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The Morrison government has been advised by key bureaucrats and retired "wise elders" against moving its Israel embassy to Jerusalem or making other significant changes to Australia’s stance on the status of the city central to the Middle East peace process.


In a development that puts the government in the awkward position of potentially having to ignore its own key advisers, the clear majority view the government has received from its most senior and seasoned foreign policy thinkers is to keep things as they are, The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age understand.

The Morrison cabinet is wrestling with whether to make the historic shift in its foreign policy, having discussed the matter this week and with the clock ticking on making a promised announcement before Christmas.

It follows Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s declaration in the heat of the Wentworth by election campaign that the government would consider recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moving Australia’s embassy there.

That would follow in the footsteps of United States President Donald Trump and make Australia only the second major country to shift its position on the contentious issue that goes to the heart of the decades-long Israel-Palestine conflict.

While the advice the government has received has not been unanimous, it appears the clear weight of opinion has stated that the status quo on Jerusalem should be maintained.

The government departments and agencies consulted are understood to be aligned in support of Australia’s current position in having its embassy in Tel Aviv. Those include the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the Defence Department, ASIO and the Office of National Assessments.

That was also the majority view of a small and handpicked group of former top officials or "wise elders" whom the government has consulted. These included former Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet head Michael Thawley, former Defence Department head Dennis Richardson, former Chief of the Defence Force Sir Angus Houston and former Department of Foreign Affairs head Michael L’Estrange.

Compromise positions such as declaring Australia recognises Jerusalem as Israel’s capital while delaying the move of the embassy, as well as opening a smaller consulate in Jerusalem in the meantime, were also not supported by advice.

 

It would be unusual, for instance, to have a consulate less than an hour's drive away from the embassy, as would be the case between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

Those compromise stances are understood to have been discussed by cabinet and supported by some ministers.

A Senate estimates hearing in October was told the government did not consult any public servants or diplomats before announcing its review.

A spokeswoman for Mr Morrison declined to comment on the latest advice. While cabinet discussed the issue on Tuesday, it is understood no announcement will be made at least until Saturday.

As Muslim-majority nations, Indonesia and Malaysia were particularly upset about the Morrison government’s review.

 

Splits in the Morrison cabinet have already spilled into the open. Defence Industry Minister Steven Ciobo told Indonesian Trade Minister Enggartiasto Lukita around the start of November that he believed there was a "less than 5 percent" chance the embassy move would go ahead.

Treasurer Josh Frydenberg publicly scoffed at Defence Minister Christopher Pyne’s suggestion that a recognition of west Jerusalem as Israel’s capital could be accompanied by an acknowledgement of the Palestinians' claim over east Jerusalem.

Australia, along with most of the rest of the world, has long had its Israel embassy in Tel Aviv and avoided recognising Jerusalem as the Israeli capital because the status of the city remains unresolved in the decades-long land dispute between Israelis and Palestinians.

Mr Morrison faced criticism about the timing of his original review announcement, given the Sydney seat of Wentworth has a significant Jewish community. Labor said the government’s foreign policy was being driven by holding onto its then one-seat majority in Parliament.

 Sources| the Sydney Morning Herald - The Age - Parliament House
editor of the Sydney Morning Herald
Published in Australia

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