The new Israeli ambassador has defended his nation against accusations of apartheid, saying it is a "democratic country that respects human rights".
Amir Maimon said Australian political leaders had made clear Israel should not be called an "apartheid state" despite an Amnesty International report this month accusing it of subjecting Palestinians to policies of "segregation, dispossession and exclusion".
The ambassador also told The Canberra Times the embassy would keep funding cultural events in Australia despite backlash and artist boycotts last month over its sponsorship deal with the Sydney Festival.
Mr Maimon, who arrived in Australia in January, presented his credentials to the Governor-General yesterday in Canberra.
Asked about the Amnesty International report in an interview before the ceremony, Mr Maimon said both Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Labor foreign affairs spokesperson Penny Wong had made clear there was no place to label Israel an "apartheid state".
"I'm not saying that we are perfect, and we are not perfect, and I believe that there are many avenues where we can do better," Mr Maimon said.
"But Israel is a democratic country that respects human rights, and you should come and visit Israel and you see the coexistence in a very friendly and sometimes even loving relationship between the different minorities."
The Amnesty International report, released earlier this month, accused Israel of committing apartheid and enforcing "a system of oppression and domination" of Palestinians. It said massive seizures of Palestinian land and property, unlawful killings, forcible transfer, drastic movement restrictions, and the denial of nationality and citizenship to Palestinians were all part of the apartheid system.
Mr Morrison dismissed the report, saying Australia would remain a staunch friend of Israel and that no country was perfect. Labor foreign affairs spokeswoman Penny Wong said the report's findings were concerning, but objected to the use of the word "apartheid" as a hindrance to the peace process.
Mr Maimon said Israel was a source of attention from international media and other institutions.
"It's easier to criticise Israel in international organisations such as the United Nations Commission of Human Rights, the other countries have the majority there. And the common denominator there is attacking Israel, criticising Israel. And that's very sad," he said.
There is a better understanding here in Australia to some of the challenges that we are facing- Amir Maimon
Asked whether the embassy would continue funding Australian cultural events despite the controversy over its sponsorship for the Sydney Festival, Mr Maimon responded: "We will."
"I can promise you, and that's a promise, that we will continue to bring Israeli art and culture to Australia despite sidewinds and marginal voices," he said.
Mr Maimon said he believed art and politics should not mix and claimed "marginal voices" had no place influencing cultural activities.
"It's very sad that artists, especially during difficult times, times that they rarely have the opportunity to perform on stages in front of audiences, decide to boycott cultural events," he said.
"For me art is art, and when individuals or organisations decide to mix art with culture, this is very sad and very frustrating, because whenever I go and watch a musical performance or different types of artistic events, it's all about art. I'm not trying to analyse it from a political perspective."
Mr Maimon said he hoped cultural establishments would make sure future events wouldn't be "mixed with politics".
"And I do hope that it will not allow marginal organisations and marginal voices to influence the essence of cultural activities," he said.
Multiple artists pulled out of the Sydney Festival, or proceeded without festival funding, in opposition to a $20,000 sponsorship deal to stage a production of the Israeli choreographer Ohad Naharin's Decadance by the Sydney Dance Company.
Some of the artists who withdrew from the event said Israel was committing apartheid and brutally occupying Palestinian territories. Thousands of people have died in conflict between Israelis and Palestinians since the first intifada in 1987, with data until April 2021 gathered by B'Tselem, an Israeli human rights organisation, showing 87 per cent of the dead were Palestinian.
The Palestinian Justice Movement Sydney in December called for all opponents of apartheid to boycott the 2022 Sydney Festival, saying that "by partnering with Israel, Sydney Festival will ... contribute to the normalisation of an apartheid state".
Following the protest, which was backed by a coalition of Arab and pro-Palestinian organisations as well as artists and academics, Sydney Festival chair David Kirk issued an apology and said he regretted the distress to artists caused by the controversy over the sponsorship deal. He promised an independent review into the festival's sponsorship processes.
In a letter published the Creative Community for Peace and signed by 120 entertainment industry figures, signatories said they "believe the cultural boycott movement of the Sydney Festival is an affront to both Palestinians and Israelis who are working to advance peace through compromise, exchange, and mutual recognition".
Mr Maimon has become the new Israeli ambassador to Australia following the expiry of his predecessor Mark Sofer's term in 2020. The close relationship between Australia and Israel makes the role a key diplomatic posting in Canberra.
Mr Maimon said Israel and Australia shared their democratic values and multiculturalism in common.
"There is a better understanding here in Australia to some of the challenges that we are facing. I'm talking about regional challenges. And this is very important for us," he said.
The new ambassador said he was optimistic that the trade relationship would grow between Israel and Australia, and that the nations' companies could learn from each other.
Mr Maimon previously served in the paratrooper unit of the Israeli military for 14 years, and later worked in the Israeli Foreign Ministry, holding diplomatic posts in London, Canada, Turkey, Ethiopia and Washington. Mr Maimon was also the first Israeli ambassador to Lithuania.