Australia’s Embarrassing About-Face
On October 18th, the Australian government embarrassed itself. Foreign Minister Penny Wong announced that the previous ministry’s decision to recognise West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital was being reversed.
The stated reason for the turnaround was that ‘Australia is committed to a two-state solution’ and would not ‘support an approach that undermines this prospect.’ This is, quite simply, not good enough. Amongst supporters of a two-state solution, few seriously believe that peace will be achieved by segregating Jerusalem away from both states and instead having it governed by some international body. This leaves only three possibilities, the city is divided, Israel gets the city, or the potential Palestinian state gets the city. While many arguments can be made about which of these options are viable, the truth is that the only reason anyone cares about Jerusalem is because of the impact that the Jews of Ancient Israel and their holy texts have had on the world. Israel is unlikely to and should not at all be expected to surrender its most historically and religiously significant city.
On a practical basis, Jerusalem is better in the hands of Israel. Since the Roman destruction of the city, Jerusalem has been held by numerous powers. Each one has failed to provide safety and show respect to all those who hold the city holy. Christians and Muslims fought wars to keep the other out. One of the few things both seemed to usually agree on was keeping the Jews out. However, since the foundation of modern Israel and its taking control of the city in 1967, Jerusalem has been open to members of all the Abrahamic faiths and those of no faith; the Jewish state has not barred Christians and Muslims from their holy sites. If anything, Israel prioritises the adherents of other religions over Jews in this regard; the ongoing situation on the Temple Mount shows this.
The Australian government’s decision is disappointing because it undermines the strong diplomatic history between the two nations. In World War 1, Australia played a crucial role in the campaign against the Ottoman Empire that ended 200 years of Turkish rule over the area. In 1947, Australia chaired the UN General Assembly’s Ad Hoc Committee on Palestine, which called for establishing an Israeli state. In 2011, Australia was one of only 14 nations to vote against the PLO being made a member of UNESCO. More recently, in 2014, the Australian Attorney General condemned descriptions of East Jerusalem as an occupied territory. Australia has a long history of supporting Israel and is regarded as one of its strongest and most consistent supporters; this decision falls far short of the standard past Australian governments have set.
The decision also harms Australia’s respectability on a broader diplomatic level. A serious issue for governments in democratic nations to consider is that even though power often changes hands, if the country’s foreign policy stances completely shift each time, then other states will grow distrustful. For this reason, governments must take caution with changing course on foreign policy. That’s not to say they should adhere to prior administrations’ foreign policy ideals in all matters. However, in this case, it is readily apparent that this reversal was a mistake. Australia gains nothing from this, nothing but a reputation for unreliability.
Hypocrisy is another valid accusation to level against those who made this decision. Australia, like the modern Israeli state, is a very young nation. Both nations experience tension based on arguments relating to indigeneity (obviously, Australia is blessed with far less violence comparatively). However, the Australian government (established without a claim to indigeneity) enjoys international recognition of its designated capital; meanwhile, Israel, which does have that justification, is not granted that basic level of respect that every other sovereign nation is.
Australia, for decades, failed to show Israel the same level of regard accorded to even regimes like Iran, Russia and China and locate its embassy in their capital. Israel could have taken heart that Australia was on the path to correcting that with recognition of West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, hoping that eventually Australia would acknowledge that Jerusalem must be undivided and accept Israel’s sovereignty like it does all other nations. This recent decision to reverse that progress is a failure; it embarrasses Australia, dishonours the friendship between our two countries and disrespects a nation that does not deserve it.