Jerusalem weighing additional steps

Israel tells Australian envoy that reversal of Jerusalem recognition is ‘wretched’

Foreign Ministry political director summons Ambassador Paul Griffiths, says walkback encourages extremists and could undermine stability

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong, left, and Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese at Parliament House in Canberra,  Oct. 18, 2022. (Lukas Coch/Pool via AP)
Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong, left, and Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese at Parliament House in Canberra, Oct. 18, 2022. (Lukas Coch/Pool via AP)

The Foreign Ministry expressed Israel’s “deep disappointment” to Australia’s envoy over Canberra’s decision to reverse its recognition of West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and said that the government was weighing additional steps in response.

Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong made the announcement Tuesday in response to a media report on the matter, declaring that the government had decided to revert to recognizing Tel Aviv as Israel’s capital. She said Jerusalem’s status should be decided through peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians, and not through unilateral decisions.

On Tuesday afternoon in Jerusalem, Foreign Ministry political director Aliza Bin Noun told Australian Ambassador Paul Griffiths that the move was a “wretched decision that ignores the deep and eternal connection between Israel and its historical capital, and runs counter to the positive ties between Israel and Australia.”

She added that it encourages extremist elements in the West Bank to continue stoking violence, and risks destabilizing the region. It also goes against the deepening ties between Israel and Arab countries as part of the Abraham Accords, she continued.

The senior Israeli diplomat put a particular emphasis on the timing of the Australian announcement. It came as Jews in Israeli and around the world wrapped up celebrations of Shemini Atzeret/Simchat Torah, amid heightened tensions with Palestinians, and as a maritime border deal with Lebanon is close to completion.

According to individuals with knowledge of the meeting, the Australians stressed in response that Canberra’s stance on Jerusalem was the continuation of a long-term policy, and that the 2018 recognition was a departure that had been corrected.

Then-Israel ambassador to France Aliza Bin Noun, 2015. (CC BY-SA Erez Lichtfeld, Wikimedia Commons)

The meeting between Bin Noun and Griffiths lasted half an hour.

Prime Minister Yair Lapid also slammed Australia’s announcement on Tuesday. “In light of the way in which the decision was made in Australia, as 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 in a statement.

“Jerusalem is the eternal capital of united Israel and nothing will ever change that,” he added.

At a faction meeting of his Yesh Atid party later Tuesday, Lapid said that “what happened in Australia was a change of leadership.” He added that as a general rule, Israel did not define the capital cities of other nations, so other countries should not do so for Israel.

Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Lion said he was sorry to hear of Australia’s decision.

“A united Jerusalem has been and will continue to be the capital of Israel forever. Statements of this type do not further anything and do not contribute at all,” he said in a statement.

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid addresses the UN General Assembly on September 22, 2022. (Screenshot)

However, the Palestinian Authority applauded the Australian decision.

“We welcome Australia’s decision with regards to Jerusalem & its call for a two-state solution in accordance with international legitimacy,” the Palestinian Authority’s civil affairs minister, Hussein al-Sheikh, said on Twitter.

Sheikh hailed Australia’s “affirmation that the future of sovereignty over Jerusalem depends on the permanent solution based on international legitimacy.”

Arsen Ostrovsky, the CEO of the Israel-based International Legal Forum originally from Australia, called it a “shameful and cowardly decision… which tellingly, has already been applauded by the Hamas terror group.”

Australia’s Zionist Federation slammed the move as “deeply disappointing and counterproductive to achieving the Government’s objective of a two-state solution.” Every proposal to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict “has West Jerusalem remaining the capital of Israel,” said its leader Jeremy Leibler. “Recognising this does not in any way pre-determine the outcome of negotiations.”

The Walla news site reported that Israel was taken by surprise by the decision, which came just months after the head of the Middle East Division of the Australian Foreign Ministry visited Israel and made clear to his counterparts that there was no change expected in Australia’s policy on West Jerusalem.

Tens of thousands gather at the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City for final ‘selichot’ services before Yom Kippur, on October 3, 2022. (Western Wall Heritage Foundation)

However, the Australian Labor Party, which came to power in May 2022 with Anthony Albanese as prime minister, had made a campaign promise to reverse the Scott Morrison-led conservative government’s 2018 decision to recognize the western part of Jerusalem as the Israeli capital.

On Tuesday, Wong said that Australia remained committed to a two-state solution to the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, and “will not support an approach that undermines this prospect.” She added, “Australia’s embassy has always been, and remains, in Tel Aviv.”

The foreign minister had denied earlier Tuesday that there was a policy change, saying via a spokesperson that “the former government made the decision to recognize West Jerusalem as the capital of Israel” and that “no decision to change that has been made by the government.”

But just hours later, Wong, a member of the ruling Labor Party, 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.”

Border Police face Palestinian rioters in East Jerusalem, September 26, 2022. (Israel Police)

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.”

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.

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 surrounding 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 the British newspaper approached the Department of Foreign Affairs regarding the government’s view on the status of Jerusalem.

Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison concedes defeat in the national elections in Sydney on May 21, 2022. (Saeed KHAN / AFP)

A spokesperson for Morrison said a decision to reverse the recognition would be “disappointing,” Australia’s ABC News reported.

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.

Carrie Keller-Lynn and Agencies contributed to this report.

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