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Three weeks ago, the prime minister said there would be no changes to his policy on Israel. Then, on the eve of the Wentworth byelection, he changed his mind. By Karen Middleton.

How Scott Morrison changed his mind on Israel

Dave Sharma (left), Kerryn Phelps and Tim Murray.
Credit: AAP Image / Dean Lewins

Three weeks ago, the new prime minister, Scott Morrison, gave an interview to The Australian Jewish News, assuring Australia’s most prominent Jewish newspaper that the government’s policy towards Israel would not change under his leadership.

Australia would not be following the United States’ policy changes of earlier this year, Morrison said in the interview, published on September 27. Its embassy would remain in Tel Aviv.

“We don’t want to do anything that disrupts progress towards a two-state solution,” the newspaper quoted him as saying. “It’s not so much having any philosophical or historical objection, I understand the US’s decision. But Australia will always make decisions based on its assessments.”

In May, the US rebadged its existing consulate in Jerusalem as its embassy, declaring it would recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital – a highly sensitive issue at the heart of the stalled Middle East peace process.

In his AJN interview, Morrison also committed Australia to continued support for the Iran nuclear deal that former US president Barack Obama had struck but that his successor, Donald Trump, had abandoned.

“The question is what it would be replaced with and if it makes things any safer,” Morrison said. “Australia and the US are the closest of allies when it comes to support for Israel but that doesn’t mean that in every specific instance we will do exactly the same thing.”

On Tuesday morning, without warning, Morrison announced an about-face on both issues – four days ahead of this weekend’s byelection in the seat of Wentworth, the electorate formerly held by his ousted predecessor Malcolm Turnbull, the loss of which would force him into minority government.

At 12.5 per cent, Wentworth has the highest proportion of Jewish voters of any seat in Australia.

The sudden about-face from Morrison followed a weekend report in The Sydney Morning Herald that said influential Rabbi Jeffrey Kamins, of Woollahra’s Emanuel Synagogue in the Wentworth electorate, had written to his congregation urging them to consider “the moral issue of climate change” when they voted.

The high-profile independent candidate Kerryn Phelps, who campaigned strongly on climate change and who the Liberals’ internal polling showed was on track to win, attends Emanuel Synagogue.

Morrison is understood to have reached his decisions about Israel at the weekend and put them to cabinet on Monday. Announcing them on Tuesday morning alongside Foreign Minister Marise Payne, he said of the possibility of formally recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moving Australia’s embassy there: “Australia, and I as prime minister, am open to that suggestion.”

He did not mention having said the opposite to The Australian Jewish News.

He insisted the byelection had not prompted this sudden change of heart.

Rather, Morrison said Australia’s former ambassador to Israel, Dave Sharma, who is the Liberal Party’s candidate in Wentworth, had persuaded him it might be possible to move the embassy and recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital without jeopardising progress towards a two-state solution with the Palestinian people, who also claim Jerusalem.

The way to do that, Sharma had argued, was to recognise West Jerusalem as the Israeli capital and East Jerusalem as the Palestinian capital.

Morrison said Sharma had persuaded him that “you can achieve both, and indeed by pursuing both, you are actually aiding the cause for a two-state solution”.

Morrison summed up: “Now, when people say sensible things, I think it is important to listen to them.”

Sharma’s argument is not new. He made it in a newspaper opinion piece published in May, four months before Morrison’s interview with AJN.

The assessments to which Morrison appeared to be referring in that interview came earlier this year when then prime minister Turnbull and foreign minister Julie Bishop sought Australian agencies’ advice after the US announced its embassy decision.

Those assessments universally opposed Australia doing the same.

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade argued it could jeopardise bilateral relations with Indonesia and Malaysia and trading partners in the Middle East.

The department estimated moving the embassy would cost at least $200 million because of the high price of real estate in Jerusalem, where Australia doesn’t have premises, and of security.

Australia’s security agencies also warned that such a move could prompt a backlash that would put the safety of Australian diplomats at risk across the Arab and wider Muslim world. Leaked Australian Security Intelligence Organisation advice dated this week said the same.

Morrison’s commitment is only to consider the moves and is not yet a promise to do more. Both policy changes have strong support in the Jewish community.

On Monday night, Morrison telephoned Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, to advise him of the preliminary decisions and to propose the two countries appoint military attachés in their respective embassies.

Israel and the United States warmly welcomed his decisions.

DFAT officials contacted Australia’s five-eyes intelligence partners – the US, Britain, Canada and New Zealand – and Morrison messaged the Indonesian president Joko Widodo. Foreign Minister Payne also notified her Indonesian counterpart, Retno Marsudi.

Marsudi was hosting the Palestinian foreign minister Riyad al-Maliki in Jakarta on Tuesday and The Saturday Paper has confirmed she asked specifically if the Australian government could at least delay the announcement until her visitor had departed.

She was told this was not possible.

Marsudi told Payne the decision was “a really big blow” that would “affect bilateral relations” and “slap Indonesia’s face”. The two spoke by phone later.

The Indonesian minister gave a joint news conference with al-Maliki on Tuesday, in which she expressed solidarity with the Palestinians.

“Indonesia asks Australia and other countries to continue supporting the Palestine–Israel peace process in accordance with the principles that have been agreed, and to not take steps that may threaten the peace process and world stability,” Marsudi said.

On Wednesday, former Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce said “we’ve got to be careful” about the trade implications of the proposal to move the embassy.

“Indonesia, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Jordan – [there are] lots of sensitivities here,” Joyce told Sky News.

Trade Minister Simon Birmingham said he did not believe Australia’s free-trade negotiations with Indonesia would be affected, despite concerns earlier in the week. He said the government would look at the embassy issue “thoroughly, carefully, deliberatively”.

“That’s the kind of process you would expect,” he said. We are open to change but not committing to the change.”

But the process thus far has been called into question, with Labor accusing the government of abandoning decades of bipartisan policy on Israel for domestic political expediency.

Shadow foreign minister Penny Wong said Morrison’s announcement had already damaged relations.

“He’s put the Liberal Party before the nation,” Wong told Radio National.

“… The only thing the prime minister, Mr Morrison, was thinking about was the seat of Wentworth and his own political interests.”

On Tuesday, Morrison argued he was making a public announcement because Australia was about to vote at the United Nations against the Palestinian Authority taking a turn chairing the G77 group of countries, a vote that was held in the early hours of Wednesday.

But The Saturday Paper has confirmed this was a routine UN vote and Australia was adhering to its usual practice, which is to vote against any propositions that specifically relate to Israel and the Palestinian Authority and are seen as directly detrimental to Israel. On more general votes that could also be detrimental, the policy is to abstain. These positions are not generally announced in advance.

The policy shift on Jerusalem is among a number of changes floated ahead of the weekend byelection in socially progressive Wentworth. They relate directly to issues featuring heavily in the campaign, including the treatment of refugees in offshore detention.

Having consistently rejected New Zealand’s standing offer to take refugees being held on Nauru and Manus Island, Morrison said suddenly this week that he would consider allowing more than 80 children on Nauru to go to New Zealand, provided the Labor Opposition agreed to enact legislation banning them from having the right to ever come to Australia.

Labor has rejected the condition, as has New Zealand, which says it won’t countenance anything that creates second-class citizens.

The Morrison government has also become entangled in the issue of religious freedom in the context of Wentworth, where both LGBTQI rights and the rights to observe religious practice are strongly supported.

Conservative Liberals are threatening to push Morrison to do more to protect religious freedom once the byelection is over.

On Monday, the government also embarrassed itself by backing a One Nation motion in the Senate that complained about discrimination against white people and declared “it’s okay to be white”. Attorney-General Christian Porter’s office had instructed government senators to vote for it, apparently without realising the phrase is a slogan favoured by white supremacists and neo-Nazis.

Like all non-government motions, it went to the relevant minister’s office for scrutiny – in this case, the attorney-general’s – because it dealt with racial discrimination.

Porter and government Senate leader Mathias Cormann apologised on Tuesday for what they said was an “administrative” error. Labor, the Greens and some crossbench independents combined to defeat the motion by two votes.

Porter blamed his staff, saying they had wrongly interpreted the motion as being anti-racist and had not notified him, something that surprised some colleagues, who say motions from One Nation would normally be scrutinised closely.

Cormann persuaded the senate to redo the vote, so government senators could then join those voting “No”.

Back in Wentworth, the government has struggled to respond to concerns over climate change and anger at the removal of Malcolm Turnbull, who held the seat on a margin of 17 per cent, much of which his supporters say is a personal vote.

On Wednesday, Morrison acknowledged Turnbull’s removal was “a very big issue” for voters but appealed to them to consider Sharma.

Sharma’s attempts to neutralise criticism of the government’s attitude to climate change were not aided by Environment Minister Melissa Price, who mocked the plight of Pacific island nations under threat from rising sea levels.

Price insulted the visiting former president of Kiribati and climate change campaigner Anote Tong when she encountered him dining with Labor senator Patrick Dodson and others at a Canberra restaurant, accusing Tong of being only after “cash”. According to Dodson’s accounts, contained in a letter of complaint he sent to the minister, she said: “For the Pacific it’s always about the cash. I have my chequebook here. How much do you want?”

In Wentworth, the Liberals had the cash flowing with a bombardment of television and online advertising attacking Phelps and endorsing Sharma. There were also robocalls from former foreign minister Bishop and Treasurer Josh Frydenberg, who is Jewish and who also made in-person appeals in the electorate.

Malcolm Turnbull further angered some Liberals by declining to sign a letter to constituents endorsing Sharma. He ended his extended holiday in New York this week, flying to Singapore to visit son Alex, who has been active on social media since his father’s demise, advocating first Labor candidate Tim Murray and then endorsing Kerryn Phelps.

On Thursday, the Liberal Party was forced to distance itself from a smear campaign against Phelps after an anonymous email was sent to hundreds of Wentworth voters falsely alleging she had been diagnosed with HIV and had pulled out of the race and urging them to vote for Sharma instead.

Phelps, Sharma, Morrison and Murray were among those who condemned the email, all saying they did not believe it had come from the Liberal Party. Morrison said he would be horrified if it had.

“That is the ugly side of Australian politics and it has no place in any such contest,” he said.

It was a bad week in politics, but for a prime minister with a growing list of policy inconsistencies to explain, the week after Wentworth is not looking like being much better.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 20, 2018 as "How Scott Morrison changed his mind". Subscribe here.

Karen Middleton
is The Saturday Paper’s chief political correspondent.