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Bungled handling of West Jerusalem makes a tough decision worse

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Bungled handling of West Jerusalem makes a tough decision worse

 

By Matthew Knott

Updated October 18, 2022 — 7.19pmfirst published at 7.17pm

Changing Australia’s position on a topic as contentious as the capital of Israel was always going to arouse intense opposition and debate.

But the messy, confusing way the Albanese government executed its decision to no longer recognise West Jerusalem made a challenging task significantly more inflammatory and damaging than it needed to be.

The bungled handling of the issue stands in stark contrast to the rest of Penny Wong’s successful short tenure as foreign minister, which has been marked by competence and assuredness.

There’s been a flurry of visits to Australia’s previously neglected Pacific neighbours and a symbolically powerful trip to Wong’s childhood hometown in Malaysia. Wong has met twice with her Chinese counterpart, helping stabilise a crucial relationship after years of escalating tension.

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Now she faces her first crisis in the form of an infuriated Israel.

The main problem on West Jerusalem is not the policy change itself – which Labor announced in opposition – but the timing of the reversal.

The announcement came as a shock to the Israeli government and Australia’s Jewish community, which had no inkling the issue was on the government’s agenda.

The question of West Jerusalem had faded from attention in Australia over recent years and did not feature in the May election campaign.

The decision was an embarrassment for Israel’s fragile centre-left governing coalition just two weeks before Israel’s national elections.

Intensifying Israel’s anger was the fact the decision coincided with the Simchat Torah, a Jewish holiday. On the day the government announced a major change to its foreign policy, the Israeli embassy in Canberra was closed for the holiday, its phone going straight to voice mail.

The Israeli government and its local supporters feel not only disappointed but blindsided by Australia’s lack of consultation and warning – just as Emmanuel Macron did when Scott Morrison axed a lucrative submarine contract with French company Naval Group.

The only reason the issue flared up now is that in recent days the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade quietly scrubbed a reference to West Jerusalem from the Israel page of its website.

According to the government, an overeager public servant got ahead of themselves by updating the website to reflect the government’s stated position on West Jerusalem. The problem was that cabinet hadn’t made a decision on the issue and the government hadn’t announced any policy change.

After the update to the website was revealed on Monday night, the government hurriedly assured reporters and anxious pro-Israel groups that Australia hadn’t changed its position on recognising West Jerusalem.

That was true until, a few hours later, it wasn’t: the Albanese cabinet met in Canberra on Tuesday morning and agreed to reverse the Morrison government’s stance.

As Wong says, Labor’s decision returns Australia to the international mainstream when it comes to the Israel-Palestine dispute. The global consensus has long held that the status of Jerusalem should be resolved only as a result of peace negotiations that lead to a two-state solution.

Donald Trump exploded that consensus in 2017 by officially recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and announcing he would relocate the US embassy from Tel Aviv.

Morrison flagged doing the same in the lead-up to the 2018 Wentworth by-election, a seat that just so happens to have a large and politically active Jewish community.

In the end, Morrison recognised West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital but stopped short of relocating the Australian embassy.

According to Middle East specialist Rodger Shanahan, a non-resident fellow at the Lowy Institute, Morrison’s decision was “intellectually incoherent … policy-making on the run” that made Australia an international outlier. The new government, Shanahan argues, was right to overturn it.

But a change of such a sensitive, globally significant nature should be announced in an organised, carefully considered way. That’s not what happened here.

A policy born in regrettable circumstances has died an unnecessarily painful death.

Australia was already grappling with a volatile and complex geopolitical environment; now it has a self-inflicted diplomatic stoush with Israel to deal with as well.

Article link: https://www.theage.com.au/politics/federal/penny-wong-australia-still-recognises-west-jerusalem-as-israeli-capital-20221018-p5bqm3.html
Article source: The Age, 19/10/2022

2024-02-22 05:36:48.000000

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