Commentary | 16 December 2018

Curious: Canberra mirrors Moscow on Jerusalem

Originally published in Sydney Morning Herald

Originally published in Sydney Morning Herald

To quote William Shakespeare, the Prime Minister’s weekend announcement regarding Australia’s approach to the future location of the Australian embassy in Israel and recognition of Jerusalem was, in the end, largely "much ado about nothing".

Far from representing a fundamental break with the past, the announcement contained a combination of easily reversed gestures and continuity with past policy.

From the look of it, the diplomatic professionals in Canberra have won the battle with the Prime Minister’s Office so that October’s grand announcement by the Prime Minister on the hustings, raising the possibility that Jerusalem would be recognised as the capital of Israel and the Australian embassy moved there, has been walked back so the self-inflicted foreign policy wound could hopefully be cauterised before Christmas and then forgotten about.

The embassy will remain in Tel Aviv until after the final status of Jerusalem is determined as part of a comprehensive Middle East peace agreement, which is in line with extant policy.

Australia has recognised West Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, which it does in a practical sense at the moment anyway given the need for interaction between our diplomatic staff in Tel Aviv and most of the Israeli government in Jerusalem. Somewhat counter-intuitively the Prime Minister has also undertaken to open a defence and trade office in Jerusalem even though the Israeli Ministry of Defence is in Tel Aviv, which is also Israel’s commercial capital.

The biggest change apparent in the language used by the Prime Minister is that he has stopped referring to Jerusalem, half of which is occupied by Israel in violation of numerous UN Security Council Resolutions, and now talks of East and West Jerusalem.

When Scott Morrison first spoke about recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, likely not believing his luck, was quick to take to social media welcoming the potential move to recognise Jerusalem and move the embassy. Israeli media now report senior Israeli officials as expressing their disappointment that the language from Canberra regarding Jerusalem has changed to reflect its bifurcated nature rather than treating the city as an undivided entity.

Concerns about an adverse Indonesian reaction based on Morrison’s original, far-reaching proposal seem to have abated, based on official comments following the Prime Minister’s speech. Other potential sources of concern such as trade sanctions from Muslim countries, remote as they were, are likely to have been ameliorated by the decision to retain the embassy in Tel Aviv.

But there is a strong belief within Australia that controversy over the issue was avoidable and the whole episode was a foreign policy problem entirely of the Prime Minister’s own making.

To begin with, the argument surrounding why Australia should seek to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital was never made out by the Prime Minister. In particular, there was never any attempt to mount an argument that Canberra was going to trade recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital for any concrete measures on the part of Israel’s government such as reversal of land seizures or dismantling of illegal settlements. If, as he argued, the two-state solution hadn’t been going well and that "you don’t keep doing the same thing and expect different results", there was never any sense of what different result an embassy move was supposed to achieve. The idea violated the first rule of negotiations – never give a party something without getting something in return.

The second problem with believing the discussion was based on a conviction held by the Prime Minister rather than some temporary, expedient political calculation, was the timing of the debate. Given that the same issue had been reviewed internally by the Turnbull government following the Trump administration’s decision to move its embassy to Jerusalem and found not to warrant a change in policy, the reason the same circumstances required another review was never made out. The fact that the announcement was made while campaigning in a byelection in a traditionally Liberal seat with a significant Jewish minority that was at risk of being lost was seen as a cynical attempt to appeal to a sectional interest group.

Somewhat curiously, rather than following the US lead announced in December 2017 and recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moving its embassy there, Canberra is now mirroring the Russian April 2017 announcement in which Moscow recognised West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital while keeping its embassy in Tel Aviv. These are strange days indeed when Canberra is acting in sympathy with Russian policy positions rather than American ones.

The reality is, however, that none of these minor changes are difficult to reverse and the opposition has undertaken to do just that if it gains power. So this time next year it is quite possible that all the light and heat generated over this proposal will have been for nothing and the status quo will have been maintained. Which would be reflective of much of Middle Eastern politics.