Israel criticizes Labor’s decision to drop recognition of West Jerusalem as capital

Israel's Prime Minister Yair Lapid (Abir Sultan - Reuters)

Daniel Hurst

The Guardian  /  October 18, 2022

 PM Yair Lapid says he’s ‘deeply disappointed’ in the ‘hasty’ foreign policy shift and has summoned Australia’s ambassador to explain.

Israeli prime minister, Yair Lapid, has criticized Labor’s decision to drop the recognition of West Jerusalem as that country’s capital and Australia’s ambassador has been summoned to explain.

Lapid has accused the Australian government of a “hasty” foreign policy shift, after it reversed the previous government’s decision.

The Israeli foreign ministry also revealed that it would summon the Australian ambassador to a meeting to register its “deep disappointment in the face of the Australian government’s decision resulting from short-sighted political considerations”.

Penny Wong confirmed earlier on Tuesday that Australia was reversing the previous government’s decision to recognize West Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

The foreign affairs minister said the final status of the capital should not be determined until peace negotiations with the Palestinian people were finalized.

“Today the government has reaffirmed Australia’s previous and longstanding position that Jerusalem is a final status issue that should be resolved as part of any peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian people,” Wong said.

Tuesday’s announcement came a day after Guardian Australia revealed that a department deleted a public statement recognizing West Jerusalem as the capital.

At first the government denied it had changed the policy, because ministers were yet to sign off on the decision. Wong confirmed cabinet had agreed to the change on Tuesday morning.

The prime minister of Israel, Yair Lapid, criticized the government’s handling of the decision.

“In light of the way this decision was made in Australia, as a hasty response to an incorrect report in the media, we can only hope that the Australian government manages other matters more seriously and professionally,” Lapid said.

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

Wong said Australia would “always be a steadfast friend of Israel” but the previous government’s policy shift in 2018 was a “cynical play, unsuccessful, to win the seat of Wentworth in a by-election”.

She said the former prime minister Scott Morrison had attempted to play politics with foreign policy “in order to win votes in the seat”.

“For that reason, I made clear at the time, we reaffirmed our view that Jerusalem is a final-status issue. What do those words mean? It means that has to be resolved through negotiation between the parties.”

She said the update to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s website “occurred ahead of government processes; that happens sometimes”.

Wong declined to say whether the government had received any representations from Israel against proceeding with the change, saying it would not be reasonable “to disclose all of the interactions I and my office might have with stakeholders”.

Like most countries, Australia has maintained an embassy in Tel Aviv.

In the past few days, Dfat deleted from its website a passage that said “in December 2018, Australia recognized West Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, being the seat of the Knesset and many of the institutions of the Israeli government”.

A second deleted sentence read: “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.”

The Coalition had earlier questioned why the language “was silently altered on the Dfat website”.

The Coalition’s foreign affairs spokesperson, Simon Birmingham, said: “Why does Labor keep changing policy on Israel without any announcement or ministerial explanation?”

Morrison said through a spokesperson: “Labor’s decision in relation to the capital of Israel is disappointing and represents a further diminution in Australia’s support for the State of Israel by the Labor government from the high-water mark established by the Morrison government.”

But Wong said on Tuesday that Australia was “among the first countries to formally recognize Israel under Labor prime minister Ben Chifley”.

“This government will not waver in its support of Israel and the Jewish community in Australia,” she said.

“We are equally unwavering supporters of the Palestinian people, providing humanitarian support every year since 1951 and advocating for resumed peace negotiations.”

The head of the general delegation of Palestine to Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific, Izzat Abdulhadi, said the change in language was “welcomed and an important step in the right direction towards meaningful implementation of the two state solution”.

He urged the Labor party to explicitly recognize “the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination, as a right by internationally Law, in a vibrant independent and sovereign Palestinian State on 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as its capital”.

The executive director of the Australian Centre for International Justice, Rawan Arraf, called on the Australian government to “do more”, including by rescinding its objection to an international criminal court investigation into allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Morrison altered Australia’s policy after the then US president Donald Trump directed the state department to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. In 2017 Trump “determined that it is time to officially recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel”.

The following year, in the final week of the Wentworth by-election campaign, Morrison declared that he was “open-minded” about following the US move and promised an Australian government review.

Later the Morrison government settled on a fallback policy to recognize West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital but not to move the Australian embassy there until after a peace agreement.

On 15 December 2018, Wong promised that a Labor government would reverse Morrison’s decision, saying the policy was “all risk and no gain”:

Despite the recent deletion of language about West Jerusalem and the Australian embassy, Dfat’s Israel country brief still retains much of its original content.

The old and new versions both say Australia is “strongly opposed to unfair targeting of Israel in the United Nations and other multilateral institutions”.

Daniel Hurst is Guardian Australia’s foreign affairs and defence correspondent

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Jewish groups blindsided by Labor’s reversal of recognition of West Jerusalem as Israeli capital

Daniel Hurst

The Guardian  /  October 18, 2022

Prominent Jewish community leaders in Australia say Albanese government’s withdrawal of recognition ‘a gratuitous insult’ – but criticism is not universal.

Several Jewish community leaders say they were blindsided by the Albanese government’s decision to reverse recognition of West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, describing the handling of the issue as “shoddy” and “a gratuitous insult”.

A Labor parliamentarian has also privately said the government “mishandled” the sensitive issue and should not be “making foreign policy on the fly” after Israel’s foreign ministry summoned the Australian ambassador to demand an explanation.

Jewish community representatives were surprised by a Guardian Australia report on Monday revealing the Morrison government-era decision was being reversed, and contacted the government seeking clarity.

It is understood a number of community representatives were informed on Monday that no decision had been made, only to be notified the following morning of the outcome of Tuesday’s cabinet meeting shortly before the public announcement.

The Executive Council of Australian Jewry (ECAJ) said it was “extremely disappointed” the government had made the decision in an “opaque manner” without public consultation or opportunity for public debate.

The group said stakeholders had “simply been presented with a fait accompli” and noted “with regret that this decision was communicated to us on the Jewish holyday of Simchat Torah, when we were precluded from making any public response”.

“There is a bitter irony in the fact that the government made its decision in the way that it did on a day when Jews celebrate receiving the Torah, the ethical basis of western civilization,” it said.

The president of the ECAJ, Jillian Segal, together with co-chief executives Peter Wertheim and Alex Ryvchin, issued the scathing statement after sunset on Tuesday at the conclusion of the holy period.

They said the timing of the cabinet decision was “clearly media-driven” and said it was “demeaning for Australia to have its international position changed in such a shoddy manner”.

 “Aside from being poor policy, the withdrawal of Australia’s recognition that Israel’s capital is in Jerusalem is a gratuitous insult to a key economic and strategic ally, with no countervailing benefit for Australians,” Segal, Wertheim and Ryvchin said.

“This is no way to treat an ally whose intelligence-sharing with Australia has prevented at least one terrorist attack against Australians that we know of.”

The executive director of the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council (AIJAC), Colin Rubenstein, also questioned the “odd” timing. He said the “deeply disappointing” decision appeared to be “a pointless own goal”.

But the announcement by the foreign affairs minister, Penny Wong, was not greeted with universal criticism.

The New Israel Fund Australia, which promotes a vision of Israel as both the Jewish homeland and a democracy for all its citizens, said the previous policy had placed Australia “firmly in the global minority”.

The group’s executive director, Liam Getreu, said the change suggested the Australian government would be “a balanced partner in dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by forging policies which are more in line with our likeminded allies and partners around the world and support the advancement of a peaceful resolution”.

Antony Loewenstein, a journalist who co-founded Independent Australian Jewish Voices and lived in East Jerusalem between 2016 and 2020, welcomed Wong’s move to clarify Australia’s position.

“The problem really is this doesn’t change anything. It’s a continuation of a status quo that for decades has allowed Israel to not just expand its occupation but to make it permanent,” he said.

“We’re at a stage now where the two-state solution is a zombie phrase that people keep repeating but is out of step with the reality on the ground. This is a good minor change of language but the reality is that nothing is changing other than the occupation getting deeper.”

Israel’s prime minister, Yair Lapid, had earlier criticized the Australian government for what he called a “hasty” foreign policy shift.

Indonesia, however, welcomed the Albanese government’s decision, saying it hoped the new policy would “contribute positively to Palestinian-Israeli peace negotiations”.

“Indonesia appreciates Australia’s reaffirmation of its commitment to support peaceful resolution to the conflict based on two-state solution, within internationally recognized borders,” the country’s foreign affairs ministry said.

A federal Labor parliamentarian from the right faction criticized the government’s handling of the issue.

“It’s really been mishandled,” said the parliamentarian, who asked for anonymity to discuss the topic openly. “I still can’t believe it’s happened.”

While the parliamentarian agreed with the claim that the former prime minister Scott Morrison had politicized the issue in the lead-up to the Wentworth by-election in 2018, they said the new government should have engaged in adequate consultation to maintain trust with the community.

Others within the government pointed to Morrison’s handling of the announcement of his own review in 2018, with the then foreign affairs minister, Marise Payne, informed of the plans in a phone call only a day before media were briefed.

Wong declined to say whether the government had received any representations from Israel or community groups against proceeding with the change, arguing it would not be reasonable “to disclose all of the interactions I and my office might have with stakeholders”.

“This government will not waver in its support of Israel and the Jewish community in Australia,” she said.

Wong said the decision was made at a cabinet meeting on Tuesday morning. She said it was in line with her public comments in December 2018 that Labor would unwind Morrison’s stance.

Wong said the Morrison government’s decision to recognise West Jerusalem as the capital – rather than leaving it as a matter to be resolved in peace negotiations – “put Australia out of step with the majority of the international community”.

“This was a cynical play, unsuccessful, to win the seat of Wentworth in a by-election. And what the people saw was the prime minister of the day trying to play foreign policy in order to win votes in a seat.”

Like most countries, Australia has continued to maintain an embassy in Tel Aviv rather than Jerusalem.

Daniel Hurst is Guardian Australia’s foreign affairs and defence correspondent