By Rod McGuirk
CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — Australia has raised the prospect of following the United States by relocating its embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in a policy shift that critics described Tuesday as a desperate grab for domestic political gain to win a crucial by-election.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the idea was suggested to him by a former ambassador to Israel, Dave Sharma, who is a candidate for the ruling conservative Liberal Party in a by-election Saturday in a Sydney electorate with a large Jewish population.
At stake is the government’s single-seat majority in the House of Representatives and Morrison’s ability to retain power without doing deals with independent lawmakers.
Any political gain could come at the cost of strained ties with Muslim-majority countries, including neighboring Indonesia, whose foreign minister expressed strong concern.
The Trump administration turned its back on decades of U.S. policy last December by recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and in May, it moved the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv. The decision angered the Muslim world and was a setback for Palestinian aspirations for statehood. Palestinians see east Jerusalem, captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war, as the capital of a future independent state.
Morrison said Australia remained committed to finding a two-state solution.
“When sensible suggestions are put forward that are consistent with your policy positioning and in this case pursuing a two-state solution, Australia should be open-minded to this and I am open-minded to this and our government is open-minded to this,” Morrison told reporters.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he had recently spoken to Morrison and welcomed the Australian policy shift.
Morrison “informed me that he is considering officially recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel & moving the Australian embassy to Jerusalem. I’m very thankful to him for this,” Netanyahu tweeted. “We will continue to strengthen ties.”
In Indonesia’s capital, Jakarta, Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad Malki, who was attending solidarity events in the country, said Morrison’s statement was “very sad news” that would violate U.N. Security Council resolutions.
“Australia, by doing so, is risking trade and business relations with the rest of the world, particularly the Arab world and Muslim countries,” he said at a joint news conference with Indonesia’s foreign minister. “I hope Australia would reconsider that position before taking action.”
Australian Broadcasting Corp. reported that an unnamed Indonesian official had said Jakarta had been taken by surprise by the announcement, which could harm trade negotiations between the two countries.
When Morrison became prime minister in August, he made his first overseas trip to Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation and an ardent supporter of the Palestinian cause.
Morrison and Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo plan to sign an agreement this year aimed at boosting trade and investment.
Morrison told Parliament that he had briefed Widodo overnight about the announcement.
“I’ve been pleased to be able to explain very clearly the nature of the announcements that I’ve made today and I’ve been very pleased with the response that I’ve received from President Joko Widodo,” Morrison said.
But statements from Indonesian officials made it clear Widodo and his government were disappointed by the Australian stance.
Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi said the government questions the merits of Morrison’s announcement and has conveyed its “strong concern.”
“Indonesia has asked Australia and other countries to continue to support the Palestinian-Israeli peace process in accordance with the principles agreed upon and not take steps that could threaten the peace process itself, and threaten the stability of world peace,” she said.
Morrison also announced that Australia would vote against a United Nations resolution this week to recognize the Palestinian Authority as the chair of the Group of 77 developing countries and would review the 3-year-old Iran nuclear deal.
The U.S. earlier this year withdrew from the nuclear deal, a step that was welcomed by Israel. Netanyahu says the deal does not go far enough toward preventing Iran from developing a nuclear weapons capability.
Australia’s opposition center-left Labor Party said the announcement was a desperate attempt to win the by-election in the Wentworth electorate.
“The people of Wentworth, and all Australians, deserve a leader who puts the national interest ahead of his self-interest, and governs in the best long-term interest of the nation,” Labor lawmaker Penny Wong said.
Labor reminded the government that Frances Adamson, the head of Australia’s foreign department, said in June that the U.S. move had “not been helpful” for the Middle East peace process.
George Browning, president of the Australia Palestine Advocacy Network, accused the government of “aligning itself with the most erratic, reactionary and bullish U.S. foreign policy ever.”
“This is an irresponsible policy that compromises the future of millions of people in the Middle East for a handful of votes in Wentworth,” Browning said in a statement.
Morrison denied that the United States or the by-election had influenced his announcement.
“I have made this decision without any reference to the United States. It has not come up in any discussion I have had with the president or with officials,” Morrison said. “Australia makes its decisions about its foreign policy independently. We do so in our own national interests consistent with our own beliefs and our own values.”