Tony Abbott calls for Palestinian aid cut and embassy relocation to Jerusalem

Tony Abbott calls for Palestinian aid cut and embassy relocation to Jerusalem

By Fergus Hunter

Former prime minister Tony Abbott has called for Australia’s $40 million in aid to Palestine to be cut, citing concerns over the Palestinian Authority’s support for “terrorists and their families”, and suggested the Australian embassy in Israel be moved to Jerusalem.

Mr Abbott’s strongly pro-Israel declarations – which have been swiftly quashed by Foreign Minister Julie Bishop – follow the United Nations Security Council’s damning resolution on the country’s construction of settlements in occupied Palestinian territory.

Permitted by the outgoing Obama administration, the resolution labelling the settlements illegal has drawn ire from conservatives around the world – including Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, who called it “one-sided” and “deeply unsettling” and President-elect Donald Trump, who described it as “extremely unfair”.

Writing for The Spectator Australia after a recent trip to the region for the Australia-Israel-UK Leadership Dialogue, Mr Abbott said an Australian demonstration of “unswerving support for Israel, as the Middle East’s only liberal, pluralist democracy, might be to join any move by the Trump administration to move its embassy to Jerusalem”.

While Israel considers Jerusalem its capital, other countries maintain embassies in its largest city Tel Aviv, not recognising East Jerusalem’s annexation by the Israelis in 1967.

As recently as December, a spokeswoman for Mr Trump said relocating the US embassy was a “very big priority”. The President-elect’s pick to be ambassador, David Friedman, is a staunch right-wing supporter of Israel and its activities in occupied East Jerusalem and the West Bank.

Palestinians also lay claim to Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian state. The US embassy’s relocation – a cause célèbre for Israel’s fiercest American backers – would likely trigger outrage across the Muslim would.

As a significant ancient site for Christianity, Judaism and Islam, the city has long been at the centre of religious and political tensions in the Middle East and further division over its possession would represent an obstacle to peace and Palestinian statehood.

In 1995, US Congress voted to move the embassy but successive presidents have delayed the relocation every six months using a waiver provision.

“Australia should cut our $40 million a year in aid to the Palestinian Authority while it keeps paying pensions to terrorists and their families,” Mr Abbott also wrote, referring to support payments made to Arab detainees in Israeli prisons and their relatives.

He also said “there should be a permanent settlement for a Palestinian state where Jews have the same rights as Palestinians have in Israel”, labelling the alternative a “kind of apartheid that’s at odds with Israel’s own values”.

Mr Abbott expressed scepticism that the Palestinian Authority accepted Israel’s right to exist, given the virulent and anti-Semitic rhetoric of some Palestinians.

Following the former prime minister’s comments, Ms Bishop quickly knocked back the idea of relocating the embassy, saying the government “does not have any plans to move the Australian embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem”.

She defended the aid program, saying there was “robust risk management and due diligence assessment processes” and a “zero tolerance policy” for fraud and corruption.

Immigration Minister Peter Dutton also backed it, telling Sydney radio station 2GB “it’s not an ideal world but we provide aid in a way that is measured and controlled and if people are acting outside those parameters, then we wouldn’t provide aid”.

In August, the government suspended funding for World Vision after Israeli accusations that one of the charity’s Palestinian employees was redirecting millions of dollars to terrorist group Hamas. World Vision has denied the allegations.

Acting Labor leader Chris Bowen said development assistance to the Palestinian territories should be “transparent and accountable” and that it is “vital to the work of countering extremism and promoting peace”.

Mr Abbott is not the first Australian politician to call for the embassy move. Last year, Liberal senator James Paterson argued that “Jerusalem is Israel’s capital and we should respect that by putting our embassy where they choose to have their capital.”

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade specifies Tel Aviv as Israel’s capital and prominent counter-terrorism researcher, Professor Greg Barton, said relocation “wouldn’t be a wise move” and argued no other nation has done it so far.

Following Mr Trump’s example “would deal us out of playing any role as a serious middle power in negotiating,” Professor Barton told ABC. “The future of of Israel for Jewish Israelis and Palestinian Israelis and for people living in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank depends up trust and negotiation.”

Following the Security Council resolution, Ms Bishop broke with the outgoing US government – and New Zealand which co-sponsored the resolution – saying “the Coalition government has consistently not supported one-sided resolutions targeting Israel”.

Attending a menorah-lighting ceremony celebrating Hanukkah last week, Mr Turnbull told The Australian Jewish News: “Australia stands with Israel. We support Israel, the only democracy in the Middle East.”

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