Israel tepidly welcomed, and the Palestinians and Arab League vehemently condemned, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s announcement Saturday that Canberra now recognized west Jerusalem as Israel's capital.
Morrison, in a speech Saturday at the Sydney Institute, said, “Australia now recognises West Jerusalem, being the seat of the Knesset and many of the institutions of government, is the capital of Israel. We look forward to moving our embassy to west Jerusalem when practical, in support of, and after, final-status determination.”
He said that Australia will open a trade and defense office in Jerusalem, and begin looking looking for a possible embassy site.
The Australian prime minister reaffirmed Australia's support for a two state solution with the capital of a future Palestinian state being in east Jerusalem.
"A two-state solution remains the only viable way to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian dispute," he said. "The obstacles, we must admit, to achieving such a solution are becoming insurmountable."
In response, Foreign Ministry spokesman Emmanuel Nahshon said in a twitter post that was telling in its lack of enthusiasm, “Israel views the decision of the Australian govt. to open its Trade and Defense office in Jerusalem as a step in the right direction,”
The ministry director-general Yuval Rotem was a bit more enthusiastic in a post of his own, saying that he welcomed the announcement “recognizing #Jerusalem as Israel's capital, reflecting the Jewish people's historical bond to Jerusalem, and a practical approach to the future of the peace process in our region.”
But Israel, according to diplomatic sources, was disappointed by the Australian announcement since it strayed far from its declared position that Jerusalem will remain Israel’s unified and undivided capital.
Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein gave voice to this disappointment in a twitter post in which he characterized the move to recognize west Jerusalem as “puzzling.”
“We have said, and will continue to stand by this – united Jerusalem is our eternal capital, not just a part of it,” he wrote.
Tellingly, the Prime Minister's Office issued no statement at all.
Palestinian officials, meanwhile, condemned the decision.
PLO Secretary General Saeb Erekat said that the Palestinians perceive the decision “as one wherein petty domestic policies steer irresponsible policies that contradict world peace and security.”
Erekat noted that Morrison said that the decision was made in light of Australian support for the two-state solution. “However, the policies of this Australian administration have done nothing to advance the two-step solution,” he charged.
“In fact, Australia has chosen to join [US President Donald] Trump, [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu, and two other governments, in voting against the two-state solution, in a UN resolution supported by 165 nations,” he wrote. “Additionally, the Australian government is refusing to recognize Palestine as a state, voting in international forums against the Palestinian right to self-determination, and continuing to trade with Israeli settlements.”
Erekat said that “all of Jerusalem remains a final status issue for negotiations, while East Jerusalem, under international law, is. an integral part of the occupied Palestinian territory.” Australia’s announcement that it will open a trade office in Jerusalem, he added, “negates its very claim that it abides by UN Security Council Resolution 478, which refers to Israel’s annexation of Jerusalem as null and void and calls upon countries to withdraw diplomatic missions from the city.”
PA Foreign Minister Riad al-Malki accused the Australian government of “total bias” towards Israel, and PLO Executive Committee member Hanan Ashrawi warned that the “dangerous decision would undermine security and stability in the region and accused Morrison of “using Palestinian rights to bribe the Zionist lobby to gain its support in the election.”
The Arab League's Secretary-General for Palestine and Occupied Arab territories Saad Abou Ali issues a statement deploring the move, saying it shows “a blatant bias towards the positions and policies of Israeli occupation, and even stimulates its continuing and aggravating practices and aggressions.”
The Kuwait News Agency KUNA quoted him as saying that the “irresponsible” decision affects the rights, sentiments and sanctities of Arab Muslims and Christians, and “would have serious consequences and escalate the already volatile situation.”
Inside Australia, opposition leader Bill Shorten accused Morrison of putting his “political interest ahead of our national interest,” reflecting criticism that this move came about because of a statement Morrison made before a critical byelection in October.
At that time, with the Liberal Party's David Sharma running for a seat in a Sydney district with a heavily Jewish population, Morrison said he was “open” to the idea of recognizing Jerusalem and moving the embassy. Sharma, a former Australian ambassador to Israel, lost the election.
Penny Wong, the Foreign Affairs spokeswoman for Shorten's Labor party, said in a tweet that Labor did not support this move, and that in government it would “reverse the decision.”
New elections must be held by May.
Malaysia and Indonesia, two Muslim-majority countries and large trading partners near Australia, urged Morrison against making any announcement on Jerusalem, and threatened repercussions on trade if he did.
During his speech, Morrison said that “a two-state solution remains the only viable way to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.”
However, he added, “The obstacles, we must admit, to achieving such a solution are becoming insurmountable. We hope not. The lapse of time and the failure to progress the negotiations I believe has changed this Israeli-Palestinian situation in recent times. A rancid stalemate has emerged.”
The prime minister said that “slavish adherence to the conventional wisdom over decades appears only to be further entrenching the stalemate, providing for everyone just to keep doing what they were doing and looking the other way.”
Morrison also took aim at that UN's anti-Israel bias during his remarks. “We regard the biased and unfair targeting of Israel in the UN general assembly in particular, as deeply unhelpful to efforts to build peace and stability. The UN general assembly is now the place where Israel is bullied and where antisemitism is cloaked in the language of human rights.”
He also commented on the Iran nuclear deal, which he has said he would consider looking at anew.
“Our concerns about Iran relate not to what’s in the agreement but what’s not in the agreement,” he said. “The agreement does not address Iran’s destabilising activities in the Middle East and beyond. It does not address Iran’s proliferation of ballistic missiles and technology, and support for terrorist groups. These are activities that the global community must act on.”
Nahshon, in his tweet, said “Israel congratulates Australia’s government for its stance regarding sanctions on Iran and its pro-Israel position at the UN and against antisemitism.”