Australia's position on Jerusalem is another attack on the dream of Palestinian statehood

Recognising west Jerusalem as the Israeli capital and the city's east as Palestine's may have seemed like a diplomatic compromise, but it isn't

(FILES) In this file photo taken on August 24, 2018 Australia's incoming Prime Minister Scott Morrison speaks at a press conference in Canberra. Australia now recognises west Jerusalem as Israel's capital, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on December 15, 2018, but a contentious embassy shift from Tel Aviv will not occur until a peace settlement is achieved. / AFP / SAEED KHAN
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A rough consensus has emerged in the intractable Palestine-Israel conflict that a peace settlement must be agreed before the future of Jerusalem is determined. Addressing the latter before the former makes peace unworkable. But that is precisely what the Australian prime minister Scott Morrison has done this week, by formally recognising west Jerusalem as Israel's. Australia will, after a peace settlement has been reached, move its embassy from Tel Aviv. The Gaza protests that followed US President Donald Trump's decision to do exactly that that in May saw 58 Palestinians killed by Israeli gunfire. In what he no doubt viewed as a smart compromise, Mr Morrison also pledged to recognise a future state of Palestine, with its capital in east Jerusalem. But given the ruthlessness of an Israeli state that is changing the realities on the ground with its rampant settlement building, and that will never relinquish power or land to the Palestinians it dominates, Mr Morrison has simply made a bad situation worse. Israel's divisive nation-state law, which cleared the Knesset in July, proclaimed Jerusalem to be Israel's eternal and undivided capital. Against that backdrop, Mr Morrison's decision looks at best extremely naive and at worst coldly culpable.

As is so often the case in the world’s dealings with Palestine, there is another side to this story – this time concerning Australian domestic politics and Mr Morrison’s instinct for self-preservation. Despite its profound implications for millions of Palestinians, this decision can be traced back to an October by-election in an affluent suburb of Sydney, in which Mr Morrison’s one-seat parliamentary majority was at stake. His Liberal party ultimately lost the election, but just days before the voters of Wentworth, which contains a large Jewish population, headed to the polls, Mr Morrison announced he was considering the landmark embassy move.

In doing so, he failed to consider the security and trade implications for Australia, the considerable regional dynamics and the rights and safety of Palestine's occupied millions. Accused of a cynical political gambit, and facing a backlash from the Palestinian leadership and Muslim nations – chiefly Indonesia – Mr Morrison has doubled down on his comments, accusing the United Nations of antisemitism "cloaked in the language of human rights". His clumsy handling of this delicate situation was summed up by Richard Di Natale, leader of the Australian Greens as "Trumpesque".

These are tense times for Palestine. Brazil's far-right president-elect, Jair Bolsonaro, has announced that he, too, will move his nation's embassy to Jerusalem, while several nations, from the Philippines to Romania, are mulling the same. Guatemala has already done so. These countries might not seem diplomatically significant, but each relocation further erodes the dream of a Palestinian state with east Jerusalem as its capital. Mr Morrison has not saved face by quietly endorsing a future Palestinian state. Instead, he has handed an important victory to an increasingly belligerent Israel.