Jerusalem embassy move down and out of three counts
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Jerusalem embassy move down and out of three counts

Originally published in The Australian

Significant changes in Australian foreign policy are not normally announced on the hustings during a Sydney by-election. So the announcement that Australia was considering moving its embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, made during the Wentworth by-election was more about delivering an “announceable” and some “cut through” that would help the government’s candidate in a traditionally Liberal seat it was in trouble of losing. But in doing this without seeking advice from his minister or her department, let alone discussing it in cabinet, Scott Morrison has shown all the feel for Middle East politics that one would expect from a Sydney marketing executive.

This thought bubble is a bad policy for so many reasons. First, policy on the run is invariably poor. Second-order effects, practicality, costs and the like have to be considered and this requires a lot of staff work. Hence a significant change of decades-old policy should not be initiated based on an argument from a by-election candidate to a sitting prime minister. Even though the candidate was a former ambassador to Israel, his was a single voice. Several other diplomats have also filled that role, there is an entire department whose whole raison d’etre is to develop policy options and the former foreign minister allegedly briefed cabinet after Donald Trump’s decision to move the US embassy to Jerusalem that there was no case for Australia to follow suit.

Second, after the wholly predictable criticism from Indonesia and Malaysia regarding the issue, the mantra that “Australia’s foreign policy won’t be dictated by foreign leaders” rings somewhat hollow given Morrison’s thought bubble about ditching decades-old bipartisan support for Australia’s embassy to remain in Tel Aviv until final status talks are concluded, followed on less than six months from Trump moving the US embassy. Given that only Guatemala, Brazil and Paraguay (which reversed its decision after less than four months) have followed Washington’s lead, the impression our foreign policy is being dictated by foreign leaders is overwhelming.

Thirdly, moving one’s embassy into one half of the city while the Israeli government occupies the other half in contravention of numerous UN Security Council and General Assembly resolutions doesn’t say much about Canberra’s respect for international norms. It would also seriously weaken any influence Australia has in arriving at a two-state solution sometime in the future. External powers like Australia have few if any means of leverage in the negotiating process, and the choice of where to locate one’s embassy is the biggest one. The fact that no European country has contemplated moving theirs is largely because recognition is designed to be a bulk embassy deal — arrive at a solution and then we’ll all move. Moving the Australian embassy when no other first world country is would dilute the unity of Western effort further and reward Israel without getting anything in return. No wonder Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was effusive in his praise of the proposal — he probably never thought he would get two Guatemalas in his time in office.

The government has painted itself into a corner on this issue which, to be honest, most Australians have no real interest in. It has seen one minister criticise the proposal, Malaysia’s Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad take the opportunity to criticise Australia for free, and the Indonesian Trade Minister link the embassy with a free-trade deal signing. None of this is politically terminal, of course, but it is simply another example of the problems politicians can get into when they favour soundbites over substance, particularly in tricky foreign policy areas where they have no feel for the issues, which is often the case in the Middle East.

Whatever the decision that is made the government will ultimately hand the opposition a perfect opportunity to attack it. If it retains the embassy in Tel Aviv it will be accused of either cowing to Asian pressure or having caused a foreign policy flap simply to reaffirm the same government policy agreed to less than a year ago. If it moves to Jerusalem on the other hand, the government will be accused of blindly following the lead of the Trump administration, and the enormous financial cost (and loss of any political leverage) for no practical benefit will be the cudgel with which the opposition beats it around the head. And expect Guatemala and Australia to be mentioned in the same sentence more than at any time in the history of parliament. The Jerusalem embassy thought bubble has already proven to be both poor policy and poor politics.

Areas of expertise: Middle East security issues; Political Islam; Shi’a Islam