JERUSALEM, DUBAI: Israel signaled displeasure on Sunday with Australia’s recognition of West Jerusalem as its capital, with a confidant of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu saying it was a mistake to gainsay Israeli control over the whole city. The premier stayed silent on Canberra’s move at a weekly Israeli Cabinet meeting.
US ally Bahrain has meanwhile defended Australia’s formal recognition of West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, saying the move would not affect a future Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital.
Australia’s government announced the decision on Saturday, reversing decades of Middle East policy, but said it would not immediately move its embassy there.
The US in May opened its embassy in Jerusalem.
The Arab League had issued a statement criticizing the Australian decision as “blatantly biased toward the positions and policies of the Israeli occupation.”
But Bahraini minister Sheikh Khalid bin Ahmed Al-Khalifa described the statement as “mere rhetoric and irresponsible.”
“Australia’s stance does not impact the legitimate Palestinian demands, first among them being East Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine, and it does not contradict the Arab Peace Initiative,” he tweeted on Saturday.
The status of Jerusalem, home to sites holy to the Muslim, Jewish and Christian faiths, is one of the biggest obstacles to a peace agreement between Israel and Palestinians who want East Jerusalem recognized as the capital of a Palestinian state.
Israel regards all of Jerusalem as its capital, including the eastern sector that it annexed in a move not recognized internationally, after the 1967 war. Palestinians want East Jerusalem as capital of the state they hope to found in the occupied West Bank and the Gaza Strip. The UN says the status of Jerusalem can be resolved only by negotiations.
Israel has diplomatic relations with only two Arab states, Egypt and Jordan. Netanyahu has on several occasions hinted at warmer relations with Gulf Arab states and made a surprise visit to Oman in October to meet with its ruler Sultan Qaboos bin Said.
A year ago, US President Donald Trump outraged Palestinians by recognizing Jerusalem as the Israeli capital, a designation that did not acknowledge their claim on the east of the city though it left open the question of its final borders.
On Saturday, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said Canberra formally recognizes West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital but reaffirmed his country’s support for a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem under a two-state peace deal.
Israel’s Foreign Ministry responded tepidly, calling the Australian move “a step in the right direction.” At the Cabinet meeting on Sunday, Netanyahu declined to elaborate.
“We issued a statement at the Foreign Ministry. I have nothing to add to it,” he told reporters at the outset of the meeting.
Tzachi Hanegbi, Israel’s minister for regional cooperation and a Netanyahu confidant in the right-wing Likud party, was more openly critical of Australia, though he deemed it a “deep and intimate friend of many years’ standing.”
“To our regret, within this positive news they made a mistake,” Hanegbi told reporters outside the Cabinet room.
Morrison’s move first surfaced in October, when it was viewed cynically in Australia because it came days before a crucial by-election in an electorate with a strong Jewish representation. His party lost that poll.
Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat said Saturday’s move was born of Australian “petty domestic politics.”
“All of Jerusalem remains a final-status issue for negotiations, while East Jerusalem, under international law, is an integral part of the occupied Palestinian territory,” he said.