Mainstream Jewish organizations in Australia expressed surprise and anger Tuesday at the decision taken by their government to reverse its recognition of West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
In a statement, the Executive Council of Australian Jewry said it was “extremely disappointed” that this change of policy was made “without public consultation or opportunity for public debate,” and “in a conspicuously opaque manner.”
The decision was approved Tuesday morning by the Labor-led government headed by Anthony Albanese. When it took office in May, Jewish community leaders had expressed concerns that it might be less friendly to Israel than the previous government, which had been headed by the conservative Liberal party and had recognized West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in 2018.
This is the first major policy change introduced by the Albanese government to affect Israel.
“Aside from being poor policy, the withdrawal of Australia’s recognition that Israel’s capital is in Jerusalem is a gratuitous insult to a key economic and strategic ally, with no countervailing benefit for Australians,” the ECAJ statement said. “This is no way to treat an ally whose intelligence-sharing with Australia has prevented at least one terrorist attack against Australians that we know of.”
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The decision, the ECAJ statement added, “panders to the most extreme elements of the Labor Party and will also serve as a disincentive for the Palestinians to return to negotiations. Jerusalem is and will remain the capital of Israel, the site of its parliament, supreme court, ministerial offices and president’s residence. West Jerusalem has been part of Israel’s territory since the state was established in 1948.”
The statement was signed by ECAJ President Jillian Segal and the organization’s two co-directors, Peter Wertheim and Alex Ryvchin.
The Australian cabinet voted to change its policy on Jerusalem during the Jewish holiday of Simchat Torah, a day after The Guardian reported that the Australian Foreign Ministry had deleted a reference on its website to its recognition of West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
In response to the move, Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid said Tuesday that “in light of the way in which this decision was made in Australia, as a hasty response to an incorrect report in the media, we can only hope that the Australian government manages other matters more seriously and professionally.”
The ECAJ statement noted “with regret” that the policy change was approved on a Jewish holiday “when we were precluded from making any public response.”
“There is a bitter irony in the fact that the government made its decision in the way that it did on a day when Jews celebrate receiving the Torah, the ethical basis of Western civilization,” it added.
The Zionist Federation of Australia echoed those sentiments, calling the policy change “deeply disappointing and counterproductive to achieving the government’s objective of a two-state solution.”
In a statement, ZFA President Jeremy Leibler said: “Every other sovereign country is allowed to determine the location of its capital. Israel should be treated no differently.”
He noted that the decision had been welcomed by Hamas, which is designated a terrorist organization by the Australian government. “That alone should cause the Albanese government to reflect on this decision,” he said. “Sadly, in making this decision, the Albanese government is holding the State of Israel to a different standard to any other sovereign nation and doing so will reward those who refuse to recognize the reality on the ground and negotiate a much-needed resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
The timing of the decision and the way in which it was taken, Leibler said, not only “sent a very unfortunate message to Israel,” but also “will cause deep upset within the Jewish Australian community.”
Michael Danby, a former Labor lawmaker and chairman of the Australian foreign affairs committee, criticized the decision, calling it “chaotic and unprofessional.”
“Penny Wong said this was only a word change on the [Foreign Ministry] website. But [Tuesday] she said it was a cabinet decision made this morning. Until now, the government has been remarkably responsible with foreign policy in other areas – particularly with China it’s been very strong. But this decision comes out of the blue.
“You can see that in Prime Minister Yair Lapid’s surprising personal reaction to the Australian announcement. Maybe that’s because Israelis like Australia so much and we like Israelis too – and any stepping back is particularly noticeable,” Danby said.
“The government is playing student politics with the Middle East,” he added.
A senior source in Australia's Jewish community leadership said that the community had been kept in the dark about the decision, as was Australia’s ambassador to Israel.
The same source called the move “silly and so out of step, coming two weeks before an Israeli election. I think the government’s focus is parochial and provincial. We feel let down.”
By contrast, the Australian branch of the New Israel Fund, known to be far more critical of the Israeli government, welcomed the policy reversal. “The Australian government is working as a balanced partner in dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by forging policies which are more in line with our like-minded allies and partners around the world and support the advancement of a peaceful resolution,” said Executive Director Liam Getreu.
“Australia is in a unique position to hold valued relationships with both Israel and the Palestinians, and today’s announcement shows the seriousness with which the government takes that role,” he added. “The previous policy did nothing to advance a vision of two democratic states living side by side, instead placing Australia firmly in the global minority.”
He said that the Jewish community should not have been surprised, noting that four years ago, prominent Labor member Penny Wong – who is now the foreign minister – had tweeted the following: “Labor does not support unilateral recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and in government would reverse this decision.”