JERUSALEM IS NOT OUT OF OUR REACH
Whether or not we move our embassy, Scott Morrison has shifted the debate
Jerusalem is the capital of Israel. It has been since the creation of Israel in 1948. And it will remain that as long as Israel exists. Every nation decides the location of its capital city. There is no reason a different standard should apply to Israel.
All the major democratic institutions of Israel are located within the Green Line — that is, within the boundaries of Israel as at 1948. West Jerusalem is home to Israel’s parliament, Supreme Court, the official residences of the president and the prime minister, and many government departments. All new ambassadors to Israel receive their credentials in West Jerusalem.
Successive candidates for the US presidency have promised, if elected, to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to West Jerusalem. Only Donald Trump honoured his election promise. The US embassy in Jerusalem opened in May this year.
In an article in The Sydney Morning Herald on May 18, Dave Sharma, our ambassador to Israel from 2013 to 2017, wrote about how the Trump administration had broken a taboo.
He added: “As a pragmatic and solution-oriented nation, Australia should be prepared to lend our support to this commonsense proposition.” He also wrote that Australia “should consider recognising Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, without prejudice to its final boundaries and while acknowledging East Jerusalem as the expected capital of a future Palestinian state”.
The Turnbull government considered whether Australia should relocate its embassy and decided against the proposal. When Sharma wrote that Australia should consider following Trump’s lead, he had no idea Turnbull would be replaced as prime minister on August 24 and almost immediately would quit parliament, forcing a by-election in his seat of Wentworth in September.
At this stage, Sharma was not anticipating an attempt to enter federal politics. As it turned out, he won preselection as Liberal candidate in the Wentworth by-election. Late in the campaign, the new Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, embraced Sharma’s position and said the Coalition would consider relocating Australia’s embassy.
Certainly the timing of this announcement was not ideal; it led to speculation Morrison had made it for political reasons. It is true Jews make up about 12 per cent of Wentworth’s population, but 88 per cent of the electorate is not Jewish.
Whatever the motivation for Morrison’s comment, Jewish independent Kerryn Phelps defeated the non-Jewish Sharma. In the Guardian Australia and elsewhere it was speculated that Morrison’s announcement was driven by his evangelical Christianity.
In fact, Morrison is a practical politician who is not given to foreign policy decisions motivated by religious faith. There is no evidence he acted on the belief, held by some American evangelicals, that the second coming of Jesus Christ will occur only when Jerusalem is replete with Jews who build the third temple on the site of the previous two and convert to Christianity.
The likelier scenario is that Morrison was impressed by Trump’s decisiveness. Moreover, Israel has many supporters in the Coalition and the ALP, and it seems that some Liberals and Nationals led the drive to move the embassy. They are supported by some Jewish and Christian organisations.
Morrison’s announcement led to objections from some leading politicians in the Muslim-majority nations of Indonesia and Malaysia. There was less noticeable opposition from the Middle East and North Africa.
This possibly reflects the fact Israel’s relationship with its Sunni Muslim neighbours has improved as they focus on the threat posed by Iran’s Shia leaders.
The governments of Indonesia and Malaysia are concerned about this issue, but their shrill response may have been counter-productive. No Australian government is likely to determine foreign policy according to the wishes of its neighbours.
The Morrison government has several policy options. It can move the embassy to Jerusalem — in line with the decision of the US and, as seems likely, the Czech Republic. Appearing on ABC’s Q&A on November 19, Labor frontbencher Mark Dreyfus said he did not anticipate such an eventuality. However, Dreyfus acknowledged it was “a possibility” that a future Labor government would not move an Australian embassy already in Jerusalem back to Tel Aviv.
It’s also possible that Australia will adopt the first step taken by the US in the relocation process by establishing a consulate in West Jerusalem. It should be remembered that Australia has an office in Ramallah in the West Bank that deals with the Palestinian Authority — despite the fact Australia does not recognise a state called Palestine.
Alternatively, Australia could acknowledge West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital but continue to base the Australian embassy in Tel Aviv for cost considerations. In any event, it seems unlikely Australia will go back to the position held before the Prime Minister made his comment in September.
It is unclear when, or whether, the Middle East process will reignite, or when or if there will be a two-state solution leading to the state of Israel existing next to a state of Palestine.
In the meantime Morrison, like Trump, has injected a degree of reality into the ongoing discussion. Israel’s capital is based in Jerusalem. That’s why diplomats in Tel Aviv travel constantly to West Jerusalem for meetings with the government of Israel.