Australia/Israel Review, Featured


Editorial: Canberra missteps as Israel goes to the polls

Oct 26, 2022 | Colin Rubenstein

Posters for leading party candidates Yair Lapid  and Binyamin Netanyahu on display as Israel nears its national election (Images: Oded Balilty/AAP)
Posters for leading party candidates Yair Lapid and Binyamin Netanyahu on display as Israel nears its national election (Images: Oded Balilty/AAP)

The announcement by the Australian Government that it was reversing the previous government’s 2018 decision to recognise west Jerusalem as Israel’s capital was not only very disappointing, but an own goal which damaged the Albanese Government’s self-declared policy objective of seeking to encourage a negotiated two-state Israeli-Palestinian peace. It also risked denting Australia’s credibility with some of our closest allies, raising questions about our Government’s moral clarity and level of understanding of the positive, historic dynamic in Israel-Arab relations reflected by the Abraham Accords.

Why is Israel alone, of all the countries in the world, seen as not having the right to choose its own capital, especially since west Jerusalem is not part of the land Israel gained control over in 1967? It has been Israel’s capital since 1950, hosting the Knesset, Israel’s parliament; Supreme Court; and most government ministries. When foreign dignitaries travel to Israel, including leaders of Arab countries, they meet Israeli leaders in Jerusalem.

Moreover, no one doubts that west Jerusalem will remain in Israel after any final status negotiations with the Palestinians. 

The international refusal to recognise any part of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital previously was not because of Palestinian demands but because of an unworkable and long-defunct proposal back in the 1940s that Jerusalem and Bethlehem should become an “international city” under UN control.

Later, the main argument became that altering the long-standing policy of not recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital could spark an angry or violent reaction, especially by the Palestinians, and set back hopes for peace negotiations. Yet when the Morrison Government recognised west Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and the US Government moved its embassy there, the reaction was extremely mild. Alarmist claims that Morrison’s decision would sink a free trade agreement with Indonesia also proved unfounded.

Israel should not be treated in a discriminatory way just because Palestinian intransigence has currently made final status negotiations impossible – especially in the wake of three Israeli offers of a Palestinian state with a capital in east Jerusalem. 

The Palestinian Authority has refused to even negotiate with Israel since 2014, instead seeking to demonise Israel in international forums and hoping to eventually achieve statehood without having to compromise or make concessions for peace.

When governments like ours take steps that treat Israel differently to all other countries, Palestinian leaders see it as vindication of their tactics, making them even less likely to negotiate or compromise. The fact that rejectionist terror groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad welcomed Australia’s changed stance only highlights how such moves do not help bring peace.

Moreover, the timing of the announcement was especially puzzling. Firstly, it effectively rewarded PA President Mahmoud Abbas after he recently offered support and legitimacy to Russian President Vladimir Putin, hailing the butcher of Ukraine as a supporter of “justice” and “international law”. In addition, Canberra’s announcement came just two weeks before an Israeli election, when every foreign policy development affecting Israel has direct political consequences. 

Predictably, Israel’s Opposition Leader and former PM Binyamin Netanyahu wasted no time in releasing a campaign video for his Likud Party blaming Israel’s centrist Prime Minister Yair Lapid and Defence Minister Benny Gantz for inviting the Jerusalem downgrade through their own policy failings. 

Australia’s diplomatic intervention probably won’t significantly affect the outcome of the November 1 election, yet who would have guessed that the Australian Labor Party would inadvertently risk undermining the fortunes of political allies abroad, such as the Israeli Labor party, in the context of a tight election campaign?

Israel’s election – its fifth in less than four years – is once again primarily a contest between a bloc of parties supporting Netanyahu’s return to the top job despite his current trial on corruption charges, and a diverse bloc led by current PM Lapid, united by opposition to Netanyahu’s return to office while under indictment. Likely outcomes include: A narrow right-wing government led by Netanyahu; a new anti-Netanyahu unity coalition similar to the outgoing “Coalition of Change” Government, with possible outside support from the mostly Arab Joint List; and another deadlocked Knesset triggering yet another election, with the current Government staying on in “caretaker” capacity. 

Few either in Israel or among its friends abroad want to see another deadlock after four years of political stalemate. At the same time, another concerning issue is the probability that a narrow Netanyahu government would depend on the support of the Religious Zionist party and its vehemently anti-Arab Jewish Power faction led by right-wing extremist Itamar Ben Gvir (see p. 18). 

So some innovative ideas are being canvassed, many centred on Gantz becoming a temporary compromise PM in some sort of unity agreement, with or without Netanyahu.

Other issues at stake for Israeli voters include curbing rising costs of living, improving education and health care, and strengthening national defence, especially in the face of Iranian nuclear and conventional threats. The foreign policy agenda also includes efforts to bring more regional neighbours into the Abraham Accords, as well as the recent maritime boundary agreement with Lebanon. 

Looming large, too, is the wave of Palestinian violence that has cost the lives of many Palestinians and Israelis this year, mainly due to the growing weakness of the increasingly out-of-touch PA Government. Any conceivable Israeli government is going to face a serious challenge in relating to a divided and hostile Palestinian people whose often dysfunctional leadership still remains disinterested in statehood if it means coexistence with Israel.

Israel’s vibrant democracy is doubtless up to the challenge, but a priority for the next Knesset should nonetheless be to enact electoral reforms to attempt to address the paralysis of the past few years, which has made long-term policymaking much more difficult.

As for Australia, the Albanese Government will likely be eager to put both the Jerusalem controversy and the very ill-conceived and insensitive way it was handled behind it. AIJAC hopes the experience will encourage the Government to make better choices in the future when faced with pressure from political forces seeking to undermine the close Australia-Israel relationship – a relationship that serves Australian national interests and values very well.

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