The “embassy issue” will not go away

There was no issue until it was made into 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, an opinion duly amplified by major media outlets. Yet 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.

As good an account as any of how the prime minister lit this flaming mess is from Katharine Murphy, the Guardian Australia political editor. There is more backstory 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 reporters 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 is highly problematic.

Morrison had been in office less than two months at the time, and the by-election to choose a replacement for his predecessor Malcolm Turnbull was a mere five days away. Most commentators immediately noted that the seat of Wentworth has a significant Jewish bloc of around 12 per cent of voters; that strict adherents of Judaism would have likely cast pre-poll votes due to our elections being held on a Saturday; and that 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. 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 at length for perceived Palestinian sympathies) and back to Jaffa Tel Aviv. These Old Cities are incredible, like Uluru is incredible. I could feel the antiquity, 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. And I have the same bodily response to hearing 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; lessons like listening to country, whichever country or whose country I am on.

Either way, my politics are grounded in universality and not in exceptionalism, or nationalism. These ideologies illuminate the embassy issue that wasn’t, until it was. This  utterly unnecessary nonsense is 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 of an eternal, undivided holy city and capital of Eretz Israel. At the opening of the newly relocated US Embassy, Prime Minister Binyamin 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’… God bless the United States of America and God bless Jerusalem, the eternal, undivided capital of Israel.

There is no place in this Holy City for a shared capital with a sovereign Palestine, and no place for 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 Donald Trump.

The Netanyahu position puts the lie to Morrison’s claim that his embassy announcement on behalf of the Australian people supports ‘the two-state solution’. Al Quds Jerusalem as the eternal undivided capital of a Jewish state, and the international consensus on a two-state ‘solution’ (to ‘the conflict’), are mutually exclusive propositions. Morrison is ignorant, or lying, or both; and government ministers are now doubling down on this internally incoherent line of argument, in complete contempt of voters and whether we have any understanding of the relevant issues.

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, and is 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 the embassy news as retail politics, but 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 campaign bus without calling an election, the political press explained this was because the government is threatened in marginal seats in Queensland. Which we know. What the electorate really 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 about.

Similarly, many predicted that the embassy announcement would jeopardise bilateral relations with Indonesia; 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 kind of vanity. For instance, the presumed foreign affairs ‘inexperience’ of Barack Obama and Julia Gillard consumed many airtime hours and column inches; the obvious foreign affairs ineptitude of men like Donald Trump and Scott Morrison barely rate a mention.

Then there were the leaked ASIO memos showing that Morrison announced without consulting security agencies; 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 most analyses. The claim is that announcing a potential embassy move may increase security threats in an actuarised world, where the pseudo-science of risk predictors funnels billions of dollars 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 violent or non-violent than any 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, coincides with why Zionism goes unreported: its 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 in the Zionist worldview, not Bedouin, nor Palestinian or Arab. Many Israelis say Arab and not Palestinian to erase the identity and existence of countrymen and women.

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 last month. As with targeting civilians, collective punishment is a war crime (Geneva Convention 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 our government’s embassy announcement was in anticipation of the Palestinian bid to lead the G77. This 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 official deployment of Turnbull – by Morrison – to represent Australia at an oceans conference in Bali and smooth over the mess, which then blew up in their faces.

Sharma has not been tapped for his role in all this, but he should be, because he has constructive knowledge of the fall-out: if he did not know, his socio-positional status says he ought to have known. This is the one piece of advice on the public record that we know he offered to a sitting prime minister, the first ever Pentecostal one in Australia, during a by-election in which he was the government candidate. Sharma is not Jewish, yet his much-touted resume shows that 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.

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 the West Bank or terrorism without being labelled in a way that invites audiences to dismiss their expert point of view. Meanwhile Israeli Defence Forces terrorise Palestinians on a mass scale every single day of the week and nobody highlights whether or not major media outlets’ Jerusalem-based foreign correspondents are Jewish.

So Josh Frydenberg can invoke the Holocaust and nobody points out that he is the first Jewish Liberal Party MP in the House of Representatives. I do not much like writing about all this, because of the genie-in-the-bottle effect. But I will say: what Frydenberg is doing can not and will not help his people. 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 inevitability, yet remain compelled to report what Morrison said and did (he is the prime minister) while not necessarily compelled to remind readers or listeners of Sharma’s role (unless or until pre-selected for the next election, Sharma is basically nobody).

Realpolitik

As Na’ama Carlin 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 and pro-Zionist voters. 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 maybe auntie and nephew (she was about my age, 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 young teen boy had a better grasp of Israel and Palestine than can be detected from the public pronouncements of the Australian prime minister, from 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 other electorate in the country.

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