Media Microscope: Jerusalem Syndrome

Treasurer Josh Frydenberg called out Mahathir Mohammad's record of stark antisemitism, to the annoyance of some commentators

The nominal catalysts keeping the debate alive over Australia reviewing moving its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem were: 1) the fate of Australia’s imminent free trade agreement (FTA) with Indonesia; 2) Malaysian President Mahathir Mohamad’s ASEAN summit comments that an embassy shift would “add to the cause for terrorism”; and 3) Federal Treasurer Josh Frydenberg’s Bolt Report (Nov. 14) appearance noting Mahathir’s long record of antisemitism and Holocaust denial.

The Fairfax newspapers gave the appearance of a media organisation determined to find constant new angles to insist any such policy change would fracture Australian relations with regional neighbours.

For instance, there was the Age/SMH Oct. 31 story declaring that ANU international law Professor Don Rothwell had warned Australia could face legal action in The Hague if it went ahead with moving its embassy, as Palestinians have threatened against the US. No contrary legal opinion was included.

Then there was Age/SMH Nov. 3 report that former Indonesian ambassador to Australia, Nadjib Riphat Kesoema, was “shocked” by Morrison’s announcement. 

On Nov. 8, the Age/SMH reported former PM Kevin Rudd would deliver a speech in Jakarta warning against moving the embassy, arguing the US Embassy move did “fundamental violence to the Middle East peace process.” 

On Nov. 15 and 16, the latest developments warranted Age/SMH cover stories, yet these papers buried Frydenberg calling out Mahathir’s antisemitism and cogently explaining the hypocrisy of Indonesia and Malaysia demanding Australia not move its embassy when they refuse to have diplomatic relations with Israel at all. This was reported only at the tail end of a Nov. 17 report on Morrison’s call for US leadership on trade, without giving any details of what Frydenberg actually said! 

Fairfax’s Australian Financial Review (AFR) seemed particularly perturbed by the potential ramifications for the FTA, warning on Nov. 15 that moving the embassy would place “us with the diplomatic outlier US President…Trump with no apparent benefit to Australia or the two-state solution.”

The AFR also attacked Frydenberg on Nov. 20 for “publicly abusing” Mahathir, which is a dubious way to describe a justified spotlight on a self-declared, proud antisemite. But at least the paper reported Frydenberg’s comments (Nov. 17).

In the AFR (Nov. 20), former Labor minister Craig Emerson seemed to have forgotten that Morrison’s Oct. 16 announcement stated any embassy move would go to west Jerusalem and that Australia “expected” east Jerusalem would be a future Palestinian state’s capital. Emerson also cited Indonesian “foreign minister’s WhatsApp message that the move would ‘slap Indonesia’s face on the Palestine issue’.” It is only a slap in the face if both countries had agreed to have identical foreign policies. 

The consensus in non-Fairfax newspaper commentary largely held the Embassy review announcement was poorly timed but argued Indonesian and Malaysian pressure was actually a reason Australia’s national interest supported a move. 

News Ltd columnist Peta Credlin (Nov. 18) said Australia formally committing to the principle of a Palestinian capital in east Jerusalem was an incentive for the Palestinians to resume peace talks.

Andrew Bolt (Nov. 19) wrote that not moving the embassy would show “Indonesia it has the right and power to tell us where to place our own embassies in countries that are our allies. Backing down now would tell everyone – including the Chinese tyranny – that we’d sell even our right to place our embassies in friendly countries for the sake of some trade.” 

The Daily Telegraph’s Tim Blair (Nov. 19) argued that “terrorist motivations are… pathetic… Mahathir…now warns Australia not to move our embassy in Israel to Jerusalem because that 54km relocation could provoke attacks.”

The Australian supported the move, as did the paper’s foreign affairs editor Greg Sheridan in columns and on ABC TV “Q&A” (Nov. 19). But the Australian’s Paul Kelly was unimpressed by the Government’s politics and policy.

Security expert Jacinta Carroll took on the argument that a move heightened the risk of terrorism, saying, “The fact that we are a successful, multicultural nation with a generally well integrated Muslim minority that has fought against terrorism already makes us a target [for al-Qaeda and ISIS]. And when you look at every country in the world that has been the victim of terrorism… the terrorists’ propaganda always says that the victims brought it on themselves. Apparently, we are all doing something wrong to justify indiscriminate slaughter,” Daily Telegraph (Nov. 17).