Israel slams decision

Labor’s capital error

'In light of the way in which this decision was made in Australia … we can only hope that the Australian government manages other matters more seriously and professionally. Jerusalem is the eternal and united capital of Israel and nothing will ever change that'

The skyline of west Jerusalem and (inset) Yair Lapid and Penny Wong. Jerusalem Photo: Roberto Giovannini/
Penny Wong. Photo: AAP Image/Lukas Coch

In a diplomatic row not seen for years, Israel has slammed Canberra’s decision to withdraw recognition of west Jerusalem as its capital – a decision also panned by Australian Jewish leaders.

The rollback reverses the Morrison government’s move to recognise west Jerusalem as the capital in 2018.

Although a policy reversal was briefly signalled by Labor four years ago, Tuesday’s announcement, made without consultation, came as a shock to Australia’s Jewish community on Simchat Torah, with Jewish leaders unable to respond rapidly to developments.

As Israel announced it would call in Australia’s ambassador for a reprimand, PM Yair Lapid tersely declared, “In light of the way in which this decision was made in Australia … we can only hope that the Australian government manages other matters more seriously and professionally. Jerusalem is the eternal and united capital of Israel and nothing will ever change that.”

Meanwhile, the Palestinian Authority and Hamas have applauded Australia’s switch.

The reversal capped off a string of confusing developments this week, beginning with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade removing a reference to Australia’s recognition of west Jerusalem from its website. However, Foreign Minister Penny Wong’s office insisted there had been “no change” to Australia’s policy up until Tuesday morning.

Then that same morning, Wong officially announced Australia would indeed no longer recognise west Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

“Today the government has reaffirmed Australia’s previous and longstanding position that Jerusalem is a final-status issue that should be resolved as part of any peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian people … Australia’s embassy has always been, and remains, in Tel Aviv,” Wong declared.

“Australia is committed to a two-state solution … We will not support an approach that undermines this prospect.”

The decision caused friction within the government, with Jewish Macnamara MP Josh Burns publicly breaking ranks and declaring, “I am disappointed by this decision. Israel has designated its capital as Jerusalem. It’s where its government buildings are and where its parliament sits. Capital cities are sovereign decisions for countries.”

The Morrison government had announced it would consider recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital before the 2018 Wentworth by-election, in which Liberal candidate Dave Sharma, a former Australian ambassador to Israel, was defeated. Morrison later announced Canberra would recognise west Jerusalem as the capital.

Wong this week said that move was a “decision to play politics” but Liberal leader Peter Dutton fired back, “I won’t be taking a lecture from the Labor Party when it comes to Israel.”

Describing Wong’s backflip as “shambolic”, shadow foreign minister Simon Birmingham said the government “ignored speaking with Australians who care about a two-state solution that provides peace and security for Israel and a future Palestinian state, and instead informed them of the government’s decision only after it was made”.

Jewish Opposition frontbencher Julian Leeser said, “West Jerusalem has been part of the State of Israel since its establishment in 1948. The Knesset is there. The President lives there. The Supreme Court is there. It looks like any other capital city to me. The question is why can’t Labor see that too.”

Current Wentworth MP Allegra Spender said she was writing to Wong to “express my deep concerns”.

“The federal government’s decision to withdraw recognition of west Jerusalem was rushed and badly handled – made without proper consultation. Announcing the decision on a Jewish holiday was even worse,” she said.

The AJN has been told the issue was discussed in Cabinet on Tuesday morning following Monday’s reporting of the DFAT switch and the decision by Wong’s office was taken after that. Other sources said The Guardian Australia, in making the inquiry which prompted DFAT to drop the west Jerusalem reference, may have been primed from the highest echelons of Cabinet, with Wong then forced to adjust her announcement.

The Executive Council of Australian Jewry said the reversal was done “without public consultation or opportunity for public debate, and in a conspicuously opaque manner”.

Condemning it as “poor policy”, the ECAJ said it is also “a gratuitous insult to a key economic and strategic ally, with no countervailing benefit for Australians.”

Zionist Federation of Australia president Jeremy Leibler said the decision was “counterproductive to achieving the government’s objective of a two-state solution”.

“Every other sovereign country is allowed to determine the location of its capital. Israel should be treated no differently.

“The timing and process in announcing this decision has sent a very unfortunate message to Israel, a close and important ally of Australia, and will cause deep upset within the Australian Jewish community.”

Describing it as “deeply disappointing”, Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council executive director Colin Rubenstein said the decision “appears a pointless own goal, undermining the government’s self-declared policy of seeking to encourage a negotiated two-state Israeli-Palestinian peace.

“The reversal also risks denting Australia’s credibility with some of our closest allies,” he noted.

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