ROSS BURNS. Moving to Jerusalem

Oct 22, 2018

If you wanted to launch a thought bubble to see if there was any room for manoeuvre on Australia long-standing position on the central Middle East issues, would you do it the way chosen by PM Morrison this week? Certainly not if you wanted to justify it in the context of Australia’s commitment to a ‘two state solution’. A decision to follow Trump’s move of the American embassy to Jerusalem would essentially ditch any outcome based on negotiations between the two parties, handing Israel in advance most of the key points of a ‘final status’ outcome.

I worked on the Middle East complex of issues over several decades in DFAT including as Ambassador to Israel in 2001–03. One thing DFAT professionals deplore is policy made on the run. I cannot recall any critical decision, or foreshadowing of one, which had been floated so cavalierly. Its possible consequences, likely to endure over decades, are frightening.

Professionals in the Department generally approach issues in the Middle East with two thoughts in mind: Australia should not imagine it can make a difference for the better; and don’t do dumb things that isolate us. While the US may be big enough to live down the consequences, such moves attract disproportionate opprobrium for smaller powers, especially when they live in a region with major Islamic neighbours and can’t seek camouflage in a larger grouping like the EU.

Let’s think for a moment how this thought bubble might be carried through? Our standing in the Arab world would be shredded and we would stand out as committed to adopt a Trumpish foreign policy. Relations with the Arab and Islamic world might not be permanently severed but there won’t be too many kind responses to Australia’s requests for trade agreements or international candidacies. No responses at all would be more likely as our significance would have been written off. For Australian diplomats, isolation is the worst case scenario.

Perhaps even more thoughtless is the linkage the Prime Minister has raised to a review of our approach to Iran. Though not a signatory, Australia has supported the deal as a building block to hold Iran accountable on its nuclear program. Foreign Minister Bishop followed up quickly with a trade delegation to Iran whose prospects are now likely to be diminished by the new US sanctions. Australia has long followed a policy of caution in treading in the US’s footprints on Iran since 1979. Again, to ditch a policy that has served us well is foolhardy.

Doing more with less has long been a sensible profile for a country like Australia. On cost grounds alone moving the Embassy to Jerusalem (reportedly estimated by DFAT as requiring up to $200 million in additional expenditure) would be a distortion of the priorities within the diplomatic network. Though Israel-Australia sentimental ties are strong, business links (especially for Australian exports) have lagged. There are simply many better ways to reallocate funds for economic benefits given the relatively modest profile Australia has abroad. To spend $200 million to put our wider trade profile in jeopardy makes no sense at all.

Former Prime Minister Howard has argued that Australia should recognise the reality that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital. The issues are more complex than that. In office, the former PM rightly respected international concern that the status of Jerusalem not be pre-empted. In effect, it makes little difference in terms of practicalities whether Australia’s mission is in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem. Israel is a highly decentralised country with excellent communications. In my time, a working day could involve meetings across a wide range of centres. Only a proportion were in Jerusalem which is not an economic centre of importance.

For the Department, though, the launch of PM Morrison’s balloon raises even worse prospects of what might be next after the apparent willingness to ditch elements of long-standing Australian policy such as Jerusalem and Iran. The former Ambassador to Israel, Dave Sharma, has dismissed suspicions that the Prime Minister’s thinking represents a panicked response to polling the by-election in Wentworth. Sharma has offered the bizarre explanation that the PM was reacting to the move by the G77 ambassadors in New York to elect the Palestinian Ambassador as the group’s chair for the year. This is a minor internal development in a group whose workings would not justify a thorough-going review of Australian policy. By choosing to bully the Palestinians in this way Australian isolates itself with only US and Israel for company.

Might Australia now contrive other trivial excuses to follow Trumpian logic and disconnect from UNESCO, the Paris climate agreement, the ICJ, UNRWA or other institutions we have spent decades building as credible frameworks supporting our international profile? This would represent the effective dismantling of decades of white papers and the bipartisan commitments. Certainly, many professionals would fear that this would not only be one of the most unwise decisions ever taken in Australian foreign policy, but certainly one of the most impetuous.

It will be a lonely diplomatic biosphere in Jerusalem with only the US and Guatemala for company, exactly the worst-case scenario most Australian officials have long dreaded.

Ross Burns served in DFAT 1966–2003 including as ambassador in a number of countries in the Middle East, Europe and in South Africa.

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