Morrison reaches sensible compromise on Jerusalem
17 Dec 2018|

Scott Morrison’s announcement that Australia will recognise West Jerusalem as the capital of Israel was sensible, balanced and well crafted. The prime minister avoided many of the pitfalls that could have come with such a decision.

By emphasising that Australia’s recognition is limited to West Jerusalem, Morrison didn’t follow Donald Trump in identifying Jerusalem only with the Jewish state, and therefore didn’t ignore the Palestinians’ hope to have East Jerusalem recognised as their capital. In other words, Morrison took a more nuanced approach than Trump.

The prime minister also made it clear that the embassy would only be moved once there is a peace agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians. This means that there won’t be an immediate change to the status quo: the Australian embassy remains in Tel Aviv. Morrison’s announcement that Australia plans to open trade and defence offices in West Jerusalem is likely to enhance economic relations between the two countries. In 2017, merchandise trade between Australia and Israel was valued at more than $1 billion. Around 16 Israeli companies are listed on the Australian Stock Exchange, putting Israel in the top six among foreign countries that list on the ASX.

By recognising West Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, Morrison has acknowledged the reality on the ground, which is that Jerusalem is a divided city and the Israeli government and Israeli state institutions—including the supreme court and government departments—are located in West Jerusalem. This is unlikely to change, as Israel won’t compromise on the status of West Jerusalem. As things stand, the Israelis and the Palestinians are unlikely to reach a peace agreement anytime soon. Relations between the two are at an all-time low, and there’s scant evidence that either side is interested in negotiation.

Having declared in the run-up to the Wentworth by-election in October that the government would consider the matter, Morrison has now delivered on his promise.

Questions about whether this decision is likely to affect our relations with the Arab states and regional partners—primarily Indonesia and Malaysia—require an appreciation of several key issues. The Arab world has largely moved on from supporting the Palestinians. Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman is more focused on Iran, Yemen and Syria and on distancing himself from the Jamal Khashoggi murder. Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has to deal with the offshoot of the Islamic State group in Sinai Province, questions over his authoritarian regime and violence along his country’s border with lawless Libya. The Gulf states are divided, and divisions seem to be growing, as seen with Qatar’s decision to send a junior minister to the annual Gulf Cooperation Council meeting in Riyadh this month.

It was notable that when Trump announced that the US would move its embassy to Jerusalem, there were no major demonstrations in Saudi Arabia, Egypt or elsewhere in the Arab world (though violence did break out in Gaza, leading to the deaths of 58 people). At the moment, it’s difficult to find a voice in the Arab world that is pushing the Palestinian cause. Qatar comes closest by providing humanitarian aid to the people of Gaza through the United Nations Development Programme and other UN parties, which likely goes through Israel.

Indonesia and Malaysia pose more of a challenge for Australia. But we should recognise public reactions that are hyperbolic and aimed at galvanising publicity. It’s likely that there will be some demonstrations and that a few antagonistic comments will be made. But they will probably come from fringe elements in Indonesia and Malaysia, as neither country has ever really championed the Palestinian cause.

Trade relations between Australia and Indonesia are strong, and there’s mutual appreciation that each country needs to have its own foreign policy. And there are some serious issues that require cooperation, such as terrorism, countering the proliferation of drugs, improving economic welfare and resisting Chinese influence. So it may be useful to let people rattle their sabres and express their views to specific audiences but not take the bait.

Malaysia is likely to be more difficult for Australia to deal with in the wake of Morrison’s decision, mainly because of its controversial and unpredictable prime minister, Mahatir Mohamed. The best course of action is to be cautious and not get into a tit-for-tat discourse that’s likely to undermine relations. We should remember that Malaysia is heading towards a turbulent period, with former prime minister Najib Razak and many of his associates (and family members) set to stand trial for embezzling billions of dollars. Malaysia also faces security challenges. Counterterrorism police are making more arrests of individuals affiliated with the Abu Sayyaf Group and Islamic State, indicating that the country has a problem with extremism and radicalisation that could require support from regional partners like Australia.

Morrison has compromised in recognising West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital but keeping Australia’s embassy in Tel Aviv. But in reaching this position he has managed to avoid some of the political problems that could have been caused by not changing tack on Jerusalem after flagging that the government would do so. The new policy also won’t antagonise Australia’s Muslim neighbours as much as recognition of an undivided Jerusalem as Israel’s capital (and the shifting of the embassy) would have, as it ties any future move to a successful, if unlikely, two-state solution. It’s a deft move and one for which the prime minister should be congratulated.