Israel may prove to be the biggest winner from the prime ministership of Scott Morrison. Events this week raise not only a legitimate question about the degree of political influence being exercised by Israel in Australia but also a question about Morrison’s political common sense.
On 16 October, Morrison announced in a joint press conference with the Foreign Minister, Marise Payne, that he would consider recognising West Jerusalem as the capital of Israel as part of a two-state solution that saw East Jerusalem as capital of a future Palestinian state. But he distinguished between the location of an embassy and the recognition of a state’s capital. This proposition allows him to engineer a move of the Australian embassy to Jerusalem, to follow the Israeli government’s express political desire for the symbolic impact of such a move, independently of any change in Australian policy of recognition of Israeli sovereignty of the city.
While Morrison was able to offer what sounded like pragmatic justification for his position in terms of looking for a breakthrough that would support a two-state solution for the Israel/Palestine conflict, he was taking a position supported only by a tiny number of states and very divergent from Australian public opinion on the subject: 75 per cent against in one related 2017 poll.
The Morrison press conference raises deep alarm on at least three fronts.
Firstly, the move appeared to many as a desperate attempt to gamble Australia’s international diplomatic standing for the sake of a few thousand pro-Israel votes in the Wentworth by-election. The electorate may be home to 18,200 people identifying as Jewish for the purpose of census, but the number of those who are voters and who also identify closely with the Israeli government’s policy on Jerusalem would be much smaller. The risk here is not only that Morrison has damaged our diplomatic standing for miniscule political gain, but that he may be forced (after the election) to reverse his diplomatic feint because he proves unable to deliver his Cabinet on any follow-up decision or because the domestic political outcry looks like damaging the government at the looming federal election.
A second concern is the link between Morrison’s religious affiliation with Pentecostal Christianity and a precept common to many of its followers that they have a duty to stand by Israel and prepare for the establishment of Jerusalem as its capital in order to fulfil biblical prophecy. This question was put to him at the press conference: “Do you believe as a Christian that the restoration of the Jewish temple in Israel… in Jerusalem, is a precondition to the return of Jesus?”
He replied: “My faith and my religion has nothing to do with this decision”. Well it is pretty clear that a large number of Pentecostalists would disagree with him. The Horizon Church to which Morrison belongs believes, according to a page linked from its website reference to “what we believe”-the “doctrinal basis” of the Australian Christian Churches-that the Bible “is absolutely supreme and sufficient in authority in all matters of faith and conduct”. The essence of Pentecostal belief is that the Bible is in all parts fully true and must inform decisions about one’s public life.
The link between mainstream currents of Pentecostalism and militancy for Israel based on biblical references is well documented by them and by academics. One example, covering both perspectives, comes from Andrew Davies at the University of Birmingham, himself a Pentecostal. His 2018 journal article, “Reading Politics through Scripture: International relations, the Bible and Conservative Christianity”, lays out some of the precepts to be found in many Pentecostal communities and other conservative Christian communities. Key among these, according to Davies, are the notions that Israel is land given by God to the Israelite (Jewish) people and that God saw fit to drive out the prior inhabitants in favour of the faithful Israelites. This view is summarised as Christian Zionism.
There is little public evidence of just how far this pro-Israel militancy has penetrated Australian Pentecostalism and Morrison’s thinking.
Morrison can believe what he likes. That is his absolute right. But he must come clean and answer the question about his religious view on Israel directly. Does he believe, as many of his co-religionists do, that he has a duty to stand by Israel and to see Jerusalem as its capital because the Bible tells him so? He needs to answer that fully and credibly.
The third and most disturbing question about Morrison’s interest in changing Australian policy on Jerusalem is whether it reflects unusual success for a very militant campaign by Israel to interfere in Australian political life. One instance of such covert activity documented in the UK in 2017 was the videotaped discussion by an Israeli diplomat of intent to “take down” serving Ministers in the government. We have no evidence of such activities in Australia but can only presume that such covert action is normal for a state facing the sorts of dangers that Israel does.
Israel has scored some rather stunning successes in influencing Australia in recent years, including its win in convincing Australia’s government to publicly acknowledge and celebrate 100 years of Israel-Australia strategic cooperation because of events around the Battle of Bersheeba in 1917. This Orwellian re-engineering of history was staggering given that in 1917, the state of Israel did not exist and Australia did not have an independent foreign or military policy to speak of. We can accept the events as evidence of collaboration between Australian soldiers and a Jewish resident of Turkish-occupied Palestine, but the 2017 rhetoric that Israel sucked Australia into for this commemoration really did defy common sense.
Israel is an important partner of Australia and there is good scope for a deepening of the relationship between the two countries in some areas of security policy. But Australia, and its new Prime Minister, must tread warily. Israel probably abrogated one foundation of its claims to be a democracy just like Australia when it legislated in 2018 to deny equal rights to non-Jewish citizens.
Greg Austin is an international security specialist working as a Professor in the University of New South Wales Canberra.