Canberra’s recognition of West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital on Saturday can best be seen as the return flight of a boomerang — a tool that likely originated among Australian Aborigine hunters. Indeed, there is hardly a better metaphor to illustrate how the zest with which the Jewish state and its supporters urged the world to follow Washington’s move last year has backfired.
While Australian Zionists celebrated the decision as “historic,” a recognition of only West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital may actually be detrimental to the Jewish state’s efforts to secure the international community’s support for Israeli sovereignty over the entire city.
Both US President Donald Trump and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison defied much domestic pressure and the international consensus when they made their announcements about the status of Jerusalem. Both said that, ultimately, the borders of the city need to be determined in future negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians.
But the two declarations are dramatically different. One was enthusiastically welcomed by Israel, the other was politely rejected.
On December 6, 2017, Trump recognized “Jerusalem” as Israel’s capital, intimating — though not spelling out — that he meant the entire city, including its eastern section, which the Palestinians claim as their capital. He vowed to move the embassy to Jerusalem, a pledge he fulfilled half a year later, and subsequently said he had taken the Jerusalem issue “off the table.”
The Israeli government was ecstatic, calling on the world to follow suit. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in April disclosed that there are “at least half-a-dozen countries seriously talking with us about relocating their embassies to Jerusalem.”
Since then, only Guatemala and Paraguay have actually moved their embassies, and the latter has since transferred it back to Tel Aviv.
The president of the Czech Republic, Milos Zeman, announced his country’s intention to move its embassy to Jerusalem, but the foreign ministry in Prague quickly declared that it recognized as Israel’s capital only the city “in its 1967 borders.”
On October 16, Morrison, Australia’s conservative prime minister, and his foreign minister, Marise Payne, announced that they would “consider recognising Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, without prejudice to its final boundaries.”
In a joint statement, Morrison and Payne said they would look at moving Australia’s embassy to West Jerusalem, and acknowledge the eastern part of the city “as the expected capital of a future Palestinian state.”
Already then, the writing was on the wall: Australia’s declaration would be closer to Russia’s surprising April 2017 recognition of West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital than to Trump’s more sweeping December 6 announcement.
Israeli officials were not thrilled about Moscow’s statement, which stressed that East Jerusalem would be “the capital of the future Palestinian state.”
But when Australia made a similar statement, Netanyahu called Morrison to thank him. “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 at the time.
Morrison’s recognition on Saturday, which did not come in the form of a formal declaration but was a merely a segment of a lengthy foreign policy address at the Sydney Institute, was not at all what Israel was hoping for, because any recognition of Israel’s claims over West Jerusalem naturally implies rejecting its claims over the city’s eastern part. Israel, which captured East Jerusalem and the Old City from Jordan in the 1967 war, claims sovereignty throughout the city.
Similar to Russia’s unloved declaration, “the Australian government has also resolved to acknowledge the aspirations of the Palestinian people for a future state with a capital in East Jerusalem,” Morrison said.
He also stressed that “Jerusalem’s ultimate status, including its borders and boundaries, is a final status issue to be resolved between the parties.” To make things even worse, he noted Australia’s abiding commitment to United Nations Security Council resolutions 478 and 2334, which in no uncertain terms condemn Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem.
In a Q&A session that followed his speech, Morrison explicitly pledged allegiance to “the 1967 boundaries.”
He also denounced Israel’s settlement policies.
“The Australian government has expressed our strong concern over Israel’s land appropriations, demolitions and settlement activity,” he said earlier. “The settlements undermine peace — and contribute to the stalemate we now see.”
That he also promised to open a “trade and defense office in West Jerusalem” and to start looking for premises for an eventual embassy there — which he stressed would only move “after final status determination” — was small comfort to Israeli officials, who made no effort to hide their disappointment.
As counterintuitive as it may sound, from the perspective of the Israeli government, no recognition of Jerusalem at all is better than a partial recognition that implies a future partition of the city.
Had Netanyahu known that this was what even Israel’s closest allies would make of Trump’s Jerusalem declaration, he might have simply said, “Thanks, mate, but no thanks.”