Australia & The Perils of Recognition in Jerusalem

On December 15, 2018, the Prime Minister of Australia announced that Australia officially recognized West Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

This announcement came after months of debate and controversy. Ever since the Trump Administration’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in December 2017, and the subsequent May 2018 opening of the U.S. embassy in Jerusalem, Australia had been wrestling with the question of whether to follow suit, with the ruling party exerting pressure on the Australian government to duplicate the Trump Administration’s policy and actions. In June, Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop rejected that possibility, asserting:  “Jerusalem is a final status issue and we have maintained that position for decades and we are doing all we can do to ensure that any support we give to the Palestinian Authority is only used for purposes that we determine.” But shortly thereafter, in October, the new Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, an evangelical Christian, reversed that position, stating that he was open to the idea of shifting policy in Jerusalem, and suggesting that such a shift would be “sensible” (see full statement here).

Morrison tried to explain this policy, in a statement that, by the Prime Minister’s own words, very effectively demonstrates the contradiction between the Jerusalem decision and the principles the Australian government claims to support. Indeed, Morrison conceded that on the one hand “Australia acknowledges that Jerusalem’s ultimate status, including its borders and boundaries, is a final status issue to be resolved between the parties,” while in the same breath announcing: “…West Jerusalem is the capital of Israel. we look forward to moving our Embassy to West Jerusalem when practical, in support of, and after final status determination.” The Prime Minister’s statement also included the announcement that Australia intends to establish a Trade and Defense Office in West Jerusalem.

Reactions to the Australian decision

  • A contentious issue in Australia: The issue of Jerusalem recognition has been  at the center of intense domestic political debatein Australia.  Following the Prime Minister’s announcement, the opposition Labor party’s foreign affairs spokeswoman tweeted: “Labor does not support unilateral recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and in Government would reverse this decision. The status of Jerusalem can only be resolved as part of any peace negotiations and two-state solution.” Opposition leader Bill Shorten accused the Prime Minister of putting “his political interest ahead of our national interest” and called the decision a “humiliating backdown.” And days after the announcement, the Australian Labor Party adopted a motion at its annual conference calling on the next Labor government “to recognize Palestine as a state” as an “important priority.” Australian general elections are scheduled to take place on May 18, 2019.
  • Israeli Ambivalence: In its official statement, Israel basically ignored the issue of recognition altogether, instead praising, albeit faintly, the Australian decision to open a trade and defense, which an Israeli Foreign Ministry statement called a “step in the right direction.” Anonymously, an Israeli government official told reporters they were “disappointed with the Australian decision…[Prime Minister Scott] Morrison only went half-way. It’s a step in the right direction, but we expected more.” Apparently not concerned about anonymity, Israeli Minister for Regional Cooperation, Tzachi Hanegbi (Likud) openly expressed his disappointmentin the decision and his hope that Australia would fix its “mistake” and recognize all of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Likewise, there is no doubt that the Israeli government was disappointed by the Prime Minister’s comments about the embassy, which suggest that recognition notwithstanding, the Australian embassy will not be moved to Jerusalem until after an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement has been concluded.
  • Arab condemnation: The Australian decision was denouncedby the Palestinians and condemned by Jordan. It was likewise harshly criticized by the head of the Arab League, Ahmed Aboul-Gheit, who argued that the decision was biased in nature and that, to be balanced, it should have included the recognition of East Jerusalem as the Palestinian capital.
  • The Bahrain exception: Notably, Bahrain departed from the Arab League position and supportedthe Australian decision  (see tweet of Bahrain’s Foreign Minister – Arabic), claiming that the Australian decision was fully in line with the Arab Peace Initiative.
  • Malaysian & Indonesia angle: Commercial and security threatsfrom Malaysia and Indonesia apparently contributed to the decision of the Prime Minister and his government to adopt what they apparently viewed as a compromise policy, in that it recognizes specifically West Jerusalem – rather than “united Jerusalem” or even “Jerusalem” in general,  as Israel’s capital. As noted above, this distinction sparked frustration and disappointment from Israel, and it appears to have failed to assuage Malaysian or Indonesian concerns. Following the Australian Prime Minister’s speech, the government of Malaysia issued a statement denouncing the move: “This announcement, made before the settlement of a two-state solution, is premature and a humiliation to the Palestinians and their struggle for the right to self-determination.” Likewise, the Indonesian government – which days before the speech had warned that recognition might result in a trade boycott (a significant threat as a huge trade deal is on the line); following the speech, the lower house of Indonesia’s parliament condemned the move as “a mistake” and an “arrogant attitude,” while the government of Australia issued a travel warning to Australians traveling to Indonesia.

Australian vs. Russians recognition

Australia is actually the second country recognizing West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, with Russia having done the same thing back on April 6, 2017. However, the reaction to the Australian announcement was much louder than it was to the Russian’s for two main reasons.

First, the Australian declaration comes after the Trump Administration’s very public policy shift – a shift that has exacerbated the contentious status of Jerusalem and the diplomatic warfare around the issue (rather than removing Jerusalem from the table).

Second, whereas the Australian statement only went so far as to “acknowledge the aspirations of the Palestinian people for a future state with its capital in East Jerusalem,” Russia’s statement included an unequivocal recognition and endorsement of the Palestinian claim in East Jerusalem. The Russian Foreign Minister declared: “We reaffirm our 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. At the same time, we must state that in this context we view West Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.” This gap is not merely semantic and has concrete ramifications regarding the positions expressed towards the status of Jerusalem.

Implications of the Australian decision

The Australian decision could have been a constructive contribution to the cause of advancing the two-state solution and a positive challenge for both sides if, instead of making its own call on the status of Jerusalem, Australia had affirmed its readiness to recognize West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital on the day Israel and the PLO reach an agreement on the status of Jerusalem and mutually recognize Jerusalem as the seat of the capital of both Israel and Palestine (a day when Australia and others would also recognize a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem). Doing so would have been consistent with the vision of the two-state solution and with the fact that Jerusalem is a final status issue to be resolved by the parties — which, according to the Australian prime minister himself, is still the position of his government.

Instead, the Australian government has decided to back away from its own policy, adopting a policy that aspires, apparently, to be a compromise, but that in effect legitimizes Israeli claims to at least part of Jerusalem, while remaining silent regarding Palestinian claims elsewhere in the city. This move only further deepens the asymmetry between the sides and erode Israel’s motivation to look for an agreed solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict over Jerusalem. Likewise, such an asymmetric decision clearly conveys the message that Israel’s policy of obstructing and undermining a two-state solution pays off, as it is only the Palestinians who are paying the price of the current political and diplomatic stalemate.

From this point of view, Bahrain’s claim that the Australian recognition is compatible with the Arab Peace Initiative (API) is bewildering, given that the Australian statement failed to endorse the call for the establishment of a Palestinian state based on the June 4th, 1967 line, with East Jerusalem as its capital.