as planned. Why? Gold was evasive. Rivlin’s advisers concluded that the director general, Netanyahu’s loyalist and de facto diplomatic adviser, thinks that Russia is too important, that Rivlin shouldn’t be playing on the big boys’ field.

As fate would have it, the first meeting in a long time between Rivlin and Netanyahu took place, as previously scheduled, last Thursday. The two met privately for 90 minutes. At its conclusion, the President’s Residence announced that, in coordination with the prime minister, the president would visit Russia.

It’s hard to overstate the shock of the Australian leadership when they got the phone call from Jerusalem. “We were stunned,” the official source related. “We didn’t know the first thing about Moscow. We couldn’t understand why Russia couldn’t be postponed for a few days. We didn’t understand why we, your best friends, deserved this public humiliation. And in favor of the Russians, who are not exactly your friends. You are the ones who suggested and requested the visit, we did all we could to organize it with unprecedented speed, and then you postpone.”

It’s equally difficult to overstate the scale of the unpleasantness that was felt in the President’s Residence. On Tuesday, Rivlin’s office called the office of the governor general of Australia, Peter Cosgrove, to apologize. Cosgrove refused to take the call. Rivlin was told that the prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, would agree to speak to him. The two spoke for about 15 minutes. Ostensibly, things were set right, but not really. 

“The bitter taste remains,” the official source said. “It was a public humiliation.” It was agreed that a new date will be set at some point – probably not in 2016.

This story also has an Iranian angle. Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif, is set to pay a first visit to Australia in 15 years. The original date coincided with Rivlin’s visit. The sensitive Australians, not wanting the two visits to be held simultaneously, postponed Zarif. After Rivlin stood them up, they invited Zarif to visit on the original date. “He is coming on an official visit,” the Australian source said with more than a smidgeon of Schadenfreude. “Instead of Israeli flags flying in the Australian capital in two weeks, there will be Iranian flags.”

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