Australia’s intelligence agency reportedly warned the government this week that formally recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital could provoke further violent unrest in the region.
A top secret bulletin drafted by the Australian Security Intelligence Organization obtained by The Guardian said Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s proposed shift in the country’s longstanding foreign policy would “attract international attention.”
Morrison on Tuesday told reporters he was “open-minded” to proposals to formally recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and move his nation’s embassy there, a sharp break with the policy of successive Australian governments for decades.
“We expect any announcement on the possible relocation of the Australian embassy to Jerusalem or consideration of voting against Palestinians in the United Nations may provoke protest, unrest and possibly some violence in Gaza and the West Bank,” said the bulletin circulated to ministers ahead of Morrisson’s announcement.
ASIO said the move “may be perceived as shifting to a pro-Israel/anti-Iran stance,” and warned that Australia’s diplomatic and business interests in the Islamic Republic could be targeted by protest activity.
Morrison said the shift in foreign policy was suggested to him by a former ambassador to Israel, Dave Sharma, who is a candidate for the ruling conservative Liberal Party in a crucial by-election Saturday in a Sydney electorate with a large Jewish population.
Any political gain could come at the cost of strained ties with Muslim-majority countries, including neighboring Indonesia, whose foreign minister expressed strong concern.
After Morrison’s announcement, opposition lawmakers accused him of raising the subject to influence the Wentworth by-election, and jeopardizing the ongoing negotiations with Jakarta for a free trade agreement expected to be signed in November.
Morrison asserted the issue would not disrupt the Indonesia trade deal or negate Canberra’a longstanding support of the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
But statements from Palestinian and Indonesian officials made it clear they were disappointed by the Australian stance.
Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi conveyed the government’s “strong concern” and said the possible move threatened the peace process.
The Palestinian Authority delegation to Australia lambasted Morrison’s announcement as “deeply disturbing.” In a statement to the Guardian, the delegation warned Canberra that its standing in the Arab Muslim world would be damaged, and urged the government “to seriously consider the consequences of any such move.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu welcomed Morrison’s announcement, saying in a statement on Tuesday that he was “very thankful” the prime minister was considering the policy change.
Meanwhile, Morrison rejected suggestions his announcement was the result of US pressure or related to the Wentworth by-election. He told news site The Australian on Monday that recognizing Jerusalem had previously been discussed by top cabinet members, including former foreign minister Julie Bishop, after US President Donald Trump announced the US recognition of the Israeli capital last December.
Voters in Wentworth will go to the polls on Saturday with Sharma trailing in the final stretch. Defeat for Morrison’s candidate — in a constituency with a sizable Jewish population — would spell the end of his government’s parliamentary majority and a bleak future for his months-old stint at the top of Australia’s rough-and-tumble political heap.
On Thursday, Morrison sparked an uproar in parliament when he accused the New South Wales Labour party of anti-Semitism during a discussion of the issue.
Deputy Opposition Leader Tanya Plibersek called Morrison’s announcement “the most cynically timed foreign policy decision in recent history,” saying his “desperate and reckless” behavior made him unfit to lead the country.
Morrison hit back, accusing the opposition party of barring New South Wales Jewish Board of Deputies from the Labor Union Multicultural Action Committee.
“So we have a New South Wales Labor Party which is behaving in an anti-Semitic way,” he charged. “And they want to pretend to the Australian people that they’re supporters of Israel. Really? Really?”
The remark drew audible groans from lawmakers, who tried unsuccessfully to make the prime minister withdraw the statement.
Morrison came to power in August after a revolt by hardline conservatives in the Liberal party ousted his more moderate predecessor, Malcolm Turnbull.
Turnbull’s government had explicitly distanced itself from the decision by Trump to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem as “unhelpful” to the peace process.
Agencies contributed to this report.