Aussie PM under fire for pitch to move embassy in Israel

Mr Scott Morrison has been criticised for what is seen as a politically desperate move.
Mr Scott Morrison has been criticised for what is seen as a politically desperate move.

Proposal could be seen as bid for Jewish vote in crucial by-election

Since becoming Prime Minister in August, Mr Scott Morrison has presented himself as a no-nonsense leader focused on the everyday interests of ordinary Australians.

So it was surprising to see him call a sudden press conference this week to float the possibility of following United States President Donald Trump's controversial decision to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

Mr Morrison's move was criticised by commentators, while Indonesia, a Muslim-majority nation, expressed strong concern over the announcement. Indonesia, which has at times had strained ties with Australia, reiterated its position that the status of Jerusalem must be negotiated as part of a two-state solution in the dispute between the Palestinians and Israel

Analysts said the announcement could jeopardise a proposed trade deal with Indonesia and would put pressure on President Joko Widodo, who faces an election next year, to publicly rebuke Australia.

This seemingly unusual move by Mr Morrison yet again proves the adage that all politics is local.

His announcement came just days ahead of Saturday's crucial by-election in a Sydney seat with a sizeable Jewish vote. A loss in Wentworth would cost the ruling coalition its razor-thin parliamentary majority. It would also place immense political pressure on Mr Morrison, whose Liberal Party has never lost the seat.

But it soon became clear why Mr Morrison may have resorted to such a seemingly politically desperate move. It emerged yesterday that polling by the party suggests its candidate, Mr Dave Sharma, a former Australian envoy to Israel, is at risk of losing in Wentworth.

 
 
 

According to a poll by the party, published in The Australian, Mr Sharma trails independent candidate Kerryn Phelps, a prominent doctor, 45 per cent to 55 per cent. It also found that 75 per cent of people in the ward believe that Mr Sharma will win.

This poses a dilemma for the party, which fears that some of its supporters will vote for Dr Phelps as a "protest vote" in the belief that she would not actually win.

Such a protest would be motivated by anger over the treatment of the popular former Wentworth MP Malcolm Turnbull, who quit Parliament after being ousted by his party as leader, and thus lost his position as prime minister.

All of this explains Mr Morrison's sudden foray into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He said he would consider moving Australia's embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and also announced a review of the Iran nuclear deal, which Australia has so far supported. He is trying to appeal to the Jewish population in Wentworth which accounts for about 12 per cent of voters.

Political commentator Peter Hartcher said Mr Morrison was risking Australia's relations with Indonesia. "This is unprincipled and craven politics of a low order," Mr Hartcher wrote in The Sydney Morning Herald. "He must know how much he could be putting at risk. That's why he's only flirting with these ideas, not actually embracing them."

Mr Tony Walker, a vice-chancellor's fellow at La Trobe University, said Australia should back a push for compromise in the Middle East instead of "auctioning its foreign policy to the highest bidder - in this case, the voters of Wentworth".

"There is no advantage for Australia in turning Middle East policy on its head beyond domestic considerations," he wrote on The Conversation website yesterday.

Mr Morrison yesterday said he and Foreign Minister Marise Payne had been in contact "throughout the day" with their Indonesian counterparts to discuss his new Middle East stance. "You've got to just stand up for what you believe and you can do that when you've got good relationships with your neighbours," he said.

The Liberals may yet win the by-election, as they are expected to. But Mr Morrison will face a general election due early next year, in which he could face the consequences of a short-term move aimed squarely at a single seat.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 18, 2018, with the headline 'Aussie PM under fire for pitch to move embassy in Israel'. Print Edition | Subscribe