What just happened?
Australian prime minister Scott Morrison has raised the possibility of moving Australia’s embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and recognising Jerusalem as the country’s capital, in a move that would mirror Donald Trump’s decision to move the US embassy earlier this year.
Morrison said on Tuesday Australia remained committed to a two-state solution, “but frankly, it hasn’t been going that well. Not a lot of progress has been made, and you don’t keep doing the same thing and expect different results.”
The government says it is floating the idea because of the upcoming vote on the UN general assembly resolution on the Palestinian Authority chairing the G77 – a coalition of developing nations, which are able to negotiate as a bloc at the UN.
However, there is speculation the real reason lies closer to home: a byelection this weekend in the Sydney seat of Wentworth, once held by ousted PM Malcolm Turnbull.
If the reigning Liberal party lose the seat, as is possible, they also lose their one-seat majority in the House of Representatives, so they have thrown a huge amount of money and effort behind their candidate Dave Sharma. He is a former Australian ambassador to Israel. Wentworth has a significant Jewish population and the policy shift is being seen as an attempt to win over these voters.
Bishop George Browning, president of the Australia Palestine Advocacy Network, said it must be “the first time in Australian political life that a government has tried to shore up its chances in a byelection by using foreign policy”.
Why is this move so important?
Broad international consensus has been that Jerusalem’s status should be settled in a peace deal. In 1967, Israeli forces occupied and later annexed eastern parts of the city, which Palestinians see as the capital of their future state.
As the Guardian’s former Middle East editor Ian Black wrote: “Of all the issues at the heart of the enduring conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, none is as sensitive as the status of Jerusalem. The holy city has been at the centre of peace-making efforts for decades.”
Donald Trump’s announcement he would move the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem last year threatened “to smash a long-standing international consensus in a disruptive and dangerous way”, wrote Black.
Obviously, Australia is not nearly as important a player in the Middle East peace process as the US, but the move would be an example of a further weakening of this international consensus.
What happened when Trump moved the US embassy?
The new US embassy opened in Jerusalem in May this year, leading to protests and deadly reprisals. Fifty-eight Palestinians were killed and 1,2000 wounded during the protests in Gaza.
Who else has moved their embassy there?
The United States, Guatemala and Paraguay all moved their embassies to Jerusalem in May, though Paraguay moved its embassy back to Tel Aviv just three months later. Israel was furious and retaliated by closing its embassy in Asunción and recalling its ambassador.
What will the likely reaction be?
Israel is thrilled. Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has tweeted that he is “very thankful” to Scott Morrison for the announcement and that “we will continue to strengthen ties between Israel and Australia”.
The head of the Palestinian diplomatic delegation to Australia, Izzat Salah Abdulhadi, called Morrison’s comments “deeply disturbing” and hosted an emergency meeting of representatives from 13 Middle Eastern embassies in Canberra to discuss the proposal.
Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim country, and one of Australia’s most important neighbours, is reportedly considering suspending a trade deal with Australia over Morrison’s comments. Morrison was asked about these reports in parliament on Tuesday and said he had discussed the subject with Indonesian president Joko Widodo and was “very pleased with the response that have received from President Joko Widodo”.
There has so far been no reaction from Donald Trump, though it seems likely he will be happy Australia has followed his lead.
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