Australian leader Scott Morrison has become trapped in the same political entanglement that took down his predecessor as he tries to wiggle out of a contentious plan to relocate the country’s Israel embassy to Jerusalem.
Fighting a firestorm from the Muslim world, Morrison is ready to confirm that the embassy will be staying in Tel Aviv. But in doing so, he risks a similar backlash from conservatives in his own Liberal Party, who led an internal revolt in August that toppled then-prime minister Malcolm Turnbull.
Morrison created the mess when he floated the embassy move as an apparent ploy to attract Jewish votes for the Liberal candidate in the October by-election for Turnbull’s abandoned parliamentary seat in the Wentworth suburb of Sydney. The seat fell to an independent and Morrison’s new government lost its parliamentary majority.
The relocation idea had in fact been bouncing around the Liberal’s party’s backroom for several years, backed by right-wingers like Tony Abbott and deputy leader Josh Frydenberg. Morrison may have thought that he could quietly backtrack after the poll, but conservatives are turning the screws.
“There is a fundamental point here, that the government is not backing off: Australia determines its own foreign policy — decisions around the locations of its embassies,” said Frydenberg, who is himself Jewish.
Diplomats from 13 Middle Eastern and North African embassies in Canberra issued a letter condemning the proposal after Morrison’s announcement. All of these countries support the concept of a future Palestinian state based in Jerusalem, which is a holy site for Muslims, Jews and Christians.
Most of the external pressure is coming from Indonesia and Malaysia, which both raised the issue in side meetings at the recently held East Asia summit in Singapore and Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation caucus in Papua New Guinea.
Indonesia has refused to finalize a free trade agreement with Australia until the embassy’s status is clarified. “It can be signed any time but when you will sign it … depends on Australia’s position,” Jakarta’s Trade Minister Enggartiasto Lukita told the Indonesian media in a Singapore briefing.
Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad said after a meeting with Morrison in Singapore that moving the embassy could even inflame terrorism. “I pointed out that in dealing with terrorism, one has to know the causes. Adding to the cause for terrorism is not going to be helpful,” he said.
The Australian Security Intelligence Organization, which monitors internal security threats, warned the government against making any policy shifts even before the possible move was disclosed, saying it could “provoke protest, unrest and possibly some violence in Gaza and the West Bank.”
The intelligence assessment said that “Australian interests may be the target of protest activity”, but did not indicate that there would be violence within Australia.
In 2002, 88 Australians were among 202 people killed when two bombs planted by Indonesian extremist group Jemaah Islamiah exploded at a nightclub on the resort island of Bali. The attack was later linked to Australian backing for an independent East Timor, then occupied by Indonesia and now known as Timor Leste.
There were protest rallies outside the US trade mission in Jakarta in May after Donald Trump declared Washington would be moving its embassy to Jerusalem as a gesture of solidarity with Israel.
Reports suggest that the US has been putting pressure on Australia to support its policy shift; so far only a handful of South American nations have matched the US move.
Australia backs negotiations for the establishment of a Palestinian state but also supports Israel’s right to occupy Jerusalem, so any relocation of the embassy would be purely symbolic. It was the first country to vote in favor of the 1947 UN partition resolution that led to the creation of Israel.
Liberal Party power-brokers are circulating a compromise that might lead to the establishment of two Australian missions in Israel — one in Tel Aviv to serve Israel and another in East Jerusalem for a future Palestinian state.
“I believe that we should consider whether it would assist to create the two-state solution in Israel and Palestine for there to be an Australian embassy in West Jerusalem and a Palestinian state with its capital in East Jerusalem and our embassy therefore in their state in East Jerusalem,” said Defense Minister Christopher Pyne, who is a confidant of Morrison.
Given that a Palestinian state may never come into existence, critics say the move smacks of desperation by a party that wants to clean its house before the 2019 national election. Morrison’s governing coalition currently trails badly in opinion polls.
“[It was] a monumental blunder [for] Morrison to have even suggested without consulting his foreign minister, without consulting any neighbors, any neighboring countries, without consulting our security agencies,” said shadow Attorney General Mark Dreyfus.
“And now we watch this government in complete disarray…This is a problem entirely of Mr Morrison’s own making,” he said.