Policy for Votes: Wentworth By-election

16/10/2018

Today Scott Morrison announced that Australia would be looking into the prospect of recognising Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, a foreign policy stance that no one in the Coalition had previously held. Israel considers Jerusalem as its unequivocal capital, recognised only by a few countries, namely the United States. The UN and International Law do not recognise Israel’s claim, having given Jerusalem a special status. The government’s shift in this issue has occurred in the lead up to the Wentworth by-election, an election taking place after the latest leadership change in the LNP and Turnbull’s resignation as MP.

While the move does continue on a steady pattern of copying our dear American allies, the timing of the announcement has been criticised as an appeal to retain the seat of Wentworth, which allows the government a slim majority in Parliament. Dave Sharma, the LNP candidate, was the Ambassador to Israel from 2013-2017, and has openly discussed the idea of moving the embassy before. In 2014, Saeb Erakat (from the PLO) had made complaints against Sharma for a meeting he had held in East Jerusalem with Uri Ariel, the Israeli Housing and Construction Minister. The accusation was that the meeting appeared to mark potential support for the illegal settlements in the West Bank, a policy Israel carries out against International Law.

In 2017, the Australia/Israel Jewish Affairs Council (AIJAC) defended Sharma in response to a Crikey article that questioned whether he supported the settlements. The article laid out its evidence that Sharma did indeed have a tendency to follow the Israeli government’s line, to the chagrin of Palestinians. He even held a workshop with The Israel Project, a pro-Israeli organisation “dedicated to informing the media and public conversation about Israel”, according to their website, focussing on shifting American public opinion towards “the only democratic, free state in the Middle East”. Their democratic status is objectively false, shown by the treatment of Palestinian Arabs in Israel, and the only reason they could be considered the ‘only’ one is because the others have suffered US intervention. One cannot be blamed for questioning the motives and partisanship of the organisation.

The AIJAC defence starts with the claim that Israel has not expanded settlements since 1999, referring to the illegality of it under their own laws. Immediately their defence is invalid – this is blatantly false. Israel built a number of settlements, most without official government authorisation but almost certainly with government knowledge. Moves have been made to retroactively authorise these illegal settlements. AIJAC then proceeds to say that despite the settlements, a two state solution would still be viable, which is a rather contradictory statement. A Palestinian state would be difficult to achieve while Israel continues to illegally settle on the land given to them. They also give The Israel Project a pass, ignoring its biases while simultaneously calling people out for a lack of balance when discussing Israel.

So why select a candidate with such obvious bias towards one side of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (a stance previously in opposition to the government’s efforts for a two state solution), and why introduce this policy shift now? According to the 2016 Census, Wentworth has a significant Jewish population of 12.5%, while the total national population stands around 0.4%. While not all Jews agree with Israeli policy, this appears to be nothing more than a bid to try and get the Jewish population on side to keep the seat under the LNP banner. Penny Wong described the move as one of clear desperation, showing just how fragile the governments hold on the nation really is. She also criticised him for playing games with serious foreign policy matters.

Morrison a few days ago appeared to warn Wentworth voters that if they didn’t vote for the LNP it would result in a hung parliament and cause “unnecessary uncertainty in our economy and the stability of our government”. Sharma parroted this statement. The LNP really do seem desperate to retain their slim majority, with timed foreign policy shifts that contradict previous and current policy and what almost seems to be a veiled threat, pinning the blame of possible disruption of Parliament on voters if they lose. The last few months have, if anything, shown the government does not need voters’ pesky interference to cause a meltdown in Canberra.

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