The Albanese government has ignited a diplomatic furore with Israel over a snap cabinet decision to abandon the policy of recognising West Jerusalem as the country’s capital, after a bungle by the Department of Foreign Affairs threw Australia’s official position into doubt. The Israeli embassy in Canberra was blindsided by the move, prompting an angry response from the Israeli Government and calling into question Australia’s treatment of a close ally. It also sparked condemnation from Australia’s Jewish community amid accusations that the rushed announcement – made without consultation and coming on an official Jewish religious holiday – had damaged Australia’s foreign policy credibility. The Israeli Prime Minister attacked the Albanese government’s “hasty response”. “In light of the way this decision was made in Australia, we can only hope that the Australian government manages other matters more seriously and professionally,” the Prime Minister said.

The decision caused ructions within the Labor caucus, with Victorian Labor MP Josh Burns lashing out against the move. Australian officials had to scramble to repair the damage inflicted by the diplomatic bungle. Earlier cabinet was rushed into formalising Labor’s position to reverse the recognition of West Jerusalem after the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) effectively announced the new position by quietly deleting sentences on its website relating to the previous Coalition government’s policy. Scott Morrison formally recognised West Jerusalem in December 2018 in line with the US decision to relocate its embassy to West Jerusalem. However, Australia pulled back from relocating its embassy from Tel Aviv in light of a backlash from Indonesia. Labor made clear at the time it did not support the recognition of West Jerusalem as the capital of the Jewish state.

But prior to the May 2022 election, Labor’s legal affairs spokesman Mark Dreyfus publicly stated there was no difference between the Coalition’s and Labor’s policy positions on Israel. Government sources said the issue was forced onto the cabinet agenda after DFAT’s error had become public. Israeli officials were left in the dark, with Foreign Minister Penny Wong assuring Jewish leaders in Australia that no final decision or position had been formalised. But Senator Wong was defiant in defending the reversal. She said Mr Morrison’s recognition of West Jerusalem was politically motivated in a bid to win the eastern Sydney seat of Wentworth, which has a large number of Jewish constituents. “This was a cynical, but unsuccessful play, to win the seat of Wentworth in a by‑election,” Senator Wong said. “And what the people saw was the prime minister of the day trying to play foreign policy in order to win votes in a seat.

“For that reason, I made clear at the time we affirmed our view that Jerusalem is a final status issue. What do those words mean? It means that it has to be resolved through negotiation between the parties.” Senator Wong said DFAT’s website had been updated “ahead of government processes”. Former Liberal Wentworth MP Dave Sharma said Labor’s “abrupt” reversal in policy would damage Australia’s relationship with Israel. Mr Sharma, who had served as Australia’s ambassador to Israel, said the decision would “provide a tailwind to extremists and states such as Iran who insist that Israel has no rightful place in the region”. Opposition foreign affairs spokesman Simon Birmingham described the process as a “shambolic process, contemptuous of many stakeholders, all to make a completely unnecessary decision with shocking timing”.

“Astonishingly, the government was clumsy enough to announce this on a Jewish holy day (Shemini Atzeret) and foolish enough to do so in the heated environment of an Israeli election campaign,” Senator Birmingham said. Opposition legal affairs spokesman Julian Leeser said West Jerusalem had 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,” Mr Leeser said. “It looks like any other capital city to me. The question is why can’t Labor see that too.” An Indonesian Foreign Ministry spokesman welcomed the decision, arguing the policy would support peaceful resolution towards a two-state solution. “Indonesia welcomes the decision by Australia under PM Albanese to reverse the recognition of West Jerusalem as the capital of Israel,” he said. “This policy would hopefully contribute positively to Palestinian-­Israeli peace negotiations.”

The Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council (AIJAC) said the decision undermined the government’s own policy. “This decision by the government is not only deeply disappointing, but appears a pointless own goal, undermining the government’s self-declared policy of seeking to encourage a negotiated two-state Israeli-Palestinian peace,” said AIJAC executive director, Colin Rubenstein. “The reversal also risks denting Australia’s credibility with some of our closest allies. “In 2018, the Morrison government recognised West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, whilst acknowledging that the Palestinians seek a state with their capital in East Jerusalem. “This decision is likely to further encourage the rejectionist tendencies of the Palestinian Authority which has spent the past 20 years rebuffing Israeli peace offers and has refused to restart the peace talks it abandoned in 2014.”

Former Labor MP Michael Danby attacked the decision describing it as “chaotic”. Mr Danby, who was a prominent Jewish parliamentarian, said “Clearly these decisions have embarrassed the Israeli government and are out of step with the zeitgeist of peace and co-operation of the Abraham Accords,” he said. Mr Danby said the decision followed Senator Wong’s announcement to double aid to the Palestinian refugee agency UNWRA to $20m. Former Labor foreign minister Bob Carr took a different view, backing the government’s decision as an “obvious” and “low-key diplomatic tidying up”. “It’s the obvious thing to do, it’s so expected,” Mr Carr said. “It was as silly of Scott Morrison to shift recognition to Jerusalem as it was to get himself sworn into a raft of other portfolios. Israel didn’t deserve this level of consideration because it keeps spreading settlements, practising apartheid and refusing to negotiate a two-state solution.”

Source: Compiled by APN from media reports

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