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‘West Jerusalem, Israel’
Photo: Getty Images

‘West Jerusalem, Israel’

Israeli government essentially shuns decision by Australia to recognize western part of the holy city as the Jewish state’s capital

There is clearly something about the designation “West Jerusalem, Israel” that irks the government of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, manifest in the unenthusiastic response to Australian leader Scott Morrison’s recognition Saturday exclusively of the western part of the holy city as the capital of Israel. Netanyahu failed to release a statement on the matter, whereas the Foreign Ministry described the prospective opening of an Australian trade and defense office in Jerusalem as merely “a step in the right direction.”

When contacted by The Media Line, Australian Ambassador to Israel Chris Cannan directed the query to officials in Canberra who did not reply in advance of publication.

Observers are attributing the cold Israeli response to Morrison’s “puzzling” decision, in the words of Parliament Speaker Yuli Edelstein, primarily to the prime minister’s commitment to likewise recognizing  the eastern part of the city as the capital of a Palestinian state in the eventuality of a future peace agreement. This dovetails with Russia’s recognition last year of western Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, the tacit implication being that the status of Jerusalem remains contested, which contravenes the position held across most of the Israeli political spectrum.

In fact, aside from the need to thwart Iran’s expansionism and potential nuclearization, there is perhaps no more bipartisan and oft-stated Israeli strategic objective than maintaining in perpetuity control over a “united” Jerusalem.

“From the perspective of the Israeli government there is disappointment as it would not like to see the separation of eastern and western Jerusalem and especially not for the former part to be considered the capital of a Palestinian state,” Ambassador Alon Liel, former director-general of Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, explained to The Media Line. “Also, this decision was taken by one of Israel’s closest allies—that often votes in its favor at the United Nations—and therefore resonates more strongly.

“In my view,” he elaborated, “Australia has assumed a balanced approach that can serve as a model for other countries and help advance the peace process by countering the damage done by [United States President] Donald Trump. Most nations agree with [Canberra], which has now indicated that Washington made a mistake by not acting proportionally.”

In the wake of the White House’s Jerusalem declaration over a year ago and the subsequent relocation of the American Embassy to the city, Netanyahu proclaimed that many more countries were readying to follow suit. And, indeed, Guatemala and Paraguay did so soon afterwards.

Since then, however, this momentum appears to have stalled, as evidenced by Asuncion’s recent decision to reverse course and move its mission back to Tel Aviv. Then there is last month’s inauguration by Czech president of a “House” in Jerusalem, another symbolic pseudo-embassy opened amid opposition to a more significant diplomatic initiative by the country’s premier. For his part, Brazilian President-elect Jair Bolsonaro also is wavering on his campaign promise to move his nation’s embassy to Jerusalem as he comes under increasing pressure from the Arab-Islamic world.

Even President Trump contends that his actions have not pre-determined the future borders of the city, maintaining they are still subject to the outcome of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. That the White House directed the State Department to bring the American consul in Jerusalem—which attends primarily to Palestinian needs—under the jurisdiction of the new embassy in the western district of Arnona is unlikely to alleviate Israeli concerns that the issue seems far from “off the table.”

Not unexpectedly, Palestinian leaders denounced Australia’s move, with chief negotiator Saeb Erekat describing the “irresponsible” policy as “[an affront] to world peace and security.” Senior official Hanan Ashrawai claimed the move is an attempt by Canberra to “us[e] Palestinian rights to bribe the Zionist lobby” ahead of the next Australian elections.

“United Nations resolution 478 of 1980 [adopted following Israel’s annexation of the eastern part of Jerusalem] called on all countries to refrain from changing the status of the city in any way, so Australia’s move is a violation of international law,” Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, chair of the Political Committee of the Palestinian Legislative Council and formerly deputy foreign minister of the Palestinian Authority, stressed to The Media Line.

“Moreover, Australia at the same time did not recognize a Palestinian state with the eastern part of Jerusalem as its capital so this makes it even more unacceptable. Even if it had been even-handed, we would still prefer to have an agreement and understanding with the rest of the world.”

While the Arab League, too, vociferously denounced Australia’s move, Bahrain notably offered reserved support of the announcement and suggested it in no way harms the Palestinian cause.

Nevertheless, it appears that sovereignty over Jerusalem is today as disputed as when Jordan—which at the time occupied the eastern portion—forced Israel’s hand by joining invading Arab armies during the 1967 war. In the ensuing fighting, Jewish forces took control over the territory, where the Western Wall is located, for the first time in two thousand years.

As such, analysts note that Australia’s decision may, over the short-term, constitute less of a blow to Palestinian aspirations than to the Israeli government’s long-term claim over the entirety of the Jewish state’s so-called “eternal and undivided” capital.

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