Israel fears Australia may recognize a Palestinian state after Canberra walked back its recognition of West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, according to Tuesday reports.
Australia said earlier on Tuesday it would no longer recognize West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and would revert to recognizing Tel Aviv instead. The announcement from Australia’s center-left Labor party government reversed a 2018 decision by the previous conservative government.
Prime Minister Yair Lapid slammed the decision and the Foreign Ministry summoned Australia’s ambassador for a dressing-down, telling him the move was a “wretched decision.”
An Israeli official linked the harsh response to Israel’s concerns that the left-wing Australian government could follow up by recognizing a Palestinian state.
“This is the reason we reacted so strongly and we are sure that got the message across,” the official told the Walla news site. He also said Israel was caught off guard by Australia’s announcement.
The official did not elaborate on the concerns that Canberra may recognize a Palestinian state, but a separate report by the Ynet news site noted the now-ruling Labor party’s approval of a pledge to do so in 2018.
A former senior Israeli diplomat told Ynet said Australia potentially recognizing a Palestinian state was the central concern for Israel.
“We took a hit from the Australians but this is much less than the recognition of a Palestinian state. One can only hope that’s not where this is going,” the former diplomat said.
A senior official also criticized Australia’s handling of the announcement, saying it went against “all diplomatic protocol that anyone has ever heard of.”
The official told Ynet that Australia had not given Israel any kind of warning ahead of the announcement, and claimed the Australian ambassador to Israel did not even know about the move ahead of time.
In addition to its pledge to recognize a Palestinian state, Australia’s center-left Labor had also vowed to reverse then-prime minister Scott Morrison’s recognition of West Jerusalem as the Israeli capital. The Labor party’s Penny Wong, who now serves as Australia’s foreign ministry, had argued the move was “all risk and no gain” and put Australia “out of step” with the international community.
Wong’s announced the West Jerusalem reversal Tuesday in response to a media report on the matter. She said Jerusalem’s status should be decided through peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians, and not through unilateral decisions.
Lapid called the announcement “a hasty response to incorrect news in the media.”
“We can only hope that the Australian government manages other matters more seriously and professionally,” Lapid said. “Jerusalem is the eternal capital of united Israel and nothing will ever change that.”
The Foreign Ministry, which Lapid also heads, said Israel “expresses its deep disappointment” over the decision, calling it the result of “shortsighted political considerations.” The ministry said the government was weighing additional steps in response.
Wong had denied earlier Tuesday that there was a policy change, but hours later said the decision four years ago by a conservative government “caused conflict and distress in part of the Australian community, and today the government seeks to resolve that.”
Wong accused the Morrison government of having been motivated by a crucial by-election in a beach-side Sydney suburb with a sizable Jewish community. “You know what this was? This was a cynical play, unsuccessful, to win the seat of Wentworth and a by-election,” she said.
Wong insisted that the current decision did not signal any hostility to Israel.
“Australia will always be a steadfast friend of Israel. We were amongst the first countries to formally recognize Israel,” she said. “We will not waver in our support of Israel and the Jewish community in Australia. We are equally unwavering in our support of the Palestinian people, including humanitarian support.”
Canberra’s decision came amid confusion after the British newspaper The Guardian reported on Monday that the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs had removed text about the recognition of West Jerusalem from its website.
The deleted text described “West Jerusalem as the capital of Israel” and noted that Australia “looks forward to moving its embassy to West Jerusalem when practical, in support of, and after the final status determination of, a two-state solution.”
According to The Guardian, the site was updated after it approached Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs regarding the government’s view on the status of Jerusalem.
Morrison’s decision in 2018 received a lukewarm reception in Israel at the time, with many politicians charging that the move did not go far enough, having not recognized the entirety of the city as the Jewish state’s capital, and keeping Australia’s embassy in Tel Aviv. The previous year, the United States under then-president Donald Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and later moved the American embassy there.
Both Israel and the Palestinians claim Jerusalem as their capital. Israel captured East Jerusalem from Jordan in the 1967 Six Day War and later annexed it in a move never recognized by the international community. For decades the international community maintained that the city’s status should be negotiated between Israel and the Palestinians. Critics argue that declaring Jerusalem the capital of either inflames tensions and prejudges the outcome of final status peace talks.
Agencies contributed to this report.