Canberra may move embassy to Jerusalem

Netanyahu lauds, Palestinians deplore Australia for mulling embassy move

PM Scott Morrison tells press conference he is open to ‘sensible’ option, says he supports two-state solution but ‘frankly it hasn’t been going that well’

Newly elected leader of the Liberal Party, Scott Morrison addresses media at a press conference at Parliament House in Canberra, Aug. 24, 2018 (Lukas Coch/AAP Image via AP)
Newly elected leader of the Liberal Party, Scott Morrison addresses media at a press conference at Parliament House in Canberra, Aug. 24, 2018 (Lukas Coch/AAP Image via AP)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu commended his Australian counterpart for weighing the possibility of moving his country’s embassy to Jerusalem, following the lead of US President Donald Trump, but Palestinians slammed what they called a “very disturbing” move.

Scott Morrison “informed me that he is considering officially recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel & moving the Australian embassy to Jerusalem. I’m very thankful to him for this,” Netanyahu tweeted late Monday night.

“We will continue to strengthen ties between Israel and Australia,” he added.

The Palestinian Authority delegation to Australia blasted the announcement, The Guardian reported, calling it “deeply disturbing” and adding that it would boost Trump’s attempts to resume peace negotiations in a way that leaves the issues of Jerusalem and refugees “off the table.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on October 7, 2018 (Alex Kolomoisky/POOL Yedioth Ahronoth)

“The short-term political gain that could be secured by moving the Australian embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem would surely be outweighed by the detriment both to Australia’s international standing and in its relations with Arab and Muslim-majority countries and the international community more broadly,” the delegation warned.

In a statement, it urged Canberra to “exercise caution and prudence towards this sensitive final-status issue and to seriously consider the consequences of any such move.”

The top Palestinian diplomat in Australia, Izzat Salah Abudulhadi, reportedly held a meeting with representatives of 12 Middle Eastern countries to discuss the latest development.

On Tuesday, hours after Australian media began reporting on the possibility, Morrison called a press conference to say he was “open-minded” to proposals to formally recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and move his nation’s embassy to the holy city, a sharp break with the policy of successive Australian governments for decades.

“We’re committed to a two-state solution, but frankly it hasn’t been going that well, not a lot of progress has been made, and you don’t keep doing the same thing and expect different results,” Morrison said.

He described proposals to recognize Jerusalem and move Australia’s embassy there as “sensible” and “persuasive” and said they would be considered by the government.

US Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and US President Donald Trump’s daughter and adviser Ivanka Trump unveil the inauguration plaque during the opening of the US embassy in Jerusalem on May 14, 2018. (AFP Photo/Menahem Kahana)

Such a major shift in Australia’s foreign policy would align Morrison’s conservative government closer to the US and Israel, but likely draw widespread condemnation from the Arab and Muslim world.

The news comes with Canberra’s former envoy to Israel Dave Sharma, who also favors such a move, running for a crucial parliamentary seat in a heavily Jewish area of Sydney and trailing in opinion polls. A loss in the election would wipe out Morrison’s one-seat majority in parliament.

“Scott Morrison is now so desperate to hang on to his job, he is prepared to say anything if he thinks it will win him a few more votes – even at the cost of Australia’s national interest,” said the opposition Labour party’s foreign policy spokeswoman Penny Wong.

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.

US President Donald Trump (r) and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull shake hands following a joint news conference in the East Room of the White House in Washington, February 23, 2018. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Morrison rejected suggestions that his decision to consider following Trump’s lead was a result of US pressure or related to the by-election in Sydney’s Wentworth district on Saturday.

“I have made this decision without any reference to the United States,” he said. “It has not come up in any discussion that I have had with the president or officials.”

Morrison told news site The Australian on Monday that the recognition of Jerusalem had previously been discussed by top cabinet members, including former foreign minister Julie Bishop, after Trump announced the US recognition of the Israeli capital last December.

Morrison also declared that Australia will vote at the UN against a resolution formally confirming the “State of Palestine” as the chair of the Group of 77.

“We don’t believe that conferring that status, especially at this time, would add to the cause of moving parties towards the two-state solution,” he told reporters

Former Australian Ambassador to Israel Dave Sharma (Courtesy)

According to The Australian, recognition of Jerusalem would lead to deepened defense ties with Israel, including an agreement to appoint military attaches in each other’s embassies for the first time.

Morrison said Monday that Sharma, the former ambassador to Israel, had convinced him to consider the shift in policy, calling his proposal on Jerusalem a “practical and insightful way forward which I’ve found quite persuasive.”

“When sensible suggestions are put forward that are consistent with your policy positioning and in this case pursuing a two-state solution, Australia should be open-minded to this and I am open-minded to this and our government is open-minded to this,” Morrison told reporters.

Sharma is running as the Liberal candidate for parliament in the Wentworth district, in New South Wales.

Earlier on Monday, Sharma argued in favor of recognizing Jerusalem during a election event in Bondi.

He told The Australian that “everyone” accepts that West Jerusalem would remain under Israeli sovereignty under any two-state deal, but said the matter must be considered in the “context of our support for a two-state solution, and whether such a move would help further a sovereign two-state solution.”

Tamar Pileggi contributed to this report.

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