CANBERRA, Australia - Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, in a wishy washy speech has back-tracked from an all-out commitment by Australia to move its embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
His government's new policy of formally recognising West Jerusalem as the capital of Israel however is unlikely to last.
The Australian opposition Labor party in the immediate aftermath of Mr Morrison's speech, denounced the change in policy, and pledged to reverse the decision when it becomes the government, which many widely expect will be in the next few months.
The Australian prime minister has been under pressure over his view expressed in the lead-up to a by-election in the Sydney suburb of Wentworth, to replace the seat held by former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull.
That view, which he said was inspired by his party's candidate for the Wentworth seat, Dave Sharma, a former Australian ambassador to Israel, was to relocate the Australian embassy from Tel Aviv to West Jerusalem.
Many saw it as a cyncical move to attract Jewish votes days away from the by-election, as Wentworth houses a large Jewish population.
Widespread opposition within Australia and from Arab states as well as from Muslim countries, particulafrly Indonesia and Malaysia has seen the PM on the defensive ever since. As for Mr Sharma, the move backfired as he was not elected, instead an independent is now warming the seat, until the next election sometime between March and May next year, at which Mr Sharma again will be contesting.
On Saturday afternoon Mr Morrison formally recognised West Jerusalem as Israel's capital. He said however the embassy would not move until it was practical, and only after final status negotiations had been concluded.
He then however announced that Australia would in fact open offices in West Jerusalem now, to deal with matters of trade and defence, the two most important activities of any embassy. So it would appear to some, the embassy is in fact shifting to West Jerusalem, but it will not be called an embassy. It will also not be called a consulate, because Mr Morrison in his speech said Israel does not want consulates or honorary consulates being established in the city.
The prime minister then further complicated his country's position when he said Australia recognises not a Palestinian state, which could lead to the establishment of an Australian embassy in East Jerusalem (if Israel's current claim to maintain sovereignty over the entire city fails), instead he said he recognises 'the aspirations of the Palestinian people to have their own state.'
It seems the govertnment in Australia is trying to please everybody, even the Indonesians who have balked at the original relocation plan, putting at risk a $16.5 billion trade deal that had been agreed between the two countries. It is understood the Indonesians were briefed on the Australian government change of decades-long policy in advance, but their reaction is not known, although a brief statement issued afterwards appeared to indicate Indonesia was not unhappy with the outcome. Whether they will pursue the trade deal or not is not clear, however any trade deal is usually struck to benefit both sides so it would be unlikely Indonesia would want to give up billions of dollars in trade to make a point.
Regardless, the show must go on.
"Australia now recognises West Jerusalem, being the seat of the Knesset and many of the institutions of government, is the capital of Israel," Mr Morrison said Saturday afternoon.
"And we look forward to moving our embassy to West Jerusalem when practical, in support of and after final status determination."
Mr Morrison said work would start immediately on locating a site for Australia's embassy in West Jerusalem, notwithstanding the prospect of a final status is probably as elusive as it has ever been. More likely the reality of an embassy being established now, to house initially the defence and trade arms of the Australian government, is what is occurring, simply without the embassy moniker. It is somewhat unsual that Australia's defence activities should be moved from Tel Aviv to West Jerusalem, when the Israeli defense ministry is headquartered in Tel Aviv.
Nonetheless, the show continues.
"Out of respect for the clearly communicated preference of the Israeli government for countries to not establish consulates or honorary consular offices in West Jerusalem, the Australian government will establish a Trade and Defence Office in West Jerusalem," Mr Morrison said.
He added that, "recognising our commitment to a two-state solution, the Australian government has also resolved to acknowledge the aspirations of the Palestinian people for a future state with it's capital in East Jerusalem."
In the end, with the curtain soon likely to come down on Mr Morrison's government, the decisions on Saturday are unlikely to last. The opposition Labor party immediately announced it does not support the change in policy, and would reverse it if it becomes the government.
Mr Morrison's government is viewed as being on its last legs. It enjoys tenure at the pleasure of independent candidates, and according to numerous news polls is considered unlikely to win the next election, just months away. The Labor party which is likely to assume government was quick to react to Mr Morrison's speech.
"Labor does not support unilateral recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, and in government would reverse this decison," the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate, and Shadow Foreign Affairs Minister Penny Wong said in a tweet Saturday. "The status of Jerusalem can only be resolved as part of any peace negotiations and two-state solution," she added.
In a more formal statement, Wong's office described the government decisions as "a humiliating rebuff to the prime minister."
"Recognising West Jerusalem as Israel's capital, while continuing to locate Australia's embassy in Tel Aviv, is nothing more than a face saving exercise that shows Mr Morrison continues to put self-interest ahead of the national interest."
"This is a decision which is all risk and no gain. It is a reckless move by a desperate and divided government that satisfies no one," the shadow minister said.
"It's yet another example of Mr Morrison's colleagues attempting to dig the prime minister out of a hole caused by yet another reckless decision entirely of his own making."
"It puts Australia out of step with the international community and shows Mr Morrison is not prepared to put the nation first and do what is right for Australia," Wong's statement said, noting that the department of foreign affairs, and the department of the prime minister and cabinet had both opposed a change in policy.
In addition, although not mentioned by Wong, the former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, and former Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, both opposed any change to the government's policy, as did former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. Former prime ministers from Mr Morrison's party other than Turnbull however were in favour of the move. ormer prime minister Tony Abbott in fact first proposed in May of this year that the then-Turnbull governmernt should make the move. When Morrison first floated the idea of a change in policy in October, former Prime Minister John Howard was quick to support it.
In any event, unless the Morrison government hangs on to power, the change in policy will be short-lived.
"Labor does not support unilateral recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel on the grounds that this is a final status issue that should be resolved as part of any peace negotiations and two-state solution," said the statement from the shadow foreign affairs minister's office.
"We will not support any policy that undermines the prospect of a two-state solution which recognises Israel's right to exist within secure and recognised boundaries and the creation of a Palestinian state," Wong's statement added.