There was no issue until the prime minister made it an issue; and there is no question that Prime Minister Scott Morrison heard what he wanted to hear, and did what he wanted to do. What he heard and acted on, according to Morrison, was advice from ex-ambassador to Israel Dave Sharma. This is a man billed by his colleagues as the best and brightest of Liberal Party recruits, a position duly amplified by major media outlets. His advice was so spectacularly poorly conceived – or poorly received, or both – that a month later it is still the chemtrail of Australian politics: a toxic threat spun out of thin air.
This from Katharine Murphy, the political editor at The Guardian Australia, is as good an account as any of how the prime minister and his aspiring candidate for the wealthiest seat in the country lit this flaming mess. There is more backstory again, of course, there always is, but Liberal Party factional in-fighting already gets way more attention than it deserves. From where I sit, the entire caucus is not worth a jot; and costs the Australian public a fortune in salaries and phone bills and jet travel and pork, for negative return on our investment, for nothing at all in the national interest.
Domestic politicking on Israel and Palestine inevitably stirs up anti-Arab and Islamaphobic feeling as well as anti-Semitism. It mobilises unhelpful interventions from people like Malcolm Turnbull and Bob Carr, people who posture as experts on matters which they failed to address while in office, when they had the power to effect positive change. That political media buy into their legacy protection racket is equally irritating, but the crux is that when these voices dominate debate, no real progress is ever made.
There is no excuse for Sharma advising the prime minister as he did; and no excuse for Morrison not knowing, if indeed he did not, that announcing a re-think on moving the Australian embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem was highly problematic. When Morrison announced this position, he had been in office less than two months. The by-election to choose a replacement for his predecessor Malcolm Turnbull in the seat of Wentworth was a mere five days away.
Many commentators immediately noted that Wentworth has a significant Jewish bloc of around 12 per cent of voters; that the strictest adherents of Judaism would have likely cast pre-poll votes due to our elections being held on a Saturday; and Jews are not a homogenous group of one mind on Israel, or Palestine, or pro-Zionist policy settings. Oh, wait. Nobody said anything about Zionism, because nobody ever does.
The Holy City
I once spent two days in al Quds Jerusalem. The only places I saw outside the Old City walls were transport interchanges as I made my way from Ben Gurion airport (where I was later detained for perceived Palestinian sympathies) and back to Jaffa Tel Aviv. The Old Cities are incredible like Uluru is incredible, I could feel the antiquity, like a cellular memory, buried deep in blood and bone. I am not Arab or Jewish, or Christian or Muslim or Armenian or Greek (quarters in the Old Cities). The closest any of my forebears come to an ancestral connection is stirring renditions of the eponymous – and fictional, but the English are good at that – hymn Jerusalem. I have the same bodily response to hearing both bagpipes and the yidaki didgeridoo.
Maybe I just feel sites and sounds, the way some people see auras. More likely the lessons learnt from Aboriginal friends and family, scholars and tour guides, are universal; and one lesson there is listening to country.
Either way, my politics are grounded in universality and not in Zionism, exceptionalism, or nationalism. These three ideologies illuminate the embassy issue that wasn’t until it was. This non-issue is utterly unnecessarily consuming political capital in Australia, in 2018, in the dying months of a Coalition government, thanks to advice the prime minister says he received from former ambassador to Israel and failed Liberal candidate Dave Sharma.
The Zionist position on Al Quds Jerusalem is an eternal, undivided holy city and capital of Eretz Israel. At the opening of the newly relocated US Embassy, Prime Minister Netanyahu said The truth is that Jerusalem has been and will always be the capital of the Jewish people, the capital of the Jewish state… The prophet, Zechariah, declared over 2,500 years ago, ‘So said the Lord, ‘I will return to Zion and I will dwell in the midst of Jerusalem. And Jerusalem shall be called the City of Truth’… G-d bless the United States of America and G-d bless Jerusalem, the eternal, undivided capital of Israel.
It is clear that there is no place in this vision of the Holy City for a shared capital with a sovereign Palestine, and therefore no place for autonomy and self-determination of the Palestinian people under military occupation for over 50 years. There is more biblical imagery in the same vein [full English text here], designed to flatter baffled belligerents like President Trump and, presumably, Scott Morrison.
The Australian Embassy Issue
There is no real way of knowing if Scott Morrison understands the implications of his announcement. The man is a chronic motor-mouth, the more he blathers about listening and hearing the more you suspect he is incapable of either, or both.
Perhaps Morrison is a committed Christian Zionist, across all the politics of an ‘eternal undivided capital of Israel’. Most Christian Zionists are from the same kind of Pentecostal sect to which Morrison belongs.
Alternatively, all politics is local (see O’Neill and Hymel, 1995). Maybe Morrison was driven exclusively or largely by the Wentworth by-election. The major media outlets reported this news as retail politics, but still failed to interrogate the legitimacy of mobilising foreign policy for domestic purposes. This is not unusual. When the prime minister decked out a big blue bus to campaign without calling an election, the political press corps explained this was because the government is threatened in marginal seats in Queensland. We know this. What we need the press to do is what we can not: directly question the legitimacy of a politician using government power and money – the political economy of conservative incumbency – to shore up his margins and splash the pork.
Similarly, many predicted that the embassy announcement would jeopardise bilateral relations with Indonesia, which it has; and were widely lauded for doing their job. In certain circles, foreign affairs are the holy grail of seniority and mastery. The foreign affairs editor at the Murdoch-owned The Australian is incapable of not mentioning this vanity. The presumed foreign affairs ‘inexperience’ of Barack Obama and Julia Gillard consumed many airtime hours; the obvious foreign affairs ineptitude of men like Donald Trump and Scott Morrison barely rate a mention.
Next came the leaked ASIO memo, showing that Morrison announced without consulting security agencies; the Senate estimates concessions that Morrison did not work with DFAT diplomats or the Defence Minister; and that military chiefs found out after media briefings. This is important, but not for the reasons we see in mainstream analyses. The claim is that the announcement may increase security threats in this actuarised world where the pseudo-science of risk predictors funnels billions in funding to the military and security agencies. It will increase the risk of terror attacks, the claim goes, which relies on the false assumption that Palestinians are inherently violent.
Palestinians are no more inherently violent than any other ethnic group: there is no violence gene. The reasoning here is bio-essentialist nonsense, and anyone amplifying such ugly untruths ought to be ashamed. This messaging, however, is the same reason that Zionism is never mentioned. The Zionist ideology is in fact very violent.
As mentioned above, Zionism is characterised by nationalism and exceptionalism: Zionists believe that Israel is the Jewish Homeland, on the basis of Chosen People exceptionalism. There is no place for the Indigenous Peoples – Bedouin, Palestinian, Arab – many Israelis say Arab and not Palestinian to erase identity and existence – in the Zionist worldview. The metaphysical – the Zionist belief system – is backed by extreme physical force in multiple forms, including the renewed military assault on Gaza immediately after the UN voted on Palestinian leadership of its G77. As with targeting civilians, collective punishment is a war crime (Geneva Convention 1949 Art 33).
The predictable post-UN vote attacks by Israel on Gaza were apparently not predicted by diplo-genius Dave Sharma. The Liberal candidate unconvincingly told Australian media and Wentworth voters that the embassy announcement was in anticipation of the Palestinian bid to lead the G77. This messaging is straight up hasbara, and in terms of his by-election campaign, would convince nobody and please only rusted on Zionists, voters who would have voted for him anyway. In other words, the policy is wrong, the rationale is wrong, and the domestic politics were also all wrong.
The whole thing is an avoidable disaster, from the leaked texts between Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi and Australian Defence Minister Marise Payne to the deployment of Turnbull to represent Australia at an oceans conference in Bali and smooth over the mess, which blew up in their faces.
Sharma has not been tapped for his role in all this, but he should be. The embassy announcement is the one piece of advice on the public record that we know Sharma offered to a sitting prime minister, the first ever Pentecostal one in Australia, during a by-election. Sharma is not Jewish, yet his much-touted resume shows he should know this is not about his ambassadorial credentials, or capacity to raise funds for the Liberal Party. It is personal, because religion is personal, because ideology is personal. He has constructive knowledge: if he did not know, his socio-positional standing says he ought to have known.
When Morrison stood at the despatch box in parliament and shouted in the face of former Attorney General Mark Dreyfus QC that Sharma knows more about Israel than anyone on the opposition benches, it was personal. When Josh Frydenberg went on the record to state the anti-Semitic record of Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, it was personal.
Major media are not noting the ethno-religious identity of Frydenberg in every report, of course, as is always done when Aboriginal people speak on Aboriginal policy, or feminists speak to reproductive rights. This erasure of inherent biases is privilege. No Arab, no Muslim, no Palestinian gets to speak on Israel or Gaza or terrorism without being labelled in a way that invites the audience to dismiss their expert point of view – as Israeli Defence Forces terrorise Palestinians on a mass scale every single day of the week. But Josh Frydenberg can invoke the Holocaust and nobody points out that he is the first ever Jewish Liberal Party MP in the House of Representatives.
I do not much like writing about how these kinds of public debates play out, because of the genie-in-the-bottle effect. What Frydenberg is doing can not and will not help his people, because it is not possible to put Israel Palestine into the public debate without producing intractable hostility and increasing anti-Semitism. Political journalists are acutely alert to this, yet remain compelled to report what Morrison said and did (he is the prime minister); although not necessarily to report that it was on Sharma’s advice (unless or until pre-selected for the next election, he is basically nobody).
As Na’ama Carlin so eloquently explains here, the ‘embassy issue’ was unworkable from day one, a cheap political stunt. It was an insult to Jewish communities, in Wentworth and beyond, with its simplistic and offensive presumption that Jewish Australians are single-issue voters and necessarily pro-Zionist. Not all Jews are Zionists, and not all Zionists are Jews.
At a march for Gaza at Sydney Town Hall in 2014, I was standing next to a woman and boy who I guessed to be mother and son, or perhaps auntie and nephew (she was around my age and he was 13 or 14, the same age as my younger son at the time). When a group nearby set up their stall and unfurled a banner Jews Against The Occupation, she asked (I think, in Arabic) They are Jews? The boy replied in English They are Jews but they are not Zionists.
I tell this story not only because it would probably have taken me twenty sentences to communicate the same point. I work at Western Sydney University, where high-level multi-cultural and bilingual competencies are the rule and not the exception among the student body. I tell it because the teen boy had a better grasp of Israel Palestine than can be detected from the public pronouncements of the Australian prime minister, the collective wisdom of the parliamentary press corps, or the advice of a former ambassador and Liberal Party candidate in an electorate with more Jewish voters than any electorate in the country.