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Australian embassy in Israel may be moved to Jerusalem

Prime minister says idea is a sensible proposal and that pursuing a two-state solution hasnt been going that well

Australia may follow US president Donald Trumps lead and move its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv.

Scott Morrison, Australias new prime minister, said on Tuesday he was open to following the move, describing it as a sensible proposal.

Morrison, an evangelical Christian, immediately faced questions about whether his religious views had played a part in his decision to float the proposal, something he denied. My faith and religion has nothing to do with this decision, he said.

Instead, he argued the status quo in Israeli-Palestinian relations had failed to make headway. The orthodoxy thats driven this debate which says issues like considering the question of the capital are taboo. I think we have to challenge that, he said.

Were committed to a two-state solution, but frankly, it hasnt been going that well, he said. Not a lot of progress has been made. And you dont keep doing the same thing and expect different results.

Any move would go against broad international consensus, which has been that the holy citys status should be settled in a peace deal. In 1967, Israeli forces occupied and later annexed eastern parts of the city, which Palestinians see as the capital of their future state.

Australian prime minister Scott Morrison has spoken to Benjamin Netanyahu about moving the embassy to Jerusalem. Photograph: Mike Bowers for the Guardian

In June when the US announced it would move its embassy to Jerusalem it sparked massive protests in Gaza which saw 58 Palestinians killed.

Ever since Trumps declaration in December last year, Israel has been pushing hard to persuade other countries to follow. For close to a year, that seemed unlikely as only Guatemala a dependable Israel ally and Paraguay made the announcement. And Paraguay reversed its decision last month after a change of president.

Having the Australian prime minister even talking about the possibility of recognising Jerusalem as Israels capital will be seen a huge step. It will be held up as a win in Israel and derided by the Palestinian leadership, who see these embassy moves as a pivotal step away from their aspirations for a state and an end to the occupation.

Israels prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has sought to court the Christian right, and evangelicals in particular as many see Jerusalem being Israels capital as consistent with biblical prophecy of the second coming of Jesus and the Rapture.

The Palestinian representative to Australia, Izzat Salah Abudulhadi, slammed the decision, calling Morrisons plan to consider moving the embassy deeply disturbing and saying it could embolden the Trump administration in their plans to resolve the Israel-Palestinian conflict in a way that leaves the status of Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees off the table.

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 Australias international standing and in its relations with Arab and Muslim-majority countries and the international community more broadly, said Abudulhadi.

The Palestinian delegation urged the government to exercise caution and prudence towards this sensitive final-status issue and to seriously consider the consequences of any such move.

Abudulhadi hosted a meeting of representatives of several Middle Eastern countries on Tuesday to discuss the prime ministers proposal to consider moving the embassy to Jerusalem.

The head of the Palestinian delegation was joined by representatives from the embassies of 12 countries in the Middle East and North Africa: Kuwait, Jordan, Algeria, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Sudan, Qatar, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Morocco and Iraq.

Though an incendiary issue globally, the spark for Australias change of tune appears to be a local byelection being fought in the seat held by Morrisons predecessor.

Wentworth, the blue-ribbon Sydney electorate formerly held by Malcolm Turnbull, has a large Jewish community and voters will go to the polls this weekend.

Morrison credited his Liberal party candidate, Dave Sharma, a former Australian ambassador to Israel, with raising the issue. Australias position on this issue has, to date, assumed that it is not possible to consider the question of the recognition of Israels capital in Jerusalem and that be consistent with pursuing a two-state solution, Morrison said.

Now, Dave Sharma, who was the ambassador to Israel, has proposed some months ago a way forward that challenges that thinking and it says that you can achieve both and indeed, by pursuing both, you are actually aiding the cause for a two-state solution.

Now, when people say sensible things, I think it is important to listen to them.

And so 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 insisted the US had not pushed Australia to follow its lead, but confirmed he had spoken to Netanyahu.

On Tuesday morning Australian time Netanyahu said in a tweet he had talked to Morrison about the proposal. I spoke today with [Scott Morrison]. He informed me that he is considering officially recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel & moving the Australian embassy to Jerusalem. Im very thankful to him for this. We will continue to strengthen ties between [Australia and Israel].

Any move by Australia would be a departure from the position taken by Turnbull when he was prime minister and by the former foreign minister Julie Bishop.

Critics domestically have already argued the decision risks undermining Australias long-stated commitment to a two-state solution.

Australias opposition foreign affairs spokesman, Labors Penny Wong, blasted the move. Foreign policy, and Australias national interest are far too important to be played with in this fashion, she said.

Instead of playing dangerous and deceitful word games with Australian foreign policy in a desperate attempt to win votes Scott Morrison should try governing in a way that reflects the values of the people of Wentworth by committing to serious action on climate change, and legislating to protect teachers and students from discrimination, Wong said.

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