PETER RODGERS: Morrison and Jerusalem – a special sort of dunce

Dec 20, 2018

We have to hand it to Scott Morrison. He has been at the heart of two major shifts in Australian political life. One made him Prime Minister, the other overturned a sensible long-standing approach on Jerusalem. Yet the new PM struggles to offer a coherent explanation how either development benefits Australia. His approach on Jerusalem exhibits a rare talent to combine the stupid with the pointless.  

Once he’d dropped Jerusalem into the Wentworth by-election last year, Scott Morrison needed a face-saving formula. Two models were available, one from Putin’s Russia, the other from Trump’s America.

The Russian model came in the form of a 2017 Foreign Ministry statement. This reaffirmed Russia’s commitment “to the UN-approved principles for a Palestinian-Israeli settlement, which include the status of East Jerusalem as the capital of the future Palestinian state.” It went to announce that Russia now viewed “West Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.”

The Russian move no doubt reflected a range of regional and international considerations, including a desire to put down a marker on Jerusalem ahead of Donald Trump. In a foretaste of things to come for Australia, the Russian action puzzled rather than pleased the Israelis. The Jerusalem Post noted that as Israel had annexed all of Jerusalem in 1980 and deemed “the entire city – not just the western half – its capital” it would be wary of Russia’s “surprise announcement”.

Never one to worry about complexity or nuance, in December 2017 President Trump declared it was “time to officially recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel”. America was “not taking a position on any final status issues, including the specific boundaries of Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem”. There were no geographic qualifiers in the Trump announcement and Israel responded enthusiastically.

Caught in a dilemma of his own making, Morrison opted for a combination of the two models: recognition confined to West Jerusalem; the Australian embassy remaining in Tel Aviv; work starting to identify a “suitable site” for an Australian embassy in West Jerusalem; an Australian “Trade and Defence Office” opening in West Jerusalem; and time-worn references to the need for the parties to negotiate outstanding issues.

This approach is devoid of substance and offers no identifiable benefit to Australia. Its only achievement seems to be that of confusing and antagonising friends and foe alike.

The Israeli embassy in Canberra politely described the move as “a very positive first step”. Towards what, was left unanswered. But we know only too well from Israel’s actions of the past four decades—the formal annexation of East Jerusalem in 1980 and settling hundreds of thousands of Israelis on Palestinian territory in the West Bank—what the Israeli end point is. It is Israel in unquestioned control of all of Jerusalem, the antithesis of the scenario in the PM’s 15 December statement of a Jerusalem eventually divided between Israelis and Palestinians. Only romantics or the seriously deluded could envisage that Israel will negotiate a redivision of Jerusalem for the “prize” of Australian and other embassies in West Jerusalem.

Senior Israeli representatives, including the speaker of the Knesset, mock the very notion of “West” Jerusalem. The Jerusalem Post editorialised that there was “something absurd” about Australian (and Russian) recognition of “the heretofore unknown entity of west Jerusalem”. Canberra should reconsider “its unilateral division of Jerusalem, a united city for the past 51 years” (since Israel’s capture of East Jerusalem in the 1967).

The PM’s December statement went on: “Pious assertions about a commitment to a two-state solution strain credibility if we are not prepared to question the conventional wisdom about how we believe this goal can be achieved”. Yet the statement itself is little more than pious assertion. There is nothing in it that offers a game-plan to break what Morrison described as the “rancid stalemate” of the peace process. What strategies, for example, does he have in mind to persuade Israel to rescind its 1980 Basic Law, which declared undivided Jerusalem its capital?

Morrison’s statement accepted that Australia was subject to UN Security Council resolutions on Jerusalem. This includes Resolution 478, passed in 1980 in response to Israel’s Basic Law, and which requires “States that have established diplomatic missions at Jerusalem to withdraw such missions from the Holy City”. In this context it would be helpful to have more detail about the planned Trade and Defence Office in Jerusalem. What exactly will the office do, especially given that Tel Aviv is Israel’s trade and technology capital as well as the headquarters of the Israeli defence establishment? What will it do that the embassy in Tel Aviv does not? Who will staff the office; what status will they have to represent Australia.?

This whole sorry episode grew out of the perceived need for advantage in a by-election. The prominent Palestinian politician, Hanan Ashrawi, described Morrison as “using Palestinian rights to bribe the Zionist lobby to gain its support in the election”. The bribe didn’t work, the subsequent rationalisation is negligee thin and there’s nothing underneath. Perhaps over the Christmas break the PM will get around to articulating the political, trade, economic, security, humanitarian, reputational benefits of his policy shift on Jerusalem. One thing is certain – this won’t take up much of anyone’s holiday time.

Peter Rodgers is a former Australian ambassador to Israel who has written two books on the Middle East (Herzl’s Nightmare – one land two peoples; Arabian Plights – the future Middle East)

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