Was Aussie Move Really A Capital Sin?


year after America recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, another important Western democracy has followed suit. But while President Donald Trump’s move was met with razzmatazz, this time there are just yawns and snarky comments.

Australia now recognizes Jerusalem as capital. Officials there saw it as a fitting move given the flourishing ties with Israel, cemented two years ago when Benjamin Netanyahu became the first sitting Israeli prime minister to visit there.

If you didn’t hear about last month’s announcement, or just heard the basics, you’re not alone. The news has been largely overlooked. The timing wasn’t ideal — Australia’s prime minister, Scott Morrison, made the supposedly big announcement as most of the world was winding down for Christmas. But this is more than a story of bad timing.

Morrison didn’t just recognize Jerusalem, but also said that Australia will set up a trade and defense office there. “With deepening defense industry ties and Australia-Israel trade now running at over 1.3 billion [Australian] dollars per year, this will help continue to build our strong bilateral trade relationship,” he said.

If he was expecting even a fraction of the enthusiasm and excitement expressed when Trump recognized Jerusalem, his hope was misplaced. Minister Tzachi Hanegbi, a Netanyahu confidant, said: “Our sovereignty will not be partitioned nor undermined.”

The problem came in the form of one word — “west.” Australia didn’t recognize all of Jerusalem as capital, but rather the western part of the city.

The idea here was to tell Israel that it accepts the facts on the ground, namely that while much of the international community hasn’t recognized any city as Israel’s capital, Australia sees exactly where Israel’s state institutions are located, and embraces this as the capital.

Morrison said that recognition is given to West Jerusalem, “being the seat of the Knesset and many of the institutions of government.” A few hours after his announcement, in western Jerusalem, Netanyahu held one of his cabinet meetings, where he tends to laud even the smallest of advances in Israel’s international standing. He didn’t even mention the Australian announcement.

Journalists wanted to know what he thought, so he just said that he had “nothing to add” to the Foreign Ministry’s statement. The statement he referred to was as cold as ice, simply saying that Australia has taken a “step in the right direction.”

Hanegbi was on hand to play the bad cop. He said that there is “no such thing as ‘West Jerusalem’ and ‘East Jerusalem,’” and suggested that as Australia based its announcement on the premise that there is, it made a “mistake” that it needs to “fix.”

Peter Medding, a politics professor at Hebrew University, thinks that Australia was unprepared for the backlash. “They did it as a friendly act,” he said of the leadership in Australia, where he grew up. “But they got it wrong.”

Medding told me that as the Israeli government sees it, “lots of people think they are helping out when they are really bulls in china shops.” He said that any gains from having western Jerusalem recognized as Israel’s capital are outweighed, in the government’s view, by the fact that eastern Jerusalem wasn’t also classified as its capital.

If that wasn’t enough, Morrison also said that he wants a two-state solution with the eastern part of the city becoming a Palestinian capital. The Israeli leadership resolutely states that Jerusalem won’t be divided.

As a journalist who writes from Israel for both Australian and American readers, and who closely follows the political scenes in both countries, I find myself wondering whether Israel’s response was very much a Trump-Era Reaction.

Let’s imagine that Trump hadn’t yet recognized Jerusalem, and Australia had come out with its announcement. Would Israel really have been so cold, or would it have graciously embraced the move? Perhaps not as the ideal announcement, but as an important one?

After all, Israel does celebrate partial breakthroughs — gestures that other countries make to Jerusalem, even in cases when there are deep problems in the relationship. Officials in Jerusalem are ecstatic that things are warming with Saudi Arabia, and that in the last three months three leading Israeli politicians paid visits to Gulf states and that “Hatikvah” was played at a judo contest in Abu Dhabi. Does it make sense that these developments with largely antagonistic countries are celebrated while the loyal friend Australia is shunned because its gesture wasn’t entirely in sync with Israeli thinking?

Australia wanted a two-state solution with Jerusalem as capital before its announcement, just as it does now. Nothing has changed in that respect. What has changed is that Australia recognized that the main area where Israel’s state institutions are concentrated is, in fact, its capital. In this spirit, there will be a trade and a defense office established there.

For the Netanyahu government, the episode of Trump recognizing Jerusalem was a dream come true. But it needs to welcome lesser gains, too. If there is one image Israel doesn’t want internationally, it’s that of an ungrateful nation.

Nathan Jeffay’s column appears twice a month.