Penny Wong says she deeply regrets the timing of the government’s announcement that it was reversing recognition of West Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, a decision that coincided with a Jewish holiday.
In the wake of criticism from several prominent Jewish community leaders and a rebuke from the Israeli prime minister, the foreign affairs minister has written an article for Australian Jewish News promising never to play politics on the issue.
“Reasonable people can disagree, as many readers will disagree with me. But I will always be straight with you, and I won’t use this issue to score points,” the senior Labor politician wrote in the piece published on Thursday.
Anthony Albanese’s cabinet on Tuesday signed off on plans to reverse the former prime minister Scott Morrison’s decision in 2018 to recognise West Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.
It followed a Guardian Australia story revealing the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade had quietly dropped language recognising West Jerusalem from its website.
While Labor had promised in 2018 to undo the Morrison-era move, the cabinet decision ignited tensions with the Israeli government, which summoned the Australian ambassador, Paul Griffiths, to protest the “hasty” move. Israel’s election is due to be held on 1 November.
On Thursday, Griffiths tweeted a link to Wong’s article acknowledging there were “few issues more central for many Jewish people than the status of Jerusalem”.
Wong said there could be “no lasting peace that does not address its status”.
But she argued that Morrison had “played political games with the hopes and expectations of the Israeli and Palestinian peoples, and their Diaspora communities in Australia” by announcing the potential embassy relocation to Jerusalem during the closing stages of the Wentworth byelection campaign.
“I regret that the shift away from Australia’s longstanding position, and the shift back this week, have been distressing for communities that have a deep-rooted and keenly felt stake in the cessation of conflict, particularly the Australian Jewish community,” Wong wrote.
“And the timing of this week’s announcement, falling as it did on Simchat Torah, was also deeply regrettable.”
Wong said that for the overwhelming majority of the international community – and Australia until 2018 – the status of Jerusalem “has remained a final status issue, that should be resolved as part of any peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian people”.
The fact that Morrison “himself backed out of moving the embassy once the byelection was over tells you how cynical he was”, Wong wrote.
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The Morrison government adopted a fallback position to recognise West Jerusalem as the capital of Israel but not move the embassy from Tel Aviv until after an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal.
Wong said she sincerely believed Australia should actively and responsibly pursue a just and enduring two-state solution but “not impose its view of the final borders and boundaries, which should be the result of peace negotiations”.
The Australian government would “continue to fight the scourge of antisemitism” and also “call out the unfair and disproportionate targeting of Israel in international forums”.
Also writing for Australian Jewish News, the shadow minister for foreign affairs, Simon Birmingham, urged Albanese to phone the Israeli prime minister, Yair Lapid, to apologise “for the inconsiderate and amateur way in which this matter was handled”.
The opposition leader, Peter Dutton, told 2GB on Thursday the strength of Lapid’s criticism was “quite remarkable”.
“I mean, remember the leftwing media were enraged when President [Emmanuel] Macron criticised us over the subs deal and Scott Morrison was the worst person alive … but the fact is that this is a much more brutal assessment of a ham-fisted decision by Penny Wong and Anthony Albanese.”
But the Palestinian prime minister, Mohammad Shtayyeh, said Albanese’s “wise and courageous” decision proved “Australia’s respect and alignment with the values of truth, justice and freedom, and the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people”.
Arab News quoted Ahmed Al-Deek, an adviser to the Palestinian foreign minister, as saying the previous Australian government had committed a historic mistake.
“Israel is trying to persuade countries to transfer their embassies to Jerusalem and recognise it as the unified capital of Israel,” he said. “We hope that the Australian move will end Israeli efforts in that context.”
The Biden administration declined to comment on the Australian government’s policy, but said it would not reverse the Trump administration’s decision to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv in 2017.
“The US position is that our embassy will remain in Jerusalem, which we recognise as Israel’s capital,” a State Department spokesperson, Vedant Patel, told reporters on Tuesday.
Despite that stance, he said the US viewed the ultimate status of Jerusalem as “a final-status issue which will need to be resolved by the parties in the context of direct negotiations”.