Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison faced questions from lawmakers Wednesday, a day after declaring that his government would consider moving its embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in a measure that opposition representatives worry could influence trade talks with Indonesia.
Morrison’s declaration of being “open-minded” to following the US’s example in relocating its mission to the capital drew condemnation from Palestinian officials. In Canberra, lawmakers accused Morrison of raising the subject in order to influence a crucial Sydney by-election in an electorate with a significant Jewish population, while jeopardizing the ongoing negotiations with Jakarta for a free trade agreement expected to be signed in November.
Morrison asserted to reporters that the Israel embassy issue will not disrupt the trade agreement with Indonesia. “The Indonesian trade minister has made it very clear on the public record that it is not an issue of concern to them,” he said, according to Reuters.
The Wenworth by-election is scheduled for Saturday, and Morrison’s Liberal party candidate for the seat is Dave Sharma, a former Australian ambassador to Israel. The by-election was triggered by the resignation of Malcolm Turnbull as an MP after he was turfed out of the prime ministership in a party coup, despite calls for him to stay on and not jeopardize the coalition’s hold on power.
The election could decide the fate of Morrison’s government, which has only a one-seat majority. Opinion polls show Sharma trailing independent candidate Kerryn Phelps by around ten points.
During a debate in the House of Representatives in Canberra, opposition leader Bill Shorten of the Labour party questioned Morrison about the possible embassy move, of which he reportedly informed Indonesian President Joko Widodo in a text message.
“Can the prime minister confirm the reports today that he first informed the president of Indonesia of his decision to overturn 70 years of bipartisan foreign policy by text message?” Shorten said, according to the Guardian. “Is the prime Minister so panicked about Wentworth he is willing to make the most cynically timed foreign policy decision in living memory? Why is the prime minister so reckless with our foreign policy?
Morrison responded by declaring that his party firmly supports Israel, and also backs a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“The Liberal and National parties, we stand with Israel,” Morrison said and then referred to comments by Labour representative Tanya Plibersek who in 2002 said Israel is a “rogue state.”
“Some of their [Labour] members, the member for Sydney, thinks Israel is a rogue state, Mr Speaker,” Morrison continued.
“Now, I don’t believe Israel is a rogue state, nobody on this side of the house believes Israel is a rogue state, Mr Speaker,” Morrison continued and noted that hours earlier Australia had voted against the United Nations temporarily granting the “State of Palestine” additional rights and privileges that would enable it to head a key bloc of developing countries at the UN.
“The Liberal and the National parties’ view, when it comes to a two-state solution, is very clear,” the prime minister said. “The position when it comes to support of Israel is very, very clear.”
While Morrison defended his policies in the House of Representatives, Australia’s Foreign Minister Marise Payne spoke in the Canberra Senate about the embassy issue.
“I am not going to comment on the details of the prime minister’s exchanges with his international counterparts,” she said and insisted there has not been a major change in policy. “What I will say is that consultation has been engaged in between Australia and a number of other international parties, of course. What the prime minister has indicated he wants to do is to have a discussion, to examine these extremely important issues of international policy.”
According to news site The Australian, recognition of Jerusalem would lead to deepened defense ties with Israel, including an agreement to appoint military attaches in each other’s embassies for the first time.
The furor over the Australian embassy began on Tuesday, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tweeting that Morrison had “informed me that he is considering officially recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel & moving the Australian embassy to Jerusalem. I’m very thankful to him for this.”
The Palestinian Authority delegation to Australia blasted the announcement, The Guardian reported, calling it “deeply disturbing” and adding that it would boost US President Donald Trump’s attempts to resume peace negotiations in a way that leaves the issues of Jerusalem and refugees “off the table.”
Trump broke with decades of policy in moving the US embassy to Jerusalem earlier this year, infuriating Palestinians who see the eastern section of the city as the capital of a future state. The move ruptured generations of international consensus that Jerusalem’s status should be settled as part of a two-state deal between Israel and the Palestinians.
After the US, Paraguay and Guatemala both moved their embassies to Jerusalem. In September Paraguay reversed the decision, leading to a diplomatic spat with Israel. The same month, Czech leaders endorsed moving the country’s embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
Agencies contributed to this report.