West Jerusalem Israel embassy Scott Morrison
(Image: Berthold Werner)

Having cleverly wedged himself with his cynical Jerusalem embassy review during the Wentworth byelection, Scott Morrison had a choice in the aftermath: try to salvage at least something from debacle or, true to the spirit of that foolish, amateur-hour stunt, go all the way and make sure it was a complete disaster.

It’s not clear yet, but after Saturday’s announcement about recognising West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, but not moving our embassy, there’s a chance Morrison has indeed pulled off the full disaster, a significant achievement only a government as dreadful as this one could have managed.

Given the backlash at the time from Indonesia and Malaysia — some of which was down to the awful non-process that accompanied Morrison’s thought bubble, including not telling DFAT until after the decision was made, and giving the department a few hours to tell Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur — some sort of backdown was always going to happen. That was going to upset the hard-right, corruption-mired Netanyahu regime. Securing the full-scale debacle, however, required some finesse from Morrison: he’d have to compromise, but not enough to placate our neighbours.

Malaysia’s reaction — that the decision was “premature and a humiliation to the Palestinians and their struggle for the right to self-determination” — showed Morrison had ticked one box. The lukewarm reception by the Israelis — with a senior official declaring they were “disappointed with the Australian decision… Morrison only went half-way. It’s a step in the right direction, but we expected more” — ticked the second box.

The Australian, which has its rabid Israel advocates and Islamophobes, but also under Chris Mitchell backed John Lyons’ gutsy reporting from Jerusalem, had a leak that the “elder statesmen” panel that advised Morrison on the issue told him to drop it altogether, and Paul Kelly gave the government a thorough kicking. Three boxes ticked.

Indonesia would make it four and a full-blown debacle, given the government had been eager to spruik yet another of its pointless preferential trade deals with Jakarta and suffered the indignity of it being placed on hold. Jakarta merely noted that Australia hadn’t moved its embassy. That may mean the trade deal is back on, or it may not. The fate of Morrison’s quest for a full-scale stuff-up remains in the balance.

Oddly, Morrison’s justification for the change was partly correct.

A rancid stalemate has emerged. Slavish adherence to the conventional wisdom over decades appears only to be further entrenching this stalemate, providing a leave pass for continued inaction. For everyone to just keeping doing what they’re doing, and looking the other way. Don’t raise the issue, just keep doing what you’re doing.

Only, Morrison misdiagnoses the cause of the stalemate. It’s not the result of inaction or a business-as-usual mentality, it’s a deliberate goal of Israel under Netanyahu.

This stalemate, in which Israel endlessly expands its illegal settlements in occupied Palestine, creates a de facto apartheid regime for Palestinians, readily resorts to mass murder even in reaction to protests and cries “antisemitism” at any and all criticism, is exactly what Netanyahu and the Israeli right want. They don’t want a two-state solution with a viable Palestine, they want the status quo recognised permanently. While only half a loaf in that regard for the Israelis, Morrison’s decision provides partial recognition, even if accompanied by the usual rhetorical nods to the two-state solution. 

Australian sympathies have always lain with Israel. Like Israel, we’re a colonial settler society that was founded on dispossession and which has never recognised the status of those who were here before us. We have the occupier’s instinct to kick downward, especially at those of a different colour, who speak a different language, whose continuing presence is a reminder of our true origins elsewhere.