Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison's bid to get votes from a Jewish community backfired badly. Photo: AFP/Mark Graham
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has agreed to a maritime security coalition with the US and UK. Photo: AFP / Mark Graham

If there is anything that gets up the nose of Indonesia and Indonesians, it is Israel’s occupation of Palestine and, more recently, the decision by President Donald Trump’s administration to shift the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

So when new Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison made noises recently about following Washington’s lead in a vain attempt to win a crucial by-election in the swank Sydney suburb of Wentworth, the Indonesian Government was mightily displeased.

While sage Indonesian commentators cautioned domestic critics about interfering in Australia’s internal affairs, what infuriated Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi more than anything is that Morrison’s apparent policy shift was taken without prior notice.

Embarrassingly for Marsudi, it was on the same day she was hosting Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki in Jakarta – and only days after the UN General Assembly appointed the Palestine Authority as chairman of the Group of 77, a coalition of developing nations.

Apart from 15 abstentions, only the US, Israel and Australia were among the 164 nations to vote against the move, which will allow Palestine, currently only an observer, to act more like a full member state during the world body’s 2019 meetings.

The US relocated its embassy to Jerusalem last May on the 70th anniversary of the founding of the Jewish state, a promise Trump had made during his 2016 presidential campaign to attract support from the powerful pro-Israel lobby.

Morrison clearly had the same political motives, seeing Wentworth’s 12.5% of Jewish voters as key to Liberal candidate and former ambassador to Israel Dave Sharma’s chances of beating high-flying independent Kerryn Phelps in a blue-ribbon electorate that covers Sydney’s affluent eastern suburbs.

As it turned out,  Sharma was soundly beaten in the October 20 by-election, with the ruling coalition losing in one blow one of  the country’s safest conservative seat – and also its one-seat majority in the House of Representatives.

Liberal Party cadidate for Wentworth Dave Sharma (L) waits for voters outside a polling station during the Wentworth by-election in Bondi Beach in Sydney on October 20, 2018. - Australia's embattled conservative coalition was bracing for defeat as polls opened in a crucial by-election with a loss set to snuff out its slim parliamentary majority and a loss in Wentworth would transform it into a minority government and effectively turn Morrison into a lame duck prime minister. (Photo by PETER PARKS / AFP)
Failed Liberal Party candidate for Wentworth Dave Sharma waits for voters outside a polling station in Bondi Beach on October 20, 2018. Photo: AFP/Peter Parks

The seat was previously held by prime minister Malcolm Turnbull, with the 20% vote swing blamed largely on the electorate’s anger over the way he was dumped last August in yet another illustration of the ugly nature of Australian politics.

Wentworth’s electoral demographics have changed as well over the past few years, with the influx of a new class of socially-conscious renters moving into apartment blocks, in places like Darling pointoften with sweeping views of Sydney Harbour.

Analysts say Morrison’s perfunctorily musings about an embassy re-location were so blatantly opportunistic that even Jewish voters may have been dissuaded from casting their ballots for the Liberal candidate.

For foreign policy experts with long memories of the relationship, it is typical of Australia’s lack of sensitivity in dealing with its peppery Muslim-majority neighbor, where Palestine has always been an easy issue for successive governments to follow.

“It’s an extraordinarily stupid step for the government to take,” said one retired Australian diplomat with long experience in the Asian region. “He (Morrison) claims he tried to call Jokowi (President Joko Widodo), but all he did was text him, which is not very diplomatic.”

He wasn’t alone in his criticism. “To betray the national interest for a few votes is irresponsible,” wrote respected Sydney Morning Herald foreign affairs columnist Peter Hartcher. “To betray it for no votes at all is stupid as well as irresponsible.”

Strained ties with Israel

Apart perhaps from Indonesia’s border spats with Malaysia, there is probably no other foreign issue that gains as much public traction. In an election year, Widodo can use it as another way to win over conservative Muslim voters.

Grand Mufti Amin al-Husseini of Jerusalem was the first spiritual leader to recognize the independence of Indonesia in 1945 and in the years since Jakarta has maintained an often-hostile stance towards Israel, despite a visit by Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1993 and subsequent efforts by short-lived president Abdurrahman Wahid to improve relations.

The president allows little time for foreign affairs, but when he does he tends to home in on issues that will play to a domestic audience and, in this election season, to the more vocal members of the Muslim community. Palestine and Myanmar’s Rohingyas are two prime examples.

One problem he could have done without, however, was the grisly murder and dismemberment of Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Turkey, which in a telling understatement, the Riyadh government now calls a “huge and grave mistake.”

For Indonesian human rights campaigners, Khashoggi’s death brings to mind the equally senseless abduction and apparent murder of 13 political activists, who presented no discernible threat to the government, in the months prior to president Suharto’s fall from power in 1998.

The same applies to the bizarre poisoning of human rights activist Munir Said Thalib on a flight to Amsterdam in September 2004. Although an off-duty pilot was jailed for slipping cyanide into an orange drink, the shadowy figures behind the murder have never been brought to justice.

Human rights objectives

Only last week, the Commission for Missing Persons and Victims of Violence (Kontras) said the government had failed to meet six of 17 priority human rights objectives included among Widodo’s development goals. But most attention continues to focus on past abuses that successive administrations have never resolved.

Widodo was forced to respond to the Khashoggi killing because of a scheduled October 22 visit by Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al Jubeir, who delivered what officials called a “statement and explanation” on the case to the Indonesian leader without offering any further elaboration.

Apart from a “concerned” president calling for a “transparent and thorough investigation,” Sunni-majority Indonesia is unlikely to have anything more to say to the protector of Islam’s holiest sites, which this year is hosting 1.2 million Indonesian pilgrims.

The killing has been blamed on retainers of Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, whose father, King Salman bin Abdulaziz al Saudi, last March paid the first visit to Indonesia by a Saudi monarch in 47 years.

During his eight-day visit, the 1,500-strong royal entourage lavished more on hotel rooms than the kingdom spent in direct investment to the world’s largest Muslim country for all of last year.