The United States moved its embassy into a U.S. consulate building in Jerusalem in May, months after President Trump had said he would overturn decades of foreign policy and officially recognize the divided city as the capital of Israel. Trump’s decision has angered many in the Muslim world. Palestinians consider east Jerusalem, captured by Israel in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, as the capital of a future independent state.
Few other countries have followed the United States and moved their embassies: Guatemala and Paraguay relocated their embassies to Jerusalem, although the latter moved its embassy back to Tel Aviv in September, after the election of a new president.
But Australia may join that list: Prime Minister Scott Morrison told reporters that he is “open-minded” about such a move.
“When sensible suggestions are put forward that are consistent with your policy positioning and in this case pursuing a two-state solution, Australia should be open-minded to this, and I am open-minded to this, and our government is open-minded to this,” he said Tuesday.
In a phone call the day before, Morrison had told Netanyahu that he was considering moving the Australian Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The Israeli prime minister subsequently said that the move would strengthen ties between the two nations.
However, if a plan to relocate the Australian Embassy does go ahead, it may well damage relationships with other allies, including some countries far closer to Australia. Most notably, Canberra is working on a long-awaited free-trade agreement with Indonesia that has been valued at more than 16 billion Australian dollars (11 billion in U.S. dollars).
Indonesia is the world’s most populated Muslim-majority nation, and it has long been supportive of the Palestinian cause. The country has no diplomatic relationship with Israel — it doesn’t grant the Israeli national airline, El Al, use of its airspace, which meant that last year when Netanyahu flew to Sydney, his plane had to make a long detour.
At the same time, the country is also Australia’s 13th-largest bilateral trading partner, with 2.3 percent of total trade in 2016. Negotiations for a free-trade deal — dubbed the Indonesia-Australia Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement — began in earnest in 2012 but have struggled for years.
Morrison, an evangelical Christian, took office in late August after a bitter party leadership battle. Like his predecessor Malcolm Turnbull, his first trip abroad was to Indonesia, where he met with President Joko Widodo and pledged to sign the free-trade deal before the end of the year.
However, the news that Australia is considering moving its embassy came as Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad al-Malki visited Indonesia’s capital, Jakarta, for solidarity events. At a joint news conference with Indonesia’s foreign minister, Malki said that Australia is “risking trade and business relations with the rest of the world, particularly the Arab world and Muslim countries.”
The Australian prime minister has played down the risks posed to the relationship with Indonesia, telling reporters Wednesday that the free-trade deal will still be signed before the year’s end and that Indonesian officials had been clear that the suggestion is not of concern to them.
7 News Sydney later published accounts of WhatsApp messages from Indonesia’s foreign minister to her Australian counterpart, Marise Payne, that suggested things were not so rosy. “It will slap Indonesia’s face on the Palestine issue,” Retno Marsudi wrote of a potential embassy move, according to the messages. “This will affect bilateral relations.”
For Morrison, the controversy over the embassy comes at a tough moment domestically: His government is facing an important special election in the seat of Wentworth on Saturday. If Dave Sharma, the Liberal Party’s candidate for the election, doesn’t win, Morrison’s governing coalition will lose its one-seat majority.
It’s notable that Sharma, a former ambassador to Israel, is supports moving the Australian Embassy to Jerusalem. About 12.5 percent of the Wentworth population is Jewish, although not all support the proposal to move the embassy. Polls suggest that Sharma is struggling in the contest for the Wentworth seat, even though it was previously considered safe.
How the embassy news has played into that is unclear, but a 2017 poll by Canberra-based Lowy Institute found that on the whole, Australians didn’t feel especially warm about Israel, with an average ranking of 53 percent. That figure was the third-lowest in the poll, ahead of only Russia and North Korea — and two percentage points behind Indonesia.