Several Jewish community leaders say they were blindsided by the Albanese government’s decision to reverse recognition of West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, describing the handling of the issue as “shoddy” and “a gratuitous insult”.
A Labor parliamentarian has also privately said the government “mishandled” the sensitive issue and should not be “making foreign policy on the fly” after Israel’s foreign ministry summoned the Australian ambassador to demand an explanation.
Jewish community representatives were surprised by a Guardian Australia report on Monday revealing the Morrison government-era decision was being reversed, and contacted the government seeking clarity.
It is understood a number of community representatives were informed on Monday that no decision had been made, only to be notified the following morning of the outcome of Tuesday’s cabinet meeting shortly before the public announcement.
The Executive Council of Australian Jewry (ECAJ) said it was “extremely disappointed” the government had made the decision in an “opaque manner” without public consultation or opportunity for public debate.
The group said stakeholders had “simply been presented with a fait accompli” and noted “with regret that this decision was communicated to us on the Jewish holyday of Simchat Torah, when we were precluded from making any public response”.
“There is a bitter irony in the fact that the government made its decision in the way that it did on a day when Jews celebrate receiving the Torah, the ethical basis of western civilisation,” it said.
The president of the ECAJ, Jillian Segal, together with co-chief executives Peter Wertheim and Alex Ryvchin, issued the scathing statement after sunset on Tuesday at the conclusion of the holy period.
They said the timing of the cabinet decision was “clearly media-driven” and said it was “demeaning for Australia to have its international position changed in such a shoddy manner”.
“Aside from being poor policy, the withdrawal of Australia’s recognition that Israel’s capital is in Jerusalem is a gratuitous insult to a key economic and strategic ally, with no countervailing benefit for Australians,” Segal, Wertheim and Ryvchin said.
“This is no way to treat an ally whose intelligence-sharing with Australia has prevented at least one terrorist attack against Australians that we know of.”
The executive director of the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council (Aijac), Colin Rubenstein, also questioned the “odd” timing. He said the “deeply disappointing” decision appeared to be “a pointless own goal”.
But the announcement by the foreign affairs minister, Penny Wong, was not greeted with universal criticism.
The New Israel Fund Australia, which promotes a vision of Israel as both the Jewish homeland and a democracy for all its citizens, said the previous policy had placed Australia “firmly in the global minority”.
The group’s executive director, Liam Getreu, said the change suggested the Australian government would be “a balanced partner in dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by forging policies which are more in line with our likeminded allies and partners around the world and support the advancement of a peaceful resolution”.
Antony Loewenstein, a journalist who co-founded Independent Australian Jewish Voices and lived in East Jerusalem between 2016 and 2020, welcomed Wong’s move to clarify Australia’s position.
“The problem really is this doesn’t change anything. It’s a continuation of a status quo that for decades has allowed Israel to not just expand its occupation but to make it permanent,” he said.
“We’re at a stage now where the two-state solution is a zombie phrase that people keep repeating but is out of step with the reality on the ground. This is a good minor change of language but the reality is that nothing is changing other than the occupation getting deeper.”
Israel’s prime minister, Yair Lapid, had earlier criticised the Australian government for what he called a “hasty” foreign policy shift.
Indonesia, however, welcomed the Albanese government’s decision, saying it hoped the new policy would “contribute positively to Palestinian-Israeli peace negotiations”.
“Indonesia appreciates Australia’s reaffirmation of its commitment to support peaceful resolution to the conflict based on two-state solution, within internationally recognised borders,” the country’s foreign affairs ministry said.
A federal Labor parliamentarian from the right faction criticised the government’s handling of the issue.
“It’s really been mishandled,” said the parliamentarian, who asked for anonymity to discuss the topic openly. “I still can’t believe it’s happened.”
While the parliamentarian agreed with the claim that the former prime minister Scott Morrison had politicised the issue in the lead-up to the Wentworth byelection in 2018, they said the new government should have engaged in adequate consultation to maintain trust with the community.
Others within the government pointed to Morrison’s handling of the announcement of his own review in 2018, with the then foreign affairs minister, Marise Payne, informed of the plans in a phone call only a day before media were briefed.
Wong declined to say whether the government had received any representations from Israel or community groups against proceeding with the change, arguing it would not be reasonable “to disclose all of the interactions I and my office might have with stakeholders”.
“This government will not waver in its support of Israel and the Jewish community in Australia,” she said.
Wong said the decision was made at a cabinet meeting on Tuesday morning. She said it was in line with her public comments in December 2018 that Labor would unwind Morrison’s stance.
Wong said the Morrison government’s decision to recognise West Jerusalem as the capital – rather than leaving it as a matter to be resolved in peace negotiations – “put Australia out of step with the majority of the international community”.
“This was a cynical play, unsuccessful, to win the seat of Wentworth in a byelection. And what the people saw was the prime minister of the day trying to play foreign policy in order to win votes in a seat.”
Like most countries, Australia has continued to maintain an embassy in Tel Aviv rather than Jerusalem.