Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s Israel embassy call hasn’t panned out well.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s Israel embassy call hasn’t panned out well.

PM’s clever idea backfires spectacularly

It was rushed out as somebody's really clever idea but has become an extraordinary problem for the government.

Scott Morrison sprang the Jerusalem strategy on October 16 to ambush Wentworth by-election opponents.

It certainly caught them by surprise - not to mention the government's entire foreign affairs family - but it didn't work in Wentworth, where independent Kerryn Phelps won on October 20.

And it's still not working for the Prime Minister.

The only individual victim of the Jerusalem strategy has been Scott Morrison, who continues to struggle to escape his own ambush.

He now is tangled in a convoluted to-and-fro to justify his really clever idea on both the domestic and international stages, and might leave himself with no option but retreat.

The strategy has jeopardised relations with our biggest neighbour, identified a policy division within the government, and risked Mr Morrison being seen as a leader who recklessly played local politics with our foreign policy.

On Tuesday, October 16 the Prime Minister revealed a four-point decision on Mid East affairs, one of which was to review long-standing, bipartisan policy opposing the move of our embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

He gave no timetable - the key indicator on that was the by-election the following Saturday in Wentworth with its substantial Jewish community.

And he gave no notion of the structure of the review, something he still hasn't outlined in detail.

It was a rushed announcement.

Foreign Minister Marise Payne wasn't told until the Sunday, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade secretary Frances Adamson - our chief diplomat - until 1pm the Monday before.

The Chief of the Defence Force General Angus Campbell wasn't told at all. He found out from news reports by journalists who had been briefed on the Monday.

The Prime Minister's Tuesday announcement would have caused a barrage of confidential cables home from the foreign embassies in Canberra.

Even those nations with no great involvement in the Jerusalem issue would have been dismayed by the clunky decision process on such a high-profile matter and the announcement itself.

Indonesia didn't take it well at all and the world's largest Muslim nation let it be known the review might upset plans for a free trade agreement with Australia. The possibility was signalled in the diplomatic equivalent neon lights.

When Opposition Leader Bill Shorten argued the review decision had damaged Australia-Indonesia relations, Mr Morrison accused the Labor leader of basing policy on the demands of foreign governments, not on what was best for Australia.

Mr Shorten said: "Frankly he made himself look stupid and he made our country look stupid."

The Prime Minister replied: "I'm disappointed the Leader of the Opposition would be so quick to take cues on Australia's foreign policy from outside Australia.".

Mingled with all this, former Liberal minister - now constant backbench nagger - Eric Abetz injected extra agro with a tweet not widely considered helpful.

"If Indonesia really wants to dictate Aus foreign policy on the middle east, should we rethink the $360 million each year we give them in aid?" he wrote.

Then came some backgrounding designed to assure the Indonesians the embassy most probably would stay put, and Mr Morrison said an announcement would be made before Christmas.

Or maybe not: "All I have said is that we will consider the matter."

To finish off a day of voices joining the debate, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad argued the Jerusalem strategy could be "adding to the cause for terrorism".

It will take some time for the government to extricate itself from this clever idea

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