After protests from the Indonesian government over Australia’s plan to move their embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, Australia’s prime minister Scott Morrison recently announced they will not move the embassy.
Morrison said Australia recognised West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, but will wait for a peace settlement between Israel and Palestine before deciding on their embassy plans.
This may reduce the tension between Australia and Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim majority and a supporter of Palestinian independence.
Australia is an important strategic partner for Indonesia. In fact, the two countries have planned to sign a bilateral free trade deal. But this has been delayed, allegedly due to Indonesia’s objection over Australia’s plan to move its embassy in Israel. Indonesia’s foreign minister Retno Marsudi has told Australia’s foreign minister Marisa Payne that the plan to move the embassy would “slap Indonesia’s face on the Palestine issue”.
Why Indonesia got upset
Indonesia and Australia have always had a fluctuating relationship. This episode rattled Indonesia because recognition of Palestine is one of the key foreign policy values of Indonesia. This value can be traced back to 1962 during the presidency of Sukarno, where the president himself asserted that Indonesia would always support the Palestinian struggle for independence by opposing Israel.
Embassies hold not only functional purpose, but also symbolic. Therefore, relocating the Australian embassy to Jerusalem might imply a symbolic support for Israel as the sole authority to control Jerusalem.
Both Israel and Palestine regard Jerusalem as their capital. According to the 1947 Partition Plan, the city should be designated as a “corpus separatum” (a separate entity) which does not belong to any state under the legal United Nations designation.
The international community has been quite cautious with Jerusalem. Most countries that recognise Israel station their embassies in Tel Aviv, the largest city in Israel. Locating embassies in such a contested area is a practice which is considerably frowned upon by the United Nations resolution proponents that believe Jerusalem should always be a neutral zone.
Currently, there are only two states which host their embassies in Jerusalem: the United States and Guatemala.
Both countries moved their embassies in May, inciting condemnation from the international community which regards such a move as potentially hindering prospects for peace between Israel and Palestine.
Will it define the Indonesian presidential elections?
As Indonesia prepares for its presidential election next year, it seems that any issue can either boost or decrease the electability of all candidates. At the moment, both candidates seem to have slightly different takes on how Indonesia should approach Australia regarding this issue.
Joko Widodo, the incumbent candidate who is running for his second term, takes an idealistic approach toward the plan. He asserts that Palestinian independence is the priority of Indonesia.
The Indonesian president has also reportedly called Morrison to relay his concerns about Australia’s plan. Widodo, who is trying to gain more support from conservative Islamic constituents, will see this issue as a chance to align himself more closely with such groups.
On the contrary, the former general Prabowo Subianto, who is currently running for his second candidacy, highlights the importance of respecting Australia’s choice. While acknowledging Indonesia is a supporter of Palestinian independence, Subianto also believes Australia is a sovereign state which deserves respect in their decisions.
At the moment, it remains to be seen how the development of this incident may affect the campaign of both candidates. During the 2014 presidential election debates Palestinian independence was among the key topics discussed.
Next chapter in the relationship
Last November, Australia and Indonesia were expected to approve a bilateral free trade deal at the East Asian Summit in Singapore. It was intended as a conclusion of the eight year negotiations on the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement started in 2010. The deal would include vocational training and greater access to live cattle, dairy, and horticulture. But the signing has now been held back for an unspecified period of time.
Simon Birmingham, the Australian Trade Minister claims the delay was largely caused by a problem with translations. Yet, SBS also reported some Indonesian ministers publicly said the deal is on hold until Australia clarifies whether they will shift their Israeli embassy to Jerusalem.
So Australia’s decision to delay their plan to move their embassy will maintain the status quo. Suspicions might persist as Morrison’s recognition of West Jerusalem as the Israeli capital city remains unchanged. Responding to the uncertain conditions, Australia issued a warning for their citizens to “exercise a high degree of caution” while travelling in Indonesia.
We now have to wait and see if Australia’s compromise really eased the tension and will eventually warm the Australia-Indonesia relationship, expediting the signing of the trade deal.