24 March 2016
by George Browning

Moving Australia’s embassy to Jerusalem is fanciful Senator Paterson

One of the rites of passage for incoming members of the Australian Federal parliament is to make a maiden speech. As these speeches are largely personal, they usually don’t rate much attention beyond the member’s family and friends. They are rarely the focus of any press attention. However Liberal Senator James Paterson’s maiden speech, delivered last week, was covered not only by the Australian media (SMH; The Guardian) but even as far away as Israel.

One of the reasons this speech gained so much press attention is that Senator Patterson used it to lavish the most effusive praise on Israel, to the point of calling for Australia to move its embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

The relevant section of his speech reads:

I am a strong supporter of the State of Israel. I admire greatly what they have built in just a few short years. Today, Israel stands not just as a beacon of liberal democracy in a sea of despotism in its own region but as a shining example to the entire world of how to build a prosperous, tolerant, harmonious and creative country in the toughest of circumstances. I am proud of the generally bipartisan support that Israel has enjoyed from successive Australian governments. But I think we can do more to demonstrate our solidarity. Like many nations, Australia has chosen to locate our embassy in Israel in Tel Aviv. But Tel Aviv is not Israel's capital city—Jerusalem is. Every nation deserves the right to choose its own capital city. Since 1950, Israel has asserted it is Jerusalem. Since 1967, it has administered the entire city. The Israeli government have demonstrated time and time again that they are the best custodians for the religious and historical sites that are of significance to people of many faiths. I do not believe that the international community can continue to refuse to recognise their capital city of choice and the clear reality on the ground. It would be a symbolic but important step for Australia to formally recognise Jerusalem as Israel's capital city and to move our embassy there.

I think that assertions of Israel being a beacon of democracy might be challenged by the 4.7 million Palestinians of the Occupied Territories who have been living for almost fifty years under military occupation. It might be challenged by the 300,000 Palestinians who live in Jerusalem without citizenship or proper infrastructure, or over 1.5 million Palestinian citizens of Israel (20% of its population) who live under 50 laws that discriminate against them. His claims that Israel is a tolerant and harmonious society might be challenged by the many within Israel who are currently campaigning to protect freedom of political expression, or even the Arab members of the Knesset who are facing a Bill that seems written to expel them.

His proposal to move Australia’s embassy in Israel to Jerusalem however requires the most attention. If this was such a good idea, one wonders why no country has actually done it. No country in the world has its embassy to Israel in Jerusalem.

There are of course good reasons. While Israel asserts that Jerusalem is its capital, the world does not recognise this claim, and instead regards East Jerusalem as Occupied Territory. This is why the Australian Ambassador to Israel caused such a stir in 2014 for just meeting an Israeli Government minister in East Jerusalem. The international community is absolutely clear that it does not accept Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem in 1980 as legitimate.

The UN partition plan of 1947 stipulated that Jerusalem would become an international city - a plan that Australia supported. Since this time, for Australia, the consistent policy, upheld by Governments of all persuasions, is that the future of Jerusalem should be settled under international auspices and with the full agreement of the parties to the Israel-Palestine dispute.

To move the embassy now would signal that Australia sees no need to wait for the outcome of a process of settling the issues relating to the future of the divided city within the framework of international law. It would momentarily gratify the Israeli right wing but at the cost of a collapse of Australian relations with the Arab and Muslim world with significant diplomatic consequences.

It may be no coincidence that Sen. Paterson visited Israel in 2009 as part of a delegation of student leaders funded and programmed by the Australia-Israel and Jewish Affairs Council, a pro-Israel lobby group. We hope that the tour was not promoting this outrageous idea of moving our Embassy. Senator Paterson’s speech may give many within and outside Australia the impression that he has been encouraged to float a ‘trial balloon’.

So Senator Paterson, no we should not move our embassy. It would indicate not that we recognise the “reality on the ground” but that we condone Israel’s unilateral takeover and annexation of occupied East Jerusalem. And I’m sure even you don’t think we should go that far.