Canberra: Australia’s spy agency warned government ministers that Scott Morrison’s proposed shift in Middle East policy relocating its embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to occupied Jerusalem may “provoke protest, unrest and possibly some violence in Gaza and the West Bank”.
Guardian Australia has obtained an Asio bulletin, marked secret, AUSTEO, circulated on October 15 - the day before Morrison’s announcement - that notes the putative shift will “attract international attention”.
“We expect any announcement on the possible relocation of the Australian embassy to [occupied] Jerusalem or consideration of voting against Palestinians in the United Nations may provoke protest, unrest and possibly some violence in Gaza and the West Bank,” the bulletin says.
It warns it is possible Australian interests may be the target of protest activity following any public announcement by the government, and notes “attacks and violent protests” have occurred previously at times of heightened political tension.
The bulletin also highlights the possibility of protests within Australia, although it says domestic protests are unlikely to be violent. It says Asio is not currently aware of specific threats to Jewish interests in Australia, although it says Israeli and Jewish interests remain “an enduring target of extremists globally”.
Morrison flagged that Australia might follow Donald Trump’s controversial policy moving Australia’s embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to occupied Jerusalem on Tuesday - an announcement senior figures concede is timed to coincide with the Wentworth byelection this Saturday, which the Liberals are at risk of losing.
The electorate, held previously by the former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull, is home to a significant Jewish population.
The Coalition considered the implications of Trump’s hawkish position on occupied Jerusalem when Turnbull was prime minister, and dismissed the idea of Australia following suit because of a judgment it would harm the bilateral relationship with Indonesia, its close neighbour.
Indonesia has reacted cooly to the potential shift, and representatives from 13 Middle Eastern and North African embassies in Australia have condemned the proposal, declaring it a “fatal mistake” that could lead to a breakdown in economic relations with Arab and Muslim nations.
The former Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce - who has once again put himself in contention for the leadership of his party - has warned the government “to be careful” not to imperil trade relationships as a consequence of any shift.
He noted Indonesia was the biggest buyer of Australian wheat and cattle, while the biggest buyer of live sheep was in the Middle East.
Joyce said that he wasn’t proposing that the move would necessarily hurt trade relationships, arguing that countries were unlikely to stop trade with the United States despite the Trump administration’s decision to move its embassy.
But the Australian government has to “make sure we take them with us” and exercise “absolute care in this one”, he said.
The Seven Network also reported that the Indonesian foreign minister Retno Marsudi had sent Whatsapp messages to Australia’s foreign minister Marise Payne on Monday - shared with senior government members - in which Marsudi vented anger about the substance and timing of the announcement, which coincided with a visit by Palestinian foreign minister Riyad Al Maliki.
“Is this really necessary to do this on Tuesday? It will be a really big blow ... It will slap Indonesia’s face on the Palestine issue,” the message reportedly said. “This will affect bilateral relations.”
Labor has blasted the move. The shadow foreign minister Penny Wong said: “Foreign policy, and Australia’s national interest are far too important to be played with in this fashion”.
(c) Guardian News & Media Ltd, 2018