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Australia’s new stand on Jerusalem is myopic, dangerous

Dec 18,2018 - Last updated at Dec 18,2018

The decision this week by Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison to recognise West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, without relocating the embassy at this stage, is a political stunt aimed at pleasing the country’s Jewish voters and lobby rather than serving the broader national interests. It constitutes a reversal of decades-old policy by Canberra on the Middle East’s most complex conflicts. And it puts Australia at odds with its Muslim majority neighbours and Arab trading partners. Ironically, the decision fails to satisfy Israel’s right-wing government as well.

All Morrison has done is shoot himself in the foot and put Australia at odds with the rest of the world. The decision is not backed by Morrison‘s political opponents, who believe he is putting his own political interests ahead of those of the country. Attempting to balance out his decision, Morrison said that Australia still supports the two-state solution and that it is committed to recognising a future state of Palestine with East Jerusalem as its capital, when the city’s status is determined through a peace deal. For both Israel and the Palestinians that is both contradictory and insulting.

But the reality is that Australian policy is changing. Earlier this month Australia voted, for the first time, against a UN resolution that explicitly denies Israel’s claim to sovereignty over Jerusalem. It was one of 10 countries that voted “no”, with 148 countries voting for the resolution. Even more worrying was its vote against a resolution debunking Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights. That meant that for the first time in decades, Canberra rejected Syrian claims to the Golan Heights by not acknowledging pre-1967 lines as an international border. How this change in position helps to deliver a comprehensive peace process in the region is an enigma.

The decision to recognise West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital is a free gift, despite its shortcomings, to the country’s far-right politicians, who reject any Palestinian claim to East Jerusalem. At a time when Israel is violating international laws as an occupying power by building illegal housing units, confiscating lands and imposing collective penalties on millions of Palestinians, the Australian move can only be seen as provocative and a violation of interna tional law.

No wonder that it has been slammed by Indonesia, Malaysia, Jordan, the Arab League and the Palestinian Liberation Organisation. It puts Australia’s ties with the Arab world, the Gulf states in particular, in jeopardy. For example, the United Arab Emirates’ investments in Australia are now worth over $20 billion, with bilateral trade reaching more than $6 billion annually. Trade surplus, in favour of Australia, with Saudi Arabia was estimated at more than $1 billion in 2016. Of an annual two-way trade between Australia and the Middle East and North Africa region worth over $10 billion annually, more than 80 per cent of which is with the Gulf Cooperation Council region.

On the other hand, total bilateral trade between Australia and Israel in 2017 was about $700 million, with Israeli exports constituting more than $500 million.

Arabs or those of Arab origin make up about 1 per cent of Australia’s 24 million population, with Muslims representing more than 2.4 per cent. It is easy to figure out where Australia’s long-term national interests lie, but the issue is more complicated.

Australia is not a banana republic and its siding with international law, UN resolutions and universal values matter for the Palestinians and the world. By jeopardising Australia’s moral position through myopic political decisions, the case for a just, comprehensive and lasting peace in our region is undermined. Other countries, where the US and Israel have influence, may be encouraged by Canberra’s latest flip regarding the Palestinian issue to follow suit. How does that help restore the rights of the Palestinians and their struggle to rid themselves of occupation?

On the other hand, the Australian move must be dealt with firmly by Arab and Muslim countries. It is shocking that Bahrain had chosen to water down the effects of the decision, while clearly breaking rank with the rest of Arab countries. It is puzzling that few Arab countries have come out to condemn the move, symbolic as it may be, so far.

This erosion in the Arab position on one of the most uniting, as well as just, issues is an indication of the growing political marginalisation of this region. It is an outcome of years of internecine conflicts and a failure to carry out resolutions that would have served the people of the region and foreign interference. The shift in Australia’s long-standing policy may not have changed things on the ground, but it must be seen as a blow to the Palestinians, the Arabs and Muslims around the world. A firm response is warranted, albeit unlikely, and therein lies the danger that other countries may follow.


Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.

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