Australia hesitates as Jerusalem embassy move draws fire

PM Scott Morrison said he was open to recognizing Jerusalem and moving Australian embassy there. (File/AFP)
Updated 16 October 2018
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Australia hesitates as Jerusalem embassy move draws fire

  • 13 Arab ambassadors met in Canberra over Australian PM's announcement to potentially recognize Jerusalem
  • Egypt's ambassador said Australia's decision "might damage the peace process"

SYDNEY: Facing a domestic backlash and the threat of foreign trade retaliation, Australia’s Prime Minister on Tuesday appeared to slow-peddle a controversial decision to move the country’s embassy to Jerusalem, saying he would first consult with allies.
As Scott Morrison stood accused of ditching 70 years of Australian foreign policy and reports emerged that Indonesia may suspend a planned bilateral trade deal, the prime minister told parliament no firm decision had been taken.
Hours after first floating the idea, Morrison said he would “canvass views” from regional leaders about the decision to follow US President Donald Trump’s lead and move the embassy from Tel Aviv “before the government forms a particular view on this issue.”
Jerusalem is claimed by both Israelis and Palestinians. Most foreign nations have avoided locating embassies there for fear of prejudging peace talks on the city’s final status — until Trump unilaterally moved the US embassy there earlier this year.
Officials said the decision to move the Australian embassy has been under consideration for months. But Morrison’s announcement was timed to coincide with a make-or-break moment for his fledgling premiership.
On Saturday voters in a key Sydney electorate will go to the polls, with Morrison’s Liberal party candidate, a former ambassador to Israel, trailing in the final stretch.
Defeat for Morrison’s candidate — in a constituency with a sizeable Jewish population — would spell the end of his government’s parliamentary majority and a bleak future for his months-old stint at the top of Australia’s rough-and-tumble political heap.
Although Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hailed Morrison’s initiative, the response from neighboring Indonesia — the world’s largest Muslim nation — was less welcoming.
Australia would be “violating international law” and UN security council resolutions if it proceeded with the embassy move, said Palestinian foreign minister Riyad Al-Maliki, who was in Jakarta on an official visit Tuesday.
“Australia is risking (its) trade and business relationship with the rest of the world and particularly the Muslim world,” he added.
“I hope that Australia would reconsider that decision before it takes such action for election purposes.”
Australian state-backed broadcaster ABC reported a senior official in Jakarta saying a landmark trade deal between the two countries may now be put on ice.
Officials from Indonesia’s foreign and trade ministries told AFP they were unaware of any plans to suspend talks on the agreement, but Morrison indicated he had discussed the issue with President Joko Widodo in a series of calls.
“We will continue to work closely and cooperatively with our allies and our partners all around the world on these issue,” Morrison told parliament.
Morrison earlier said he was “open-minded” to “sensible” proposals to formally recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and move his nation’s embassy to the holy city, a sharp break with the policy of successive Australian governments.
“We’re committed to a two-state solution, but frankly it hasn’t been going that well, not a lot of progress has been made, and you don’t keep doing the same thing and expect different results,” Morrison said.
“Scott Morrison is now so desperate to hang on to his job, he is prepared to say anything if he thinks it will win him a few more votes -– even at the cost of Australia’s national interest,” said opposition Labor party foreign policy spokeswoman Penny Wong.
Morrison came to power in August after a revolt by hard-line conservatives in the Liberal party ousted his more moderate predecessor, Malcolm Turnbull.
Turnbull’s government had explicitly distanced itself from the decision by Trump to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, branding it “unhelpful” to the peace process.


Erdogan and Putin vow closer cooperation on Syria at Moscow talks

Updated 23 January 2019
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Erdogan and Putin vow closer cooperation on Syria at Moscow talks

  • The two leaders are on opposite sides of the Syria conflict
  • Russia and Turkey have agreed to coordinate ground operations in Syria

MOSCOW: Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan at a meeting in Moscow on Wednesday vowed to coordinate their actions more closely in Syria.
“Cooperation between Russia and Turkey is a touchstone for Syrian peace and stability,” Erdogan said in translated comments at a joint press conference after their talks, which lasted around three hours.
“With our Russian friends we intend to strengthen our coordination even more.”
“We agreed how we’ll coordinate our work in the near future,” Putin said, calling the talks which included the countries’ defense ministers “effective.”
At the start of their meeting in the Kremlin, Putin addressed Erdogan as “dear friend,” saying that their countries “work on issues of regional security and actively cooperate on Syria.”
Erdogan used the same term for Putin and said “our solidarity makes a weighty contribution to the security of the region.”
The two leaders are on opposite sides of the Syria conflict: Russia provides critical support to the Syrian government, while Turkey has backed rebel groups fighting President Bashar Assad’s forces.
Despite this, they have worked closely to find a political solution to the seven-year conflict.
Russia and Turkey have agreed to coordinate ground operations in Syria following US President Donald Trump’s shock announcement last month about pulling 2,000 American troops out of Syria.
Putin said that if carried out, the withdrawal of US troops from northeastern Syria “will be a positive step, it will help stabilize the situation in this restive area.”
Turkey has also welcomed Washington’s planned withdrawal, but the future of US-backed Kurdish militia forces labelled terrorists by Ankara has upset ties between the NATO allies.
Erdogan had said on Monday he would discuss with Putin the creation of a Turkish-controlled “security zone” in northern Syria, suggested by Trump.
The US-allied Kurds, who control much of the north, have rejected the idea, fearing a Turkish offensive against territory under their control.
Putin said Wednesday that Russia supports “establishing dialogue between Damascus officials and representatives of the Kurds.”
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov last week said that Damascus must take control of the north.
The northwestern province of Idlib earlier this month fell under the full control of a jihadist group dominated by Syria’s former Al-Qaeda affiliate.
The Russian foreign ministry said earlier Wednesday that the situation in the province remained of “serious concern.”
Putin said that the leaders discussed the situation in Idlib “in great detail today.”
“We have a shared conviction that we must continue jointly fighting terrorists wherever they are, including in the Idlib zone,” the Russian leader said.
Erdogan said that the countries will wage a “lengthy fight” in Syria.
Nearly eight years into Syria’s deadly conflict, the planned US pullout has led to another key step in Assad’s Russian-backed drive to reassert control.
Kurdish forces who were left exposed by Trump’s pledge to withdraw have asked the Syrian regime for help to face a threatened Turkish offensive.
The Kremlin hailed the entry by Syrian forces into the key northern city of Manbij for the first time in six years after Kurds opened the gates.
Moscow plans to organize a three-way summit with Turkey and Iran early this year as part of the Astana peace process, launched by the three countries in 2017.
Putin said Wednesday the next summit would be held “in the near future” in Russia, saying the leaders still needed to agree the time and location with Iran.
The last meeting between Putin, Erdogan and Iran’s Hassan Rouhani took place in Iran in September last year with the fate of rebel-held Idlib province dominating the agenda.
Ties between Russia and Turkey plunged to their lowest level in years in November 2015 when Turkish forces shot down a Russian warplane over Syria.
But after a reconciliation deal in 2016, relations have recovered at a remarkable speed with Putin and Erdogan cooperating closely over Syria, Turkey buying Russian-made air defense systems and Russia building Turkey’s first nuclear power plant.