THERE is a fable attributed to Aesop and often titled The Miller, His Son & the Ass that tells the story of a father and son transporting their ass (as in donkey, just to be clear) to the market, to sell off the humble beast.
All three are on foot, and when the father is mocked by passers-by for missing a free ride, he promptly places his son on the animal. When, shortly afterwards, the lad is berated for letting his old man walk, the father replaces his son on the donkey’s back. Inevitably, that occasions further criticism, which leads to both father and son riding the animal. And when they are criticised for overburdening the beast, the father responds by deciding that he and his son must alight and carry the ass instead.
Fellow pedestrians can’t help laughing at the sight, which upsets the donkey, who starts kicking and braying — and, in the process, falls off a bridge into the river below. “The poor miller now set out sadly for home,” the story concludes. “By trying to please everybody, he had pleased nobody, and lost his ass besides.”
The moral of the story is: if you try to please all, you please none. I was reminded of it lately by the Australian prime minister’s misadventures on the rocky road to Jerusalem, so to speak.
If you try to please all, you please no one.
A couple of months ago, on the eve of a crucial by-election in a well-heeled Sydney constituency, Scott Morrison declared that Australia would shift its embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. It was, after all, the new norm for right-wing governments, with as many as two precedents: the United States under Donald Trump, and Guatemala — which came under immense pressure when it tried to rescind its decision.
Morrison’s stroke of genius was born of desperation. The seat of Wentworth had previously been held with a substantial majority by his predecessor as prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, who had quit in disgust upon being toppled from the top spot in August. The ruling Liberal Party’s new candidate, a former ambassador to Israel, faced a tough challenge from an independent. The Liberals, in coalition with the National Party, had a one seat majority in the lower house of parliament. The seat’s electorate has a Jewish component of more than 10pc.
Morrison thought he was on to a winner, forgetting that since elections in Australia traditionally take place on Saturdays, quite a few Jews use the facility of early postal ballots so as avoid having to vote on the Sabbath, whereas others are not particularly drawn to Israel’s toxic politics. At any rate, the Liberal candidate lost.
So, in addition to the loss of his parliamentary majority, the prime minister was left with a double dilemma. On the one hand, Israel would be mightily miffed if he didn’t keep his word. On the other, Indonesia — one of Australia’s closest Asian neighbours, albeit across a substantial expanse of water, with which a free trade deal (FTA) is being negotiated — had made clear its displeasure over the unexpected initiative.
Advised against the move by experts and senior bureaucrats alike, Morrison eventually tried to have it both ways. Last Saturday, he declared that Australia recognised West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and would extend recognition to East Jerusalem as Palestine’s capital once a two-state settlement came to pass, but would not for the time being shift its embassy.
This had the unusual consequence of attracting a backlash from Palestinians and Israel alike. The Israeli foreign ministry initially greeted the announcement as “a step in the right direction”, but while Benjamin Netanyahu remained silent, one of his Likud ministers regretted Australia’s “mistake”, given that the regime sees Jerusalem, including its illegally annexed East, as a whole.
Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat, meanwhile, appropriately described the Australian idiocy as arising from “petty domestic politics”. He accurately added: “All of Jerusalem remains a final-status issue for negotiations, while East Jerusalem, under international law, is an integral part of the occupied Palestinian territory.”
Indonesia was relatively subdued in its response, appreciating Australia’s ambivalence while not mentioning the prospects for an FTA, but Malaysia — another regional entity with which Australia is obliged to interact — was more scathing in its assessment.
At the time of writing, the only country to unequivocally back the Australian stance has been Bahrain — a reminder that the Likud regime is cultivating friendships among authoritarian right-wing regimes, including those that thrive on anti-Semitic propaganda, from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf to Eastern Europe and the Americas, where the latest government to pledge its allegiance to the neo-fascist predilections of its Israeli counterpart is the incoming administration of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil.
Australia’s Morrison never had much credibility to start with, and now, like Aesop’s misfortunate miller, he’s also lost his ass. At this point, he is also widely expected to lose the next election in May 2019.
Published in Dawn, December 19th, 2018