Israel’s Foreign Ministry on Saturday evening issued a positive yet decidedly tempered response to Australia’s decision to recognize West Jerusalem as the nation’s capital.
In a short statement, the ministry — which, due to the lack of a foreign minister, is directly under the authority of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — did not comment on the recognition itself, but called Canberra’s decision to open a defense and trade office in Jerusalem “a step in the right direction.”
It also welcomed Australia’s stance on “sanctions against Iran and its steadfast position in support of Israel at the UN and against anti-Semitism.”
Meanwhile a senior Israeli official told Hebrew media anonymously that Israel was disappointed by Australia’s decision to stress that its recognition only pertained to West Jerusalem.
“We’re disappointed with the Australian decision…[Prime Minister Scott] Morrison only went half-way. It’s a step in the right direction, but we expected more,” the official said.
The official said Israel was also unhappy that Australia continued to support the nuclear deal with Iran, which Morrison has said in the past he was open to reviewing.
Unlike the US last December, Australia did not recognize all of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. It also stopped short of announcing a relocation of its embassy from Tel Aviv, saying it would only do so after a peace accord is achieved with the Palestinians.
Yuval Rotem, director general of the Foreign Ministry and a former Israeli ambassador to Canberra, issued a warmer response, tweeting: “I welcome Australia’s announcement recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, reflecting the Jewish people’s historical bond to Jerusalem, and a practical approach to the future of the peace process in our region.”
Minister for Regional Cooperation Tzachi Hanegbi (Likud) tweeted: “Australia is a great friend of Israel and we greatly appreciate our friendship and warm relations. But there is no such thing as ‘West Jerusalem’ and ‘East Jerusalem.’ There is only Jerusalem, the eternal and undivided capital of the state of Israel.”
#Australia is a great friend of #Israel and we greatly appreciate our friendship and warm relations. But there is no such thing as “West Jerusalem” and “East Jerusalem”. There is only Jerusalem, the eternal and undivided capital of the state of Israel.
— Tzachi Hanegbi | צחי הנגבי (@Tzachi_Hanegbi) December 15, 2018
Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein (Likud) called the Australian statement “difficult to understand…all of Jerusalem is our eternal capital, not just a part of it.”
Science and Technology Minister Ofir Akunis (Likud) thanked Canberra, but he too added that “all of Jerusalem has been our capital for the past 3,000 years.”
Morrison, in a speech early Saturday, said: “The Australian government has decided that Australia now recognizes West Jerusalem, as the seat of the Knesset and many of the institutions of government, is the capital of Israel.”
He said the decision respects both a commitment to a two-state solution and longstanding respect for relevant UN Security Council resolutions.
Morrison also committed to recognizing the aspirations for a future state of Palestine with East Jerusalem as its capital when the city’s status is determined in a peace deal.
While the embassy move is delayed, Morrison said his government will establish a defense and trade office in Jerusalem and will also start looking for an appropriate site for the embassy.
“We look forward to moving our embassy to West Jerusalem when practical, in support of and after final status of determination,” he said, adding that work on a new site for the embassy was under way.
The prime minister said it was in Australia’s interests to support “liberal democracy” in the Middle East and took aim at the United Nations he said was a place where Israel is “bullied.”
The opposition Labor party slammed Morrison for putting “self-interest ahead of the national interest.”
“Recognizing West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, while continuing to locate Australia’s embassy in Tel Aviv, is nothing more than a face-saving exercise,” shadow minister for foreign affairs Penny Wong said in a statement.
“This is a decision which is all risk and no gain,” she said, adding it puts Australia “out of step” with the international community.
Palestinians excoriated the decision, with top official Saeb Erekat saying the move was “irresponsible.”
Erekat, who serves as a top aide to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and is head of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s Executive Committee, said the decision was “one wherein petty domestic politics steer irresponsible policies that contradict world peace and security.”
The Palestinian negotiator also dismissed Australian claims that the move would help advance a two-state solution, saying Canberra refuses to recognize Palestine as a state, votes against the Palestinian right to self-determination, and continues to trade with Israeli settlements in the West Bank.
“All of Jerusalem remains a final status issue for negotiations, while East Jerusalem, under international law, is an integral part of the occupied Palestinian territory,” he added in the statement.
Australia had on Friday warned citizens to take care while traveling in neighboring Muslim-majority Indonesia ahead of the expected announcement by Morrison.
While Australia’s then-foreign minister Julie Bishop said in June that “the Australian government will not be moving our embassy to Jerusalem,” Morrison said in October that he was “open-minded” regarding following the American example.
But Morrison’s statement was seen by many Australians as a political stunt. Critics called it a cynical attempt to win votes in a by-election in October for a Sydney seat with a high Jewish population.
Recognizing Jerusalem is expected to help the embattled Australian PM — who faces the prospect of an election drubbing next year — with Jewish and conservative Christian voters and win him friends in the White House.
Opposition leader Bill Shorten said Saturday that the decision to recognize West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital but not move the embassy there was a “humiliating backdown” from the October by-election campaign.
“What I’m worried is that Mr. Morrison put his political interest ahead of our national interest,” Shorten told reporters.
Both Israel and the Palestinians claim Jerusalem as their capital. Israel captured Arab East Jerusalem in the 1967 Six Day War and later annexed it in a move never recognized by the international community. It sees the entire city as its capital.
For decades the international community maintained that the city’s status should be negotiated between Israel and the Palestinians. Critics say declaring Jerusalem the capital of either inflames tensions and prejudges the outcome of final status peace talks.
Morrison’s supporters argue Israel has the right to choose its own capital and peace talks are dead in the water, so there is no peace to prejudge.
But the move still risks heightening unrest, not least in Australia’s immediate neighbor and the world’s most populous Muslim nation.
Indonesia’s government, facing domestic pressure at home, had reacted angrily earlier this year, when Morrison floated the idea of both recognizing Jerusalem and moving the Australian embassy there. The issue has put the conclusion of a bilateral trade agreement on hold.
Raphal Ahren and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.