Apparently looking to garner the support of Jewish constituents behind the Liberal candidate, David Sharma, in the upcoming critical Wentworth by-election on October 20, Prime Minister Scott Morrison has said he will consider moving the Australian embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
The statement created shockwaves within Australia and internationally. Israel, pro-Israeli and Jewish organisations in Australia praised the possible policy shift. Palestinians and their supporters were critical and angry.
Moving the Australian embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem is controversial because it would be a strong political statement of support for Israel.
For Israelis and Palestinians, Jerusalem has a special and disputed symbolic value. Yerushalayim (the city’s name in Hebrew) is the capital of the Jewish state, and was also the Jewish capital in biblical times, where the temple, the holiest place for Jews, once stood. On the same location as the temple, Muslim rulers later built the Al-Aqsa mosque, Islam’s third-holiest place (after Mecca and Medina).
For Palestinians, affiliation with Al-Quds (the city’s Arabic name) is a central element in their national identity. The same applies for Israelis.
Compromises discussed in previous (failed) attempts to forge a peace in the region suggested, for example, declaring the Arab neighbourhoods of East Jerusalem as the Palestinian capital alongside the Israeli one in the predominantly Jewish west of the city.
Until a compromise is reached, most countries operate their official embassies to Israel from Tel Aviv, claiming that the status of the city should be determined through negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.
However, in December 2017, US President Donald Trump declared that his government was officially recognising Jerusalem as the Israeli capital. In May, the US opened its embassy in the heart of the Jerusalem. The move provoked violent demonstrations by Palestinians.
The Australian foreign policy context
The framework of Australia’s foreign policy, argues academic Caitlin Byrne, is built on three basic principles:
the alliance with the United States, engagement with the Asian region, and commitment to multilateralism.
Examining Morrison’s recent Middle East policy announcement through the perspective of Byrne’s definition leads to the conclusion that it is not a major policy shift. Instead, it is in line with the traditional fundamentals of Australian foreign policy and international political trends, and is compatible with Australia’s national interests.
First, Morrison’s policy steps go hand in hand with current policies coming out of the White House.
President Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital fulfilled an election campaign promise, while acknowledging a reality that has actually existed since the creation of Israel in 1948. This decision, as well as other elements of US policy, is part of a paradigm shift Trump is attempting to lead with regards to the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. The idea is that by taking Jerusalem off the table and accepting Israel’s request to recognise a situation that has been in existence for decades, the onus now moves towards Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to reciprocate with measures that would be considered positively by Palestinians.
At this stage, however, no deal seems imminent. The Palestinians have rejected the so-called “deal of the century”, Trump’s plan for peace in the Middle East, even before it was made public, while violent clashes in Gaza between Israel and Hamas continue.
Australia should of course not blindly follow America’s lead on this – Australia’s foreign policy is crafted in Canberra, not Washington. Yet, at the same time, the reality is that over the last few decades Australia has been, at the very least, overwhelmingly and actively supportive of American policy moves, such as when Australian military forces fought alongside US soldiers in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria.
Middle powers as peace brokers
There is another foreign policy aspect that is relevant here – Australia’s self-perception as a “middle power”. Former foreign minister Kevin Rudd applied this conceptual label to Australia in his 2011 review of Australia’s foreign policy interests in the Middle East.
In Rudd’s view, middle powers are what could be considered “peace brokers”. He said:
Their strength comes from the good offices they bring to bear on regional and global problems and the persuasiveness of their arguments and the coalitions they are capable of building, not the assertion of direct power.
Practically speaking, moving Australia’s embassy to Jerusalem would be neither a game-changer, nor ground-breaking, as the US has already paved the way. There is no reason to believe that recognising west Jerusalem as Israel’s capital – a role it has served since 1950 and is not seriously disputed even by the Palestinians – would in any way pre-empt a future Palestinian capital in east Jerusalem.
With regards to Israel, Australia would assert itself as a more influential “real friend”, whose advice should be taken seriously. The embassy move would be yet another sign of increasingly close relations between the two states. These ties are built around, among other things, the history of the ANZAC battle over Beersheba in the first world war and, more importantly, shared values and interests.
The Palestinians have already expressed their fury at the idea of moving the embassy. But Australia’s outreach into the Palestinian sphere is limited. The problem is the paralysing, deep and bloody divide between the corrupt Palestinian authority in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza. The former is a failed entity mismanaged by Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), and the latter is a terrorist organisation (Hamas’s military wing Izz al-Din al-Qassam is listed as a terror group by the Australian government).
Morrison emphasised that relocating the embassy is “consistent with pursuing a two-state solution”. This perception of the end-game for the conflict being two states living side by side was, and still is, Australia’s traditional bipartisan stance.
Yet, realities on the ground have changed significantly over the past few years due to both Israeli, Palestinian and international developments. The 2016 defence white paper sombrely acknowledges that:
Given major differences between the parties, resolving the Israeli–Palestinian conflict will remain very difficult. Australia will continue to advocate a two-state solution as the only viable path to peace.
Australia could choose to remain on the sidelines and not have a significant voice or an influence in this dispute, preserving the status quo. Or, it can make a move – such as the embassy move to Jerusalem – that does not really break away from traditional Australian foreign policy, but may increase its leverage over Israel and help broker lasting peace in the Middle East.
Authors: Ran Porat, Lecturer in Israel Studies and Middle Eastern History, Monash University