Faraway Australia is not a permanent member of the UN Security Council, nor of the prestigious club known as the Middle East Quartet (US, EU, UN and Russia). Generally, it cuts and pastes the policy of whichever US administration happens to be in power on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. On Dec. 15, it declared its recognition of West Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, making international headlines. The decision to fly the Australian flag over a new office for trade and defense to be opened in Jerusalem but not to move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem is no more than a footnote in the annals of the century-old conflict. However, the language of the decision and the varied reactions it generated faithfully reflect the grim state of what is known as the “peace process.”
Let us start with the Dec. 15 declaration by Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison at a speech in Sydney that his government recognizes West Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. “We look forward to moving our embassy to West Jerusalem, when practical, in support of and after a final status determination,” he added. But if there is recognition, why is there no relocation? Perhaps, as Morrison also said, it's due to the “strong concern over Israel’s land appropriations, demolitions and settlement activity … The settlements undermine peace and contribute to the stalemate we now see (in the peace process).”
And how does Australia express its support for a permanent Israeli-Palestinian arrangement leading, according to Morrison’s expressed hope, to recognition of East Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine? On Dec. 5, 10 days before his speech, Australia’s delegation to the UN voted against a resolution unreservedly supporting the two-state solution that would have Israel and Palestine living side by side in peace and security based on the 1967 borderlines, adopting the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, the Quartet’s Road Map and UN Security Council Resolution 2334 of 2016.
The Dec. 5 resolution was approved overwhelmingly by 156 UN member states. Only four — Australia, Liberia, the Marshall Islands and Nauru — acceded to requests by Israel and the United States to vote “nay.” Australia’s vote against a resolution promoting the two-state solution, a move that somehow did not make the headlines it merited, concerned the Palestinians far more than its somewhat vague pledge to recognize East Jerusalem as the Palestinian capital.
The head of the Palestinian negotiating team, Saeb Erekat, claims the future status of all of Jerusalem must be resolved in negotiations between the sides on a permanent agreement. Erekat neglects to mention that in all discussions on the permanent status of Jerusalem in which he took part, the Palestinian side explicitly recognized Israel within its 1967 borderlines and the city’s western section as the country’s capital and as a basis for a permanent resolution of the conflict. The Palestinians also agreed that within the framework of land swap arrangements, they would recognize Israel’s sovereignty over the Jewish neighborhoods it established in the eastern part of the city since it captured the area in 1967.
With the diplomatic process in a coma, Middle Eastern diplomacy has been thrown into turmoil. While Malaysian Prime Minister Mahatir Mohammed protests the Australian decision and declares, “Jerusalem has always been under Palestine,” Bahrain’s Foreign Minister Sheikh Khalid bin Ahmed al-Khalifa defends Australia and describes the Arab League’s denouncement of Australian's recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital as “mere rhetoric, irresponsible.” Addressing the issue on Dec. 15, the Bahraini diplomat added that Australia’s step was consistent with the Arab Peace Initiative. Strictly speaking, al-Khalifa is right, but he, too, obviously knows that the right-wing Israeli government is about as interested in that initiative as party-goers in Sydney are in the Jewish Quarter in Hebron.
As the director of the Jerusalem nongovernmental organization Ir Amim, Yehudit Oppenheimer, remarked Dec. 17, the Arabs were not the only ones Australia succeeded in riling. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who never missies an opportunity to extoll the virtues of Jerusalem, referred reporters who called for his reaction to the Australian decision to the spokesperson of the Foreign Ministry. The ministry welcomed the Canberra government’s decision to open a trade and defense office in Jerusalem. Regional Cooperation Minister Tzachi Hanegbi, however, said, “There is no such thing as West Jerusalem and East Jerusalem” and that the city “is the eternal and undivided capital of Israel.” Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein not only harshly reprimanded the Australians, he went so far as to claim their decision indirectly encourages Palestinian violence.
Any first-year student of Middle East studies knows that the two-state solution means a two-capitals solution. Israel’s reaction underscores its intention to manage the conflict rather than to resolve it. As Ir Amim argued on Facebook, given this situation, the Australian recognition is a unilateral step that deepens the asymmetry in Jerusalem and rewards Israel under Netanyahu with a prize it doesn’t deserve. Similar comments were included in a recent letter to Morrison from retired ambassador Ilan Baruch, head of The Policy Working Group of Israeli peace organizations.
It is unclear whether the letter made it to Morrison’s desk. Morrison obviously read with great interest the congratulatory statement by the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council saying the Australian government had recognized the reality that Israel has already established its capital in west Jerusalem.
Morrison is entitled to be pleased that a group representing the mainstream Australian Jewish community wrote that his decision on Jerusalem “demonstrates the Prime Minister’s courage in standing up to bullies who have tried to intimidate him, but who do not have the interests of peace at heart." Last October, Australia’s former ambassador to Israel and liberal politician David Sharma promised to advance the issue of relocating his country’s embassy to Jerusalem. Morrison, for his part, stood behind his fellow party member. Evidently, this Jerusalem promise might have pleased the Jews living in the Sharma's region, but was not enough to get him into parliament. Unfortunately, this Australian episode will not be the last of the international community's cynical moves on Jerusalem.
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