Prime Minister Scott Morrison will have learned a valuable foreign policy lesson in the past day or so as it relates to the Holy Land.
As ye sow, so shall ye reap (Galatians 6:7).
When Morrison allowed a thought bubble to become a political ploy in the Liberal party’s desperation to cling on to a safe seat in the Wentworth byelection, he miscalculated the damage it would cause to his own credibility and the country’s foreign policy settings.
An inexperienced prime minister blundered into the thicket of Middle East politics by announcing Australia would both consider moving its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and would also review its support for the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
This latter is the 159-page document negotiated by the permanent members of the Security Council, plus Germany. In it, Iran agreed to freeze its nuclear program.
In any event, Morrison indicated Canberra would continue to adhere to JCPOA, thus putting itself at odds with Washington. The United States announced it would abandon the JCPOA, pending the negotiation of better terms.
In his efforts to purloin the Jewish vote in Wentworth, Morrison’s shallow marketing impulses got the better of policy prudence.
He proceeded with haste in the first instance, and now he can repent at leisure after having sought – unsuccessfully it seems – to thread the needle in his policy pronouncements at the weekend.
If we stretch the biblical allusions further, we might say that when it comes to the Middle East, it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a political ingénue to shift the status quo in Australia’s position on the vexed Arab-Israel issue.
What has now happened – as it inevitably would – after Morrison announced that Australia would recognise West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and establish a branch office there, is a negative reaction not only from the Muslim world, but from Israel itself.
So an Australian prime minister goes out on a limb for the Jewish state, only to have it sawn off by critics in Israel who did not like the distinction he made between Jerusalem’s Jewish west and Arab east.
Under Israel’s Basic Law, the constitution, an undivided Jerusalem is deemed to be the country’s capital in perpetuity. This position was bolstered in a Knesset vote as recently as this year.
Israel’s official reaction to the Morrison announcement was to describe it as a “step in the right direction”. However, as its implications sunk in, Israeli public figures began to take strong exception to Australia’s “acknowledgement” of Palestinian claims to Jerusalem in a final status peace settlement.
Typical of the reaction was this, via Twitter, from Tzachi Hanegbi, a prominent Knesset member of the nationalist Likud party and confidant of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Yuli Edelstein, the speaker of the Knesset, went further.
We expected more from a friendly country like Australia […] I am hoping that our cool response will make it clear to the Australians that this is not what we were wishing for.
Pointedly, Netanyahu had not commented publicly at time of writing.
In his announcement on Saturday at a Sydney Institute event, Morrison set out his stall on the Jerusalem issue. In the process, apart from infuriating the Israeli nationalist right, he exposed himself to withering criticism at home and in the region.
This was the nub of Morrison’s statement:
Australia now recognises West Jerusalem, being the seat of the Knesset and many of the institutions of government, is the capital of Israel […] Furthermore, recognising our commitment to a two-state solution, the Australian Government has also resolved to acknowledge the aspirations of the Palestinian people for a future state with its capital in East Jerusalem.
While Morrison’s use of the word “acknowledge” falls a long way short of “recognising” Palestinian aspirations, his “acknowledgement”, in the context of final status peace negotiations, trespasses on an Israeli article of faith.
Israel’s insistence on an undivided Jerusalem in perpetuity under its control contradicts an international consensus that East Jerusalem remains occupied territory since the 1967 Six-Day War.
Australia has supported numerous United Nations resolutions to this effect, including Security Council resolutions 242 of 1967 and 338 of 1973 that called on Israel to withdraw from territories occupied in war.
In his efforts to find favour with Israel’s supporters, Morrison crossed that divide, thereby infuriating an Israeli government and discomforting Israel’s backers in Australia, notwithstanding their professed delight at the latest turn of events.
Australia’s position, it might be noted, contrasts with that of the United States. Washington recognised Jerusalem as Israel’s capital earlier this year without making a distinction between “west” and “east”.
In his Sydney Institute speech, Morrison indicated he and his public service advisers had conferred widely in their efforts to come up with a form of words that would be consistent with his pledge to review Australia’s position on Jerusalem.
This review included consultations with:
…some eminent Australian policymakers: former heads of various agencies and departments whether in Defence, Foreign Affairs or Prime Minister and Cabinet.
Advice to Morrison from what was known as a “reference group” of “eminent Australian policymakers” was overwhelmingly, it not unanimously, resistant to changing the status quo.
In other words, Australia should adhere to settled policy.
Morrison chose to ignore this advice after having committed himself to a review. In the process, and unnecessarily, he has risked negative reactions from Australia’s important neighbours, Indonesia and Malaysia, and from the Arab world. At home, he has exposed himself to criticism he has jeopardised Australia’s international standing for no conspicuous benefit.
This has been a mess, and one entirely of Morrison’s own making, driven by short-term political calculations.
Authors: Tony Walker, Adjunct Professor, School of Communications, La Trobe University