By George Browning
Scott Morrison’s ham-fisted handling of his own mess has alienated everyone and fixed nothing, writes George Browning. In rejecting expert opinion, the PM has also revealed a cavalier disregard for our national interests.
When Scott Morrison first raised the prospect of recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in the closing days of the Wentworth by-election campaign, the backlash was immediate.
Former Liberal Party leader John Hewson derided what he described as a “misguided stunt”. Even the normally sympathetic Paul Kelly, editor-at-large for The Australian, blamed the “unwise, unjustified and dangerous” announcement on “appalling process and misconceived policy”. Kelly concluded “there must be a prospect he will retreat when the reviews are completed and cooler heads prevail”. There were many who shared his hope. After all, if the proposal was merely a shabby gambit, then surely it would be dropped following the by-election.
Instead, the Government commissioned a review, which apart from consulting the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the Defence Department, ASIO and the Office of National Assessments, included input from a hand-picked group of “wise elders”.
Although the advice was not unanimous, it has been reported the clear weight of opinion was there should be no change to Australia’s policy regarding Jerusalem.
On Saturday, Scott Morrison announced that he had received the review’s recommendations (omitting to say what they were) before launching a Trump-style attack on the United Nations as “the place where Israel is bullied and where anti-Semitism is cloaked in language about human rights”. Declaring that “fundamentally, it’s the right of every country to choose its capital”, he stated that, although he would not as yet be moving Australia’s embassy, he was recognising West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and would establish a trade and security office in the city.
As a sop to the Palestinians, he acknowledged their “aspirations” (not rights, only Israel has rights) to “a future state with its capital in East Jerusalem” and insisted that his decision would in no way affect the final status of Jerusalem.
This is disingenuous nonsense. Israel does not claim West Jerusalem as its capital. It claims the whole of Jerusalem as its “eternal undivided capital”. This is the “right” Morrison recognised on Saturday and why the vast majority of the UN refuses to recognise Israel’s claim to the city.
So how did what seemed like an ill-considered “thought bubble” harden into a radical shift in foreign policy? Why did the Government commission a review only to ignore its recommendations? When, in June, the Liberal Party’s Annual Council voted to relocate the Australian embassy to Jerusalem, Julie Bishop, mindful of warnings the move would involve many dangers and no advantages to Australia, moved swiftly to quash the motion. Today, Bishop is on the backbench. Her resignation as foreign minister is indicative of a deeper decay in Government policy formulation.
In choosing to reject expert opinion, in its willingness to jeopardise regional partnerships, and in its cavalier disregard for Australia’s national interests and international reputation, the Morrison Government has demonstrated its deep dysfunction and unfitness to govern.
Though the longer-term consequences of such ineptitude are difficult to foresee, those hoping a Labor government will reverse Saturday’s announcement should remember that, in matters of such international sensitivity, it is much easier for the incompetent to ruin than for the wise to repair.
Given the Netanyahu Government’s willingness to play hard ball on Jerusalem, the deep influence of the Israel Lobby within the ALP, and the collapse of a bipartisan consensus on the issue, it is doubtful whether a future Labor government would be willing to risk such retaliation.