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Australian FM regrets timing of Jerusalem reversal, blasts ex-PM’s ‘cynical’ policy

Penny Wong says Scott Morrison recognized western city as Israeli capital due to crucial by-election, and that return to original policy accords with international view

In this image taken from video, Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong speaks during a press conference, October 18, 2022, in Canberra, Australia. (Australia Pool via AP)
In this image taken from video, Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong speaks during a press conference, October 18, 2022, in Canberra, Australia. (Australia Pool via AP)

Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong admitted regret on Thursday over the timing of her withdrawal of the previous government’s recognition of West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital but defended the move as in line with Canberra’s historical position on the matter.

In an article published in the Australian Jewish News, Wong acknowledged that the change shouldn’t have been made on the Jewish festival of Simchat Torah, and expressed regret over any distress that may have been caused to “communities that have a deep-rooted and keenly felt stake in the cessation of conflict, particularly the Australian Jewish community.”

However, Wong defended the move, charging that former prime minister Scott Morrison’s recognition in 2018 was made not out of “conviction,” but out of “cynicism,” amid a key by-election in the federal electorate of Wentworth, which includes a significant Jewish population.

Morrison had signaled he would consider recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moving Australia’s embassy from Tel Aviv before the vote, likely to boost the chances of his Liberal Party candidate, Dave Sharma, a former ambassador to Israel.

After he lost to independent Kerryn Phelps, the then-prime minister went ahead with recognizing West Jerusalem as the capital but held back on the embassy move.

Then an opposition senator, Wong vowed at the time that a future Labor Party government would reverse the move.

In her article, Wong emphasized that, with the exception of the Morrison government, Australia long shared the view of the “overwhelming majority of the international community,” which sees the final status of Jerusalem as a matter to be settled at the negotiating table.

Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison concedes defeat in the national elections in Sydney on May 21, 2022. (Saeed Khan/AFP)

“Indeed, that was Australia’s position for nearly all of Israel’s history. It was not changed by the Gorton government following the Six-Day War in 1967. And through all of the events since, it was not changed by Malcolm Fraser, Bob Hawke, John Howard, Julia Gillard or Malcolm Turnbull,” she explained, listing successive Australian prime ministers from both major parties.

“Reasonable people can disagree, as many readers will disagree with me. But I will always be straight with you, and I won’t use this issue to score points.”

Canberra’s decision came amid confusion after the British newspaper The Guardian reported on Monday that the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs had removed text about the recognition of West Jerusalem from its website.

The deleted text described “West Jerusalem as the capital of Israel” and noted that Australia “looks forward to moving its embassy to West Jerusalem when practical, in support of, and after the final status determination of, a two-state solution.”

According to The Guardian, the site was updated after it approached Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs regarding the government’s view on the status of Jerusalem.

Prime Minister Yair Lapid called the announcement “a hasty response to incorrect news in the media.”

“We can only hope that the Australian government manages other matters more seriously and professionally,” Lapid said. “Jerusalem is the eternal capital of united Israel and nothing will ever change that.”

Prime Minister and Yesh Atid party leader Yair Lapid speaks during a faction meeting in Tel Aviv on October 18, 2022. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Morrison’s decision in 2018 received a lukewarm reception in Israel at the time, with many politicians charging that the move did not go far enough, having not recognized the entirety of the city as the Jewish state’s capital, and keeping Australia’s embassy in Tel Aviv. The previous year, the United States under then-president Donald Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and later moved the American embassy there.

Both Israel and the Palestinians claim Jerusalem as their capital. Israel captured East Jerusalem from Jordan in the 1967 Six Day War and later annexed it in a move never recognized by the international community.

For decades the international community maintained that the city’s status should be negotiated between Israel and the Palestinians. Critics argue that declaring Jerusalem the capital of either inflames tensions and prejudges the outcome of final status peace talks.

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