Jewish community welcomes Netanyahu at Bondi Synagogue on controversial visit

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has spoken warmly of his country’s relationship with Australia on a visit to the Central Synagogue in Bondi Junction on Wednesday evening.

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It comes after a day spent fielding questions over the Palestinian and Israeli conflict.

“There’s no better friend for the state of Israel,” Mr Netanyahu said of Mr Turnbull as the pair appeared before a 2000-strong Jewish congregation.

“But he’s had some standard bearers before him. John Howard and Tony Abbott.”

Both former prime ministers were seated just behind Mr Netanyahu in the synagogue and received huge applause from the congregation, which included NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian, prominent lawyer Mark Leibler, retail billionaire Solomon Lew and Jeanne Pratt, widow of the late industrialist Richard Pratt.

Such adulation is harder to come by back at home for Mr Netanyahu, whose Likud party has been slipping in the opinion polls while he remains under police investigation into claims he wrongly accepted gifts from billionaires.

Mr Netanyahu, who denies any wrongdoing, has also faced months of criticism over Israel’s rapid expansion of settlements on Palestinian-owned land in the West Bank – a move condemned by the United Nations.

Mr Turnbull spent much of the day defending Israel against the UN’s criticism.

Facing the congregation at his “local shul” – as he calls the synagogue in the heart of his Wentworth electorate – Mr Turnbull said Australia disassociated itself from the UN resolution because it attributed fault only to the state of Israel.

Mr Netanyahu said while he knew Israel was “much maligned” in the UN, he saluted Mr Turnbull for “standing up for Israel”.

“You refused to accept this hypocrisy,” he said.

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The Israeli leader sparked huge applause for speaking out about the need to “battle against those who seek to demonise Jews”, referring to a resurgence in anti-semitism in many parts of the world.

“It is something we need to fight together,” he said.

“I think this is important in Europe. It’s important in America. It’s very important that President Trump took a strong stand against anti-semitism.”

Mr Netanyahu left his crowd with an invitation.

“I want all of you to come to Israel. I want you to visit your friends and your families, I want you to walk the streets of the old city in Jerusalem and the Golan.

“We are part of you, you are part of us.”

Earlier, just hours after landing in Sydney for an historic four-day visit, Mr Netanyahu slammed suggestions by Bob Hawke and Kevin Rudd for wanting Australia to join 137 other countries in giving diplomatic recognition to an independent Palestine.

“What kind of state will it be that they are advocating?” Mr Netanyahu asked during a press conference at Kirribilli House after holding bilateral talks with his Australian counterpart Malcolm Turnbull on Wednesday.

“A state that calls for Israel’s destruction? A state whose territory will be used immediately for radical Islam?”

Landed in Sydney for 1st-ever visit of an Israeli PM to Australia. Thanks for the warm welcome. I’m far from Israel, but feel at home. 🇮🇱🇦🇺 pic.twitter长沙桑拿按摩论坛,/qmUEuSKcJO

— Benjamin Netanyahu (@netanyahu) February 21, 2017

The calls from Mr Hawke and Mr Rudd – both strong supporters of Israel and backed by former foreign ministers Gareth Evans and Bob Carr – are largely driven by concerns Israel’s expansion of Jewish settlements on land it occupies on the West Bank is damaging the prospects of peace with Palestinians.

The United Nations last December branded Israel’s settlements illegal under international law.

Australia at the time was a lone voice in defending Israel and accused the UN of being “one-sided”.

“Australia has been courageously willing to puncture UN hypocrisy more than once,” Mr Netanyahu said.

“The UN is capable of many absurdities and I think it’s important that you have straightforward and clear-eyed countries like Australia that often bring it back to earth,” he said after meeting Mr Turnbull.

Welcome to Australia Bibi & Sara! @netanyahu pic.twitter长沙桑拿按摩论坛,/ZoL8JqSzmb

— Malcolm Turnbull (@TurnbullMalcolm) February 22, 2017

Mr Turnbull said he still believed that to be the case and that Australia still hopes a two-state solution with Israelis and the Palestinians living alongside each other can be achieved.

Referring to the Israeli leader’ by his nickname Bibi, Mr Turnbull suggested the circumstances could be right for both sides to restart peace talks, which last stalled in 2014.

One of the major sticking points in establishing independent states has been the Palestinians’ refusal to recognise Israel as a Jewish state.

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Mr Netanyahu said recognition was mandatory along with Israel having security control of all territories.

“If Israel is not there to ensure security, then that state very quickly will become another bastion of radical Islam,” he said.

“Other than that, I want the Palestinians to be able to govern themselves and to have all the freedoms to do so, but not the freedom to destroy the Jewish state.”

The Israeli leader and his wife Sara arrived in Sydney from Singapore on Wednesday morning, accompanied by a large business delegation to help develop trade and security ties with Australia.

His first official port of call in Sydney was the governor-general’s official residence Admiralty House, where he arrived by boat under police escort for talks with Sir Peter Cosgrove and Mr Turnbull.

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“We feel we are in the friendliest country possible,” Mr Netanyahu told Mr Turnbull as they sat down for talks on security, trade and the Middle East.

Mr Netanyahu paid tribute to the Light Horse Brigade’s liberation of Beersheba during World War I and Australia’s help in creating the Jewish state in 1947.

He later joined Mr Turnbull and Opposition Leader Bill Shorten at business luncheon, saying Israel was keen to develop an innovation partnership with Australia.

At the lunch, Mr Turnbull said Australia “deplored” the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, which he said was designed “to delegitimise the Jewish state”.

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