Australia may also recognize East Jerusalem as future Palestinian capital

Israel praised Canberra’s surprise talk of recognition, embassy move, but Morrison’s distinction between east and west of city seems closer to Russia’s position than to Trump’s

Raphael Ahren

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison, left, speaks to the media alongside Minister for Foreign Affairs Marise Payne at the Parliament House in Canberra, October 16, 2018. (Mick Tsikas/AAP Image via AP)
Prime Minister Scott Morrison, left, speaks to the media alongside Minister for Foreign Affairs Marise Payne at the Parliament House in Canberra, October 16, 2018. (Mick Tsikas/AAP Image via AP)

Israel has applauded the news that Australia is considering recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moving its embassy there. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke on Monday evening to the country’s new Prime Minister Scott Morrison and thanked him for his surprising announcement.

“Jerusalem is, always has been and always will be the capital of Israel, and recognition of this is recognition of an indisputable fact,” Israel’s embassy in Canberra said in an official statement.

But a closer look at the joint statement Morrison and his foreign minister, Marise Payne, issued on Tuesday shows that Australia’s potential recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, if it actually happens, would extend only to the western part of the city, and would include the recognition of its eastern part as the capital of a future Palestinian state.

Canberra “will carefully examine the arguments put forward by Australia’s former Ambassador to Israel, Dave Sharma, that we should consider recognising Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, without prejudice to its final boundaries, while acknowledging East Jerusalem as the expected capital of a future Palestinian state,” the joint statement reads.

“Specifically, the Government will examine the merits of moving Australia’s embassy to West Jerusalem, in the context of our support for a two-state solution. Any decision will be subject to a rigorous assessment of the potential impact of such a move on our broader national interests.”

When Russia in April 2017 recognized West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, stressing that East Jerusalem will be “the capital of the future Palestinian state,” Israeli officials did not react with great enthusiasm, as they consider the entire city to be Israel’s eternal and undivided capital.

The joint statement that Australia’s leaders issued Tuesday appears to more closely resemble the Russian declaration than it does US President Donald Trump’s landmark recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital eight months later.

Like Trump, Morrison and Payne vaguely said they might recognize “Jerusalem,” without adding geographical or political adjectives. Both the US and the new Australian government noted that any recognition of Jerusalem would not prejudge the question of final borders (in his December 6 announcement, Trump stressed that he was “not taking a position of any final status issues, including the specific boundaries of the Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem, or the resolution of contested borders”).

But unlike Washington, Canberra unambiguously said its possible recognition of an Israeli capital in the western part of the city would go hand in hand with acknowledging the Palestinians’ right to a capital in its eastern section.

Australia also coupled its Jerusalem announcement with a strong commitment to the principle of two states for two peoples. The term “two-state solution” appears three times in Morrison and Payne’s joint statement.

By contrast, the US administration has yet to officially endorse the notion of Palestinian statehood (Trump said last month that he likes the two-state solution and finds it the most feasible option, but later clarified that he was happy with any solution the two sides can agree on).

US President Donald Trump signs a memorandum after he delivered a statement on Jerusalem from the Diplomatic Reception Room of the White House in Washington, DC on December 6, 2017. (Saul Loeb/AFP)

At the same time, it must be noted that the new Australian government is not about to recognize Palestinian statehood. In their joint statement, Morrison and Payne said they would oppose a resolution in the United Nations General Assembly that would allow the “State of Palestine” to take over the chairmanship of the Group of 77, an important regional bloc at the UN.

“This draft resolution,” they argued, “seeks to confer an official status on the Palestinian Authority it does not have, and therefore has the potential to undermine efforts to bring parties together to work towards a peaceful settlement.”

As opposed to Russia, Australia may relocate its embassy

One important difference between Canberra’s announcement and Russia’s April 2017 recognition is the possible relocation of the embassy. While Australia said it would consider moving its mission from Tel Aviv to West Jerusalem, Russia vowed to refrain from such a move before a comprehensive Israeli-Palestinian peace deal is signed.

“We have recognized East Jerusalem as the capital of the Palestinian state. Can we transfer our representative office in Ramallah, which is not yet an embassy, to East Jerusalem?” Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov said to i24News in an interview earlier this month.

“If we transfer our embassy to West Jerusalem, which we recognize as the Israeli capital, what should we do with East Jerusalem, which we have recognized as the Palestinian capital?”

Whether Australia will end up recognizing Jerusalem — or West Jerusalem — is still open. Local media is suggesting Morrison was merely playing up Dave Sharma’s arguments to help the former Israel envoy win his upcoming by-elections in Wentworth, a district near Sydney that is home to many Jews. After the October 20 election, Morrison’s enthusiasm for the idea might fade.

Furthermore, the Palestinians are already protesting, arguing that a unilateral recognition of Jerusalem “would make Australia an international pariah on this important foreign-policy issue” and threatening that it would hurt the country’s relations with Arab and Muslim-majority countries. On Tuesday, Army Radio reported that 13 Arab states have urged Canberra to shelve its plans.

This pressure, too, might put the kibosh on Morrison’s plan.

We’ll always have Iran

But even if Australia ends up doing nothing on Jerusalem, the joint statement released Tuesday contains other good news for Israel.

For one, it promises “increased engagement with Israel on defense and security matters,” including appointing a resident Australian defense attache in Tel Aviv, and invites Israel to appoint its own resident defense attache in Canberra.

More importantly, the new Morrison government vows to review, “without prejudice,” Australia’s approach to the nuclear deal with Iran.

“The review will reassess whether the Plan remains the best vehicle to address the international community’s concerns about Iran’s nuclear ambitions,” the joint statement said.

While not a signatory to the 2015 landmark nuclear pact with Iran, Australia reversing its current support of the deal, and possibly supporting the US sanctions on Tehran, would greatly please Israel — probably even more than a recognition of West Jerusalem as its capital.

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