Without fanfare, Australia opens trade and defense office in Jerusalem

Spokesperson insists facility in western part of the city not an extension of country’s Tel Aviv embassy, won’t have diplomatic status

Raphael Ahren is a former diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

An Australian diplomat speaks with an Israeli colleague at Australia's new Defence and Trade Office in Jerusalem (Twitter)
An Australian diplomat speaks with an Israeli colleague at Australia's new Defence and Trade Office in Jerusalem (Twitter)

Australia last month quietly opened a trade and defense office in Jerusalem.

The move was not announced on government websites, and no senior Australian or Israeli officials attended the opening ceremony of the new office, which Canberra insists does not have formal diplomatic status.

By contrast, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last year attended the opening of a Czech office in the capital — which does not have diplomatic status either — and took part in the dedication of a Hungarian trade office, which is also located in Jerusalem but is considered an extension of the country’s Tel Aviv embassy.

Australia’s “Trade and Defence Office,” located in the Migdal Ha’ir office tower in western Jerusalem, was opened in March without fanfare, fulfilling a promise the country’s prime minister made four months ago.

“It is a commercially focused office, established and managed by the Australian Trade and Investment Commission,” a spokesperson for the Australian embassy in Tel Aviv told The Times of Israel. It “will not have diplomatic status and is not an extension of the Australian embassy in Tel Aviv,” the spokesperson stressed.

“We are currently recruiting locally engaged staff to work in the [defense and trade office] on a permanent basis. The Australian government has been liaising closely with the Israeli government and other partners in the establishment of the [office], to ensure it is fully operational as quickly as possible,” the spokesperson said.

On December 15, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison formally recognized West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and vowed to move the Australian embassy to the city “when practical, in support of, and after final status determination.”

“We have decided to start the work though now to identify a suitable site for an Australian embassy in West Jerusalem,” he declared.

Netanyahu never commented on the move, while other senior Israeli officials expressed their disappointment with Canberra’s distinction between the city’s eastern and western parts.

“Out of respect for the clearly communicated preference of the Israeli Government for countries to not establish consulates or honorary consular offices in West Jerusalem, the Australian Government will establish a Trade and Defence Office in West Jerusalem,” Morrison said at the time.

“With deepening defence industry ties and Australia-Israel trade now running at over $1.3 billion per year, this will help continue to build our strong bilateral relationship.”

In the wake of US President Donald Trump’s decision to move his country’s embassy to from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, several other countries vowed to follow suit, though some have since backtracked or opted to open trade office in the city instead.

President of the Czech Republic Miloš Zeman (2R) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (2L) attend the opening ceremony of the Czech House in Jerusalem, November 27, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

On November 27, 2018, Czech President Milos Zeman opened the so-called Czech House in Jerusalem, an office space at the city’s Cinematheque that was billed by Prague as the “first step” in relocating the country’s embassy to the city.

Israel said that the Czech House will “include Czech government representatives,” but officials in Prague stressed that the office will not have any diplomatic status.

On March 19, Hungarian Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó opened a trade office in Jerusalem’s Migdal Ha’ir tower that was billed as having official “diplomatic status” and is considered a “branch” of the Central European country’s embassy in Israel.

“I would like to stress… that our embassy is in Tel Aviv, and no plans for changing this are on the agenda,” Szijjártó clarified later in Jordan.

Still, the Palestinian Authority at the time said it was calling back its ambassador to Hungary for consultations in response to Budapest’s move.

Hungary’s FM Péter Szijjártó and PM Benjamin Netanyahu at the newly opened Hungarian trade mission in central Jerusalem, March 19, 2019 (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

On February 19, Slovak Prime Minister Peter Pellegrini, too, announced the opening of cultural and trade office in Jerusalem, though it was not immediately clear if it would have any diplomatic status.

On March 24, Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez announced that his country will “immediately open an official diplomatic mission in Jerusalem and this will extend our embassy through the capital of Israel, Jerusalem.”

A week later, Brazil, during a visit to Israel by President Jair Bolsonaro, declared that it “decided to establish an office in Jerusalem for the promotion of trade, investment, technology and innovation.”

Slovakia, Honduras and Brazil have yet to fulfill their promises.

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