October 21, 2018 / 5:08 AM / a month ago

Australia's Jerusalem ploy fails to avoid by-election beating, risks Muslim backlash

SYDNEY (Reuters) - In the kosher cafes of Sydney’s east, Australia’s surprise move to mull recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital won some support but not enough votes to prevent a huge backlash against the government at a crucial weekend by-election.

FILE PHOTO: Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison speaks during the opening ceremony of the Invictus Games at the Sydney Opera House, Sydney, Australia, October 20, 2018. REUTERS/Phil Noble

The results, with about a fifth of the Wentworth electorate switching their vote away from Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s government, are on track to plunge the ruling conservative coalition into political chaos and a parliamentary minority.

Its Israel gambit could unravel further.

Morrison’s unexpected announcement last week that he was open to Australia moving its mission from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, as the United States did in May, ended some 70 years staying out of one of the Middle East’s thorniest issues.

It delighted Israel, infuriated Palestinians and was seen locally, where he trails in opinion polls, as a naked grab for votes in Wentworth, the most strongly Jewish electorate in the country at around 13 percent.

It is already showing signs of alienating Muslim voters the government also needs to win over in an election due within months.

“It’s not the proper process,” Ali Shikder, 42, said of the move over sweet milk tea at a cafe in Lakemba, in Sydney’s working-class western suburbs, 18 km (11 miles) inland from the city’s well-heeled east.

The Jerusalem proposal was the latest example of how out of touch the government was with the Muslim community, said Shikdar, a Bangladeshi migrant.

“We have had no say, but we have the power to say yes or no (at the ballot box) and I think it could change the way people vote,” he said.

For Morrison, elevated to prime minister eight weeks ago in a party-room coup, Saturday’s result is a stinging rebuke for him and the chicanery that has turned the national leadership into a revolving door.

Morrison will now likely need to negotiate with Wentworth’s successful independent candidate, Kerryn Phelps, and four other independents to pass laws.

‘FOR ANYONE WHO’S JEWISH’

The status of Jerusalem is one of the trickiest obstacles to a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians. Israel regards all of the city, including the eastern sector that it annexed after the 1967 Middle East war, as its capital.

Morrison earlier this week denied the Israel proposal was a domestic policy ploy, though former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull resisted moves to shift the embassy, citing security and diplomat advice that it would undermine efforts to bring peace to the region.

Among the neighbourhoods of Sydney’s eastern suburbs, dotted with synagogues and kosher delis and home to a fifth of Australia’s entire Jewish population for generations, however, the proposal was popular.

“I don’t care what the reason for it was, I’m proud of him,” Sara Lavan, 61, told Reuters at Jesse’s, a kosher bakery in the seaside of suburb Rose Bay, where a huge photograph of the Tel Aviv skyline hangs on the wall.

Across the cafe, which hosted the wife of Israel’s Prime Minister for brunch during a visit last year, James Hochroth, 65, likewise lauded the decision’s symbolism.

“For anyone who’s Jewish and cares about being Jewish and cares about the state of Israel it’s an unmitigated good for Australia to follow the U.S. and move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem,” he said.

Both had already made up the minds to vote for the Liberal Party candidate, a former ambassador to Israel, before the embassy shift was mooted.

Of another eight constituents who spoke with Reuters, none said the policy change shifted their vote, raising the possibility that Morrison has risked Australia’s international reputation, and his political standing, without return.

Affluent and socially diverse, Wentworth voters were turned off by the Liberal Party infighting that saw Turnbull, a local resident, deposed and the party become more conservative on issues including fighting climate change.

‘EVERYONE HERE OPPOSES IT’

The embassy proposal drew concern from neighbouring Indonesia and a sterner rebuke from 13 Arab ambassadors who met in Canberra and agreed to condemn the shift as very worrying.

Across a belt of narrowly held seats in Sydney’s west, Morrison’s Israel policy shift upset many Muslims who could influence the outcome of the general election due before May next year.

“Everyone here opposes it,” Faisal Mohammed, 38, said while holding court with his friends, who agreed, on the outside tables of a biryiani shop in Lakemba in the afternoon sun last week.

Nahida Safar, 34, said the embassy issue had barely registered in the Lakemba cafe she runs but she was exasperated by what she saw as an unnecessarily divisive move.

“We are a multicultural country and we shouldn’t be worrying about what’s happening in Jerusalem. That’s what I think about it,” she said, over a cup of coffee.

“People care more about the price of petrol. These sorts of things affect our lives day to day, there are so many things the government needs to fix before we go out vouching for other governments.”

Reporting by Tom Westbrook and Colin Packham in SYDNEY; Editing by Lincoln Feast.

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