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Scott Morrison's cowboy foreign policy



Prime Minister Scott Morrison is a lot of things, but an expert in foreign policy is clearly not one of them. This month he has decided Australia will buck international norms and recognise West Jerusalem as the capital of Israel as well as set up a trade office there.

Scott Morrison arrives to speak at the Australian Institute on 15 December 2018 in Sydney. Morrison announced that the Australian government will recognise West Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. (Mick Tsikas-Pool/Getty Images)It's a step back from what he offered back in October when he said Australia would follow the US in moving the embassy from diplomatic hub Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, but with nobody beyond a handful of high profile conservatives in Australia in favour, was it all worth it?

A pervasive line from the conservative wing of Australia's commentating class suggests that to not move the embassy now would be 'kowtowing' to Malaysia and Indonesia. Never mind that both states have merely issued rebukes and questioned the wisdom — hardly the diplomatic pressure right wing columnists claim.

Writers, like the Herald Sun's Caroline Marcus this week, say that the recognition of West Jerusalem as capital is a triumph over bullying Muslim-majority countries within the region. This particular line highlights how extraordinarily unprepared the Australian right wing is for the rapid realignment which is increasingly pushing Australia into the region and away from the traditional Western powers.

It doesn't follow that Australia should prioritise a policy shift which pleases Israel at the cost of damaging far more important and immediate relations. Especially given that Israel is not even happy with the outcome.

The Israeli Foreign Ministry, currently directly under the control of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, issued a brief statement calling the announcements 'a step in the right direction'. According to the Times of Israel, senior officials had been telling local media the government had hoped for wider recognition than just West Jerusalem. Yuli Edelstein, Speaker in the Knesset, said the statement was 'difficult to understand' stressing that 'all of Jerusalem is our eternal capital, not just a part of it'.

And then there is Australia's own diplomatic corps. Australia had looked at moving the embassy earlier this year, prompted by the US's announcement in May. That was quietly shelved after Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade provided advice to then foreign minister Julie Bishop that it just wasn't worth the hassle. The move would have cost up to $200 million and stressed tenuous but vital relationships in the Muslim world, particularly Indonesia which had led the charge against the US's move.


"This in-between policy has left no party satisfied and, with the exception of the usual suspects in right wing press, has been widely and rightly derided as a double-down to save face."


While the US announcement saw a huge demonstration shut down Central Jakarta earlier this year, smaller ones have appeared at the Australian Embassy in recent weeks. Morrison himself faced a talking to with both Indonesian President Joko Widodo and his Malaysian counterpart Mahathir Mohamad during the East Asian Summit in Singapore last month. Both leaders see the Palestinian cause as central to their respective countries' foreign policies and to write that off as chest-beating for domestic voters is a folly.

President Widodo and his foreign minister, Retno Marsudi, were the first crucial voices in condemning the US move and are personally passionate for the cause. Likewise, Prime Minister Mahathir has spent decades spruiking support for Palestine on the global stage. It's clear that if Morrison knew this, he did not care.

Floating the embassy move during the closing days of the Wentworth by-election meant the policy would be forever marked as a cynical ploy to secure Jewish votes in the seat. This in-between policy has left no party satisfied and, with the exception of the usual suspects in right wing press, has been widely and rightly derided as a double-down to save face. This government is near certain to be turfed at the next election — a fact they're more aware of than any of us — and that seems to have triggered a frantic fumbling to rearrange the Titanic's deck chairs.

The hubris behind the announcement defines the dying days of the Morrison government. Israel is an issue increasingly irrelevant to Australia's major interests, while trade and strategic importance with Malaysia and Indonesia are consistently increasing and — in the case of Indonesia — has become one of our most important relationships. But Morrison ignores all reasonable advice, avoids his own party room and makes a captain's call motivated by his own ideology that is hardly mainstream. How can Australians be expected to trust their leadership when they're risking it all on cowboy foreign policy?



Erin CookErin Cook is a Jakarta-based journalist with a focus on South East Asia, and editor of the SEA news digest Dari Mulut ke Mulut.


Main image: Scott Morrison arrives to speak at the Australian Institute on 15 December 2018 in Sydney. Morrison announced that the Australian government will recognise West Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. (Mick Tsikas-Pool/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Erin Cook, Israel, Palestine, Indonesia, Malaysia, Scott Morrison



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Existing comments

I wouldn't disagree with anything in this article. It is plainly obvious that Erin Cook knows more about this issue than the man who made the decision. Furthermore, Erin is spot on when she says it is 'cowboy foreign policy.' I daresay the Labor opposition are as ignorant but at least they have the good sense to leave alone matters they don't understand.

Martin Killips | 20 December 2018  

Seems to me that PM Morrison's latest policy decisions or "Thought Bubble" decisions are in the league of Abbot's "Captain's Picks" and are as ill considered and dumb. We have a Foreign Affairs Department whose job it is to keep the pollies from making fools of themselves. Sadly with the loss of Julie Bishop, we have lost a competent Foreign Minister. I completely agree with Erin's analysis. I wonder how long it will take this incompetent government to realise that we are in the Asian region . Events in the Middle East should not be a major concern when what is happening closer to home is far more important.

Gavin O'Brien | 20 December 2018  

Morrison was in marketing, and not very good at it either. Remember the ‘where the bloody hell are you’ line? He is all bluster and no substance like Abbott before him. The sooner the nation is rid of him and his cronies, not to mention his coalition partners, the better. Unfortunately, he’s now closed down Parliament (now there’s a practice and privilege that needs to be outlawed) and gone to ground so that he can hang on to government and the perks that go with it until we get a chance to slay them at the ballot box.

Ginger Meggs | 20 December 2018  

Another very good article by Erin Cook that demonstrates how out of touch the current Australian Government is on international policies. Trying to increase LNP votes in Wentworth and gain approval from Donald Trump by announcing that Australia would shift its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem was very ill-advised - especially when our leaders are always getting cosy with Indonesian leaders and are trying to extend Australian trade in the ME. Also, Morrison failed to consider the fact that more and more Jews with a conscience - "Righteous Jews" - are rightly outraged at the repression of the Palestinians by the Zionist Israeli government and are becoming outspoken against its human rights violations and its illegal land grabs. Even the ALP which has always supported Israel right or wrong and has been reluctant to speak out about Palestinian human rights, at its recent national conference carried a resolution that a future ALP government will recognise the state of Palestine. This has been very slow in coming for a party that claims to support the two nation state policy in the ME However, it is a move that should be applauded. If Julie Bishop had been up to the job as a forward thinking foreign minister, she should have pushed for such a position within the LNP Coalition. I thought it interesting that the Australian Palestinian Action Network had a stand at the ALP conference, but not any pro Israel organisation. Let us hope that this leads to a situation where future Australian governments steer us into being an independent and non-aligned nation that works for peace and justice and does not automatically involve us in every war instigated by the US.

Andrew (Andy) Alcock | 20 December 2018  

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