In an unprecedented move, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced on December 15 that his government would recognize West Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. However, he assured that Australia will not move its Israel embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem until a legitimate, lasting peace solution with Palestine is reached. In the meantime, Australia will merely set up a defense and trade office in West Jerusalem.
Morrison also recognized Palestinians’ aspirations for East Jerusalem to become the capital of an eventual Palestinian state.
Morrison also recognized Palestinians’ aspirations for East Jerusalem to become the capital of an eventual Palestinian state. His defense secretary claimed that, upon the creation of a full Palestinian state, Australia would also establish an embassy in East Jerusalem. However, these assurances appear to many to be largely disingenuous.
Australian Senator Penny Wong, a member of the opposition Labor party, said that the decision was “all risk and no gain” and puts the country “out of step” with the international community, which overwhelmingly refuses to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
The United Nations (UN) has long held Israel’s claim to East Jerusalem to be illegal, and “a serious obstruction” to peace. The International Court of Justice ruled in its advisory opinion of July 2004 that “all states are under an obligation not to recognize the illegal situation” stemming from Israel’s occupation of East Jerusalem.
The status of Jerusalem is a volatile question. Recognizing the city as Israel’s capital is seen as supporting the legitimacy of Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories, and rejecting Palestinian claims to sovereignty.
Both Israel and Palestine claim the ancient city, home to some of the holiest sites in Islam, Judaism, and Christianity, as their capital. Israel claims all of Jerusalem as its “eternal” capital, but the international community only recognizes its claim to West Jerusalem. Israel’s 1967 annexation of East Jerusalem has never been recognized.
Defying long-running policy and provoking condemnation, U.S. President Donald Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in 2017 and moved the embassy to Jerusalem some months later. Protests broke out in Palestine, and the Palestinian Authority broke ties with the Trump administration.
Russia, the Czech Republic, and Panama have also recognized Israel’s capital as West Jerusalem, and Guatemala has now opened an embassy in Jerusalem.
In effect, the U.S. green-lighted other countries to follow suit. Russia, the Czech Republic, and Panama have also recognized Israel’s capital as West Jerusalem, and Guatemala has now opened an embassy in Jerusalem. Brazil’s right-wing president, Jair Bolsonaro, announced he would also move his country’s embassy to the city. The Arab League resolved to send a “high-ranking delegation” to Australia and Brazil to remind their leaders to “abide by international law.”
Far-right, white nationalist, and anti-Islam movements, which generally approve of Israel’s claim to the whole of Jerusalem, are growing in the U.S. and Europe. Some fear movements in Australia will follow suit. Days before the Jerusalem decision, Australia withdrew from the U.N. Global Compact for Migration, mirroring other right-wing, nationalist governments’ unfounded claims that it would impose on state sovereignty and open doors to unchecked immigration.
Like Trump, Morrison framed his Jerusalem decision as a mature break from an unproductive status quo. Morrison described his decision as an “open-minded” step “beyond ritual denunciations of Israel.” Australia’s Defense Minister described it as “entirely even-handed.” The Trump administration called Australia’s decision a “recognition of reality.”
Similar to Trump, Morrison said Australia should use its “incredible influence” on Israel to move the Israel-Palestine conflict out of its “rancid stalemate.”
Palestine’s chief negotiator, Saeb Erekat responded: “The policies of this Australian administration have done nothing to advance the two-state solution.” Bishop George Browning of the Australia Palestine Advocacy Network stated that the decision “sabotages any real possibility for a future just agreement and further emboldens Israel to continue with its daily human rights violations of Palestinians.”
Morrison’s assertion that the decision supports “liberal democracy” sidesteps the reality of Israel’s increasingly conservative leadership and its political exclusion of many of the people it governs, such as the Jewish nation-state law.
The Palestinian delegation in Australia, led by diplomat Izzat Salah Abdulhadi, said the decision buttresses U.S.-led efforts to leave Palestinian demands “off the table.” Abdulhadi explained that Morrison consulted no Palestinian diplomats before the decision and only informed them the night before the announcement.
Australia did not engage Palestine in a conversation that fundamentally involves it and its people. This suggests a false sincerity in Canberra’s interest in a just, two-state solution. Abdulhadi said that Palestine is “the owner of this issue and we were not consulted.”
Some critics see the decision’s concessions as cloaking political intent. Senator Penny Wong stated that “[r]ecognizing West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital while continuing to locate Australia’s embassy in Tel Aviv, is nothing more than a face-saving exercise.”
Morrison began considering the decision shortly before a pivotal special election in a district with a significant Jewish population. Critics have suggested the decision was made to woo Jewish voters, a claim that Morrison denies. Morrison faces a potential loss in the 2019 election, and recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital could win him votes from conservative Jews and Christians, and support from the U.S.
Morrison is an evangelical Christian, a demographic that largely supports Israel’s claim to Jerusalem, but stated that his faith has “nothing to do with this decision.” He also asserted that President Trump had not pressured Australia.
Bill Shorten, leader of the opposition Labor party, stated that he will reverse this decision, recognize Palestine as a state, and push for a two-state solution if his party wins the 2019 elections.
Israel’s response to the Jerusalem decision was relatively measured. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu thanked Morrison on Twitter and an official statement called the decision “a step in the right direction.” However, Tzachi Hanegbi, Israel’s minister for regional cooperation, called the decision “a mistake,” vehemently condemning Australia’s partial recognition. “Israel’s control over [the whole of Jerusalem] is eternal,” he said.
Abdulhadi said the decision is “bad for Australia,” a multicultural country that “respects human rights” and has billions of dollars of trade deals with Arab and Islamic countries. The decision, he said, “doesn’t have any benefits.”
Leaders of Arab and Muslim states condemned the decision, while Palestinian leaders lobbied them to boycott Australian products and withdraw their ambassadors from the country if Canberra moves its embassy to Jerusalem.
Muslim-majority Malaysia and Indonesia condemned neighboring Australia. Indonesia put a major trade deal on hold, with the condition that Australia reverse its position. Abdulhadi suggested that Australia had delayed moving its embassy due to pressure from Indonesia, its largest trading partner.
The fact that Australia took a more conciliatory route than the U.S. in its support for Israel will likely prove inconsequential. While Morrison’s government took pains to recognize only West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and says that Palestine has a right to eventually claim East Jerusalem, the symbolism of the decision and the political maneuvers behind it lessen the value of these concessions.
Prime Minister Morrison stated that “It is the right of every country to determine its national capital.” Yet, until Australia considers Palestine a sovereign country, it will not be afforded this right. Australia’s decision to recognize West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, in fact, hinders Palestine achieving independent sovereignty.