Since before the Wentworth by-election the Morrison government has been insisting it can put Australia’s embassy in Israel wherever it wants. But just as obviously, other countries can react to any decision to relocate the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in any way they want. It’s this second ‘obviously’ that seems to have escaped the architects of this reckless announcement.
If the government presses ahead with the embassy relocation, the trade deal with Indonesia will be dead. And if the government backs down, it will be seen by its conservative faction to have succumbed to political pressure by our Muslim neighbours. As ministers grapple with their self-inflicted wedge they will inevitably begin discussing a compromise in the hope of appeasing all sides. That compromise will likely foreshadow moving the embassy to Jerusalem at some distant time when a two-state solution between Israel and Palestine has been achieved, with our embassy for Israel to be situated in West Jerusalem and for Palestine in East Jerusalem.
The government will declare it has followed due process in arriving at this decision and everyone should be happy. Never mind that the pre-Wentworth announcement was the antithesis of due process and that the Australian government’s claims around the time that Indonesia was fine with the announcement were quickly shown to be fabrications. The question for the future is whether the trade deal with Indonesia will be signed and friendly relations restored.
While the Morrison government has insisted that the Indonesian government must appreciate that Australia is a parliamentary democracy, it seems blind to the reality that Indonesia is too. In fact, Indonesia’s general election will be held on 17 April 2019, where for the first time the president, the vice president and members of Indonesia’s parliament will all be up for election.
It will be an election centred on religion – about which candidates are the truest adherents to the Muslim faith. President Widodo will not want to be seen to have been bounced around by Australia. Opposition presidential candidates and parliamentarians till fertile ground when appealing to nationalist sentiments within their constituencies.
A Morrison government pre-Christmas announcement that it will move our Israel embassy from Tel Aviv to West Jerusalem while establishing a Palestine embassy in East Jerusalem is likely to be met with suspicion and even derision by nationalists contesting the Indonesian elections. They will question what this has all been about, and whether Australia’s true desire remains to move the Israel embassy ahead of any two-state solution. They will note that many Liberals, including former prime ministers, John Howard and Tony Abbott, treasurer Josh Frydenberg and assistant minister for treasury and finance Zed Seselja, have strongly backed the move. And they have wonderful campaigning material in the form of leader of the Liberal Party’s conservative faction, Eric Abetz, threatening to cut of Australian aid to Indonesia if it doesn’t accede to the Morrison government’s wishes.
Morrison’s decision to announce a review of the embassy location on the day of a Palestinian delegation visit to Indonesia was acutely embarrassing for the Indonesian government, as confirmed by its foreign minister’s WhatsApp message that the move would "slap Indonesia's face on the Palestine issue".
Expecting the Indonesian government to get over the incident and merrily sign the trade deal with Australia during our festive season is a triumph of delusion over reality. The Indonesian cabinet might easily find a pretext for deferral until after the country’s general elections. Even then, the opposition parties would be tempted to campaign on exactly that – a re-elected Widodo government would be willing to sign a trade deal with a country that has slapped Indonesia’s face.
Adding to the embassy relocation review Australia’s support for the Iran nuclear deal – when Australia is not even a signatory – serves only to reinforce perceptions within the region, rightly or wrongly, that the whole exercise is anti-Muslim. If the Morrison government insists that Australia alone will determine its foreign policy, why is it slavishly following Donald Trump’s lead on both the embassy issue and the Iran deal?
In 1992, Paul Keating told parliament that backflips were fine if conducted with''the appropriate degree of style and panache'', pointing out that ''Greg Louganis, the great American diver, won a gold medal for his backflips.'' The Morrison government should perform a triple backflip with pike and announce it has no intention of moving Australia’s embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.