What’s the capital of Israel? Well, depending on who you ask, it’s either Tel Aviv or Jerusalem.
According to the Australian government, it was Tel Aviv, then, under Scott Morrison, it was West Jerusalem and now, according to Foreign Minister Penny Wong, it’s once again Tel Aviv.
The reason for all the switcheroos is because the capital of Israel is a white-hot political issue that goes to the heart of Israeli sovereignty and the Israel-Palestine conflict.
Jerusalem is considered a holy city of great significance to all three of the Abrahamic religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
Successive Israeli administrations have stated that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel and that it cannot be shared or divided with Palestine.
At the same time, the Palestinian authorities have never ceded sovereignty over Jerusalem and view the whole city as their own capital, despite having access only to the eastern half of it.
The United Nations has tried to intervene over the years with a bunch of weird suggestions that appeal to no one, such as Jerusalem becoming its own separate political entity, a bit like Vatican City. They also view Israel’s claims over West Jerusalem as an illegal annexation.
Most countries don’t go near the topic with a ten-foot pole, taking the fence-sitter option of claiming that a decision over the capital will only be made once peace negotiations can be concluded between Palestine and Israel. So, effectively, never.
This is once again where Australia has wound up, with Wong saying that “the government has reaffirmed Australia’s previous and longstanding position that Jerusalem is a final status issue that should be resolved as part of any peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian people.”
The move has angered Israel, with the Australian ambassador being summoned to the Israeli foreign office and the Israeli Prime Minister sarcastically rinsing us on Twitter. At the same time, Palestinian groups have received the news positively, but called on Wong to do more and recognise the Palestinian right to self-determination. So, no one’s happy, which is about right.
Prime Minister Lapid in response to Australia’s announcement:
"In light of the way this decision was made in Australia, as a hasty response to an incorrect report in the media, we can only hope that the Australian government manages other matters more seriously and professionally
— Prime Minister of Israel (@IsraeliPM) October 18, 2022
Why Is West Jerusalem Considered the Capital of Israel?
The long-standing international no-go zone was all thrown into disarray by the king of chaos, Donald Trump, who blew off convention in 2017 to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.
It caused a massive diplomatic storm at the time, resulting in a United Nations General Assembly emergency session resolution in which America threatened to cut foreign aid to anyone who voted against their decision.
The vote to not recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel passed 128 to nine, with a lot of countries ducking the vote, including Australia.
America went ahead and moved its embassy to Jerusalem anyway, and, subsequently, a handful of countries followed suit. These included the Czech Republic, Hungary, Guatemala, and Honduras — all countries hoping to curry favour with the US. Some of these have since reversed their decision now that more liberal administrations have taken over.
This is fairly similar to what has now happened in Australia. Scott Morrison, almost a year after the US decision, announced that he would recognise West Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and move the Australian embassy there “when practical, in support of, and after, final-status determination.”
Opposition politicians at the time criticised the move which they said had been a rushed decision made off the back of the by-election loss of Wentworth, an area with a strong Jewish community.
The decision changed basically nothing, except to anger Palestinian groups, as Morrison didn’t move the embassy. It didn’t even go down well in Israel, as for only recognising half of the city as Israel’s capital and refusing to move the embassy.
What Happens Now?
Well, we’re basically back to square one, with Australian politicians placating both sides as best they can while they wait for a resolution to happen that has been some 75 years in the making.
Wong attempted to calm the situation by saying that the decision to switch recognition of the capital would not impact foreign policy ad that Australia would “always be a steadfast friend of Israel.” She noted that we were “among the first countries to formally recognise Israel under Labor prime minister Ben Chifley.”
“This government will not waver in its support of Israel and the Jewish community in Australia,” she said.
And then, in the same breath:
“We are equally unwavering supporters of the Palestinian people, providing humanitarian support every year since 1951 and advocating for resumed peace negotiations.”
Israel will likely admonish our unfortunate Ambassador to the troubled nation and peace talks will continue to stall, just like they did before this decision was announced.