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.


UN hopes for meeting on Syria constitution by late December

US Deputy United Nations Ambassador Jonathan Cohen, left, address the UN Security Council after a report from UN chief mediator for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, shown center in a live video broadcast, on Monday, Nov. 19, 2018 at UN headquarters. (AP)
Updated 21 November 2018
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UN hopes for meeting on Syria constitution by late December

  • Staffan de Mistura said the UN welcomes “constructive and moderate suggestions” to change the list of the disputed 50 members

NEW YORK: The UN is still aiming to send invitations to 150 Syrians by mid-December to participate in a committee that would draft a new constitution for Syria, which is key to holding elections and ending the country’s civil war, a UN envoy said on Monday.
Staffan de Mistura, the UN special envoy for Syria, told the Security Council that the UN also aims to hold the committee’s first meeting before Dec. 31.
But de Mistura said the Syrian regime is objecting to 50 members of the committee representing civil society, experts, independents, tribal leaders and women that he was authorized to put together at a Russian-hosted Syrian peace conference in Sochi on Jan. 30.
Under the Sochi agreement, the committee is to comprise 150 members. There is already agreement on the 50-member delegation from the regime and the 50-member delegation from the opposition.
But de Mistura warned that if there is no agreement on the remaining members, the UN may have to conclude that it is not possible to form a “credible and inclusive” constitutional committee at this stage.
He said the UN welcomes “constructive and moderate suggestions” to change the list of the disputed 50 members. But de Mistura said they must “maintain the same spirit of credibility, balance and international legitimacy,” and he stressed that the list cannot be filled with political leaders who are already represented.
The UN envoy said that at his last briefing to the Security Council in December “it will be my duty to explain where we are on the constitutional committee, and leave a clean and clear ground to my successor regarding it.”
De Mistura was supposed to step down at the end of December but UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said Monday he will be staying on “for a bit longer” to make sure there is no gap “at an extremely critical time in the Syria talks.”