Morrison’s Mid-East announcements: the wash-up

The dust finally seems to have settled on Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s recent Middle East announcements and it is now possible to take a clear view.

After considering both internal and external circumstances, Morrison announced on October 16, amidst some other less controversial announcements, that his Government would conduct two reviews: one into whether Australia should recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel while exploring the possibility of a capital for a future Palestinian state in eastern Jerusalem; the second, into whether Australia’s current policy towards Iran sufficiently reflects Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

Contrary to the breathless media reporting about the announcement being a “thought-bubble” and “policy on the run”, evidence presented by the Government and by bureaucrats at recent parliamentary hearings indicates the announcement appears to have been well-informed and reasonably well-managed by the Government.

It responded in a sensible fashion to issues the Coalition Government, as confirmed by former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull, had been considering for some time. And the announcement made was to review long-standing policies, rather than change the policies. Those who have suggested there should have been consultation before the announcement are essentially saying the Government should have conducted a review to determine whether it should hold a review.

First to the announcement of the review into whether Australia should consider recognising Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, while exploring the possibility of a capital for a future Palestinian state in eastern Jerusalem. Review details remain vague; the Government has not announced who will lead the review or a timeline for its completion.

Nonetheless, a significant block in the local commentariat has lashed out at the prospect of a review and it’s time to set the record straight.

Jerusalem

Myth 1: This announcement was ‘policy on the run’.

Fact 1: The Prime Minister was extensively briefed by the public service and put significant thought into the review announcement, whose timing was dictated by external factors.

Morrison received his first briefing on the Middle East from the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet on August 27, three days after taking the top job. Over the next month and a half leading up to the announcement, he requested a further three briefings on this issue. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) confirmed that an additional briefing on a related matter – the UN vote on Palestine taking the leadership of the G77 vote – was provided to the Foreign Minister on October 8.

It was in the context of the UN vote, scheduled for October 16, that the Prime Minister made his announcement that same day. “There is a vote [on the G77 leadership] tomorrow morning, on Wednesday. Australia will be voting no,” Morrison told the media. “Now, that is a significant decision and in my view as a new Prime Minister of only just over seven weeks, that would raise questions about where do I stand on a range of other issues? And I thought it was important that that context be provided straight away.”

Myth 2: Australia did not properly consult with Indonesia before making this announcement.

Fact 2: It may come as a surprise to some, but Australia ministers do not usually run policy decisions, much less reviews of policy, past their Indonesian counterparts. While Indonesia is an extremely important neighbour, the response from the archipelago needs to be considered in the context of both the bilateral relationship and the domestic situation in Indonesia itself.

As respected journalist – and Asia expert – Greg Sheridan wrote: “There will always be ups and downs with Indonesia”. He reminded: “Indonesia does not have diplomatic relations with Israel. It refuses to recognise Israel at any level.”

Like many Muslim majority nations, Indonesia embraces the Palestinian cause and is openly hostile to the Jewish State, this is especially so in the lead up to a presidential election campaign where the moderate President Joko Widodo is keen to beef up his religious credentials among more conservative Muslim voters.

Despite all of that, the Australian Government did pre-brief Indonesia – as well around a dozen other countries – before Morrison’s announcement. Senior DFAT officials spoke with the Indonesian Ambassador in Canberra the night before the announcement and Australia’s Ambassador to Indonesia Gary Quinlan called on Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi the same evening. This was followed up with a phone call between Payne and Marsudi after the official announcement, and there was also contact between Prime Minister Morrison and President Widodo. As Sheridan wrote, “The best way to handle Indonesia’s sensibilities is by calm, private dialogue and often not reacting much to their public complaints at all.”

Myth 3: This announcement turns decades of ‘bipartisan policy’ on its head.

Fact 3: As things stand, there has been no change of Government policy. It is good fortune that both major parties in Australia have maintained long-standing support for a Jewish state in Israel and a state for the Palestinians, but as both Morrison and Payne acknowledged, the process towards achieving that has stalled. It seems futile to perpetuate a policy setting which is, on the face of it, illogical and exceptional – Israel is the only country in the world whose capital is not recognised by Australia – just because it enjoys broad support. Foreign Minister Payne said in Senate Estimates that the context of the Government’s announcement is the “continued Australian support for a two-state solution and a peace process, but a peace process which the Prime Minister has identified as one which appears to be at a point of stalemate … A prime minister and a government are entitled to look at policy positions taken in the past and to consider whether they continue to be in Australia’s national interests and whether they continue to be appropriate to the circumstances as they pertain right now.”

Iran and the JCPOA

Now to the second review into the Iran nuclear agreement – or the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Prime Minister Morrison, in announcing the review, noted it would include an assessment of the advice provided by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on Iran’s compliance with the nuclear deal. He also said issues around Iran’s greater regional ambitions, including its financing and sponsorship of terrorism, would be included in the review.

While not a signatory to the JCPOA, Australia has provided important verbal support for the agreement. Australia’s most senior diplomat, Frances Adamson, recently confirmed Australia’s current support for the JCPOA on the basis that “the International Atomic Energy Agency’s view is that Iran continues to abide by its commitments under the JCPOA”. Adamson, the DFAT secretary, did add that following US President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw his country’s support for the deal in May, DFAT has “been open to the fitness of the JCPOA to serve the purpose for which it was intended”.

Adamson’s favourable view of the IAEA inspections is shared by the previous foreign minister Julie Bishop, but it remains problematic. There is extensive evidence that Iran has failed to fully comply with IAEA checks, and there is physical proof that it maintains nuclear records and information that should have been destroyed under the deal. Similarly, it is widely understood that IAEA inspectors have not had full access to all possible nuclear sites in Iran. Hopefully, this evidence will be canvassed in the review.

We know that the Australian Government is under pressure from current JCPOA signatories – Iran, Russia, China, the United Kingdom, France and Germany – to hold firm. Some of those countries, although we do not know which ones, have already made formal representations, known in the diplomatic business as demarche, to the Australian Government,

Coordinating the Iran review, which is expected to be delivered to Morrison by December, will be Caroline Millar, a former long-time DFAT officer who recently joined the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet.

While this second review has not enjoyed the same amount of breathless commentary in the local media, it is no doubt urgent that Australia’s policy be reassessed given the changes in the global environment over recent months, including the US withdrawal from the JCPOA, renewed US sanctions on Iran, and Israeli intelligence revelations that indicate Iranian compliance with the JCPOA may be far less complete than previously thought.

In coming months, as these reviews are undertaken and then published, Australians will continue to discuss and debate the role this country can take to promote peace in the Middle East. It was a principled decision by the Morrison Government to look into whether current policy aligns with Australia’s national interest in light of changing circumstances, whatever the outcome may be.