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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 15 November 2018

Middle East watches as Australians vote in by-election, with government's majority at stake

Prime Minister Scott Morrison suggested following Donald Trump by moving Australia's Israel embassy to Jerusalem

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison speaks at Parliament House in Canberra. EPA
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison speaks at Parliament House in Canberra. EPA

Voting began in an Australian by-election on Saturday that could determine how long Scott Morrison's two-month-old premiership lasts, with the outcome keenly watched in the Middle East after a bid by the prime minister to woo Jewish voters.

Morrison, Australia's sixth prime minister in eight years, needs the ruling Liberal Party to hold on to Wentworth, an affluent Sydney constituency, to keep his centre-right coalition government's one-seat majority in parliament.

The seat was left empty by Mr Morrison's predecessor, Malcolm Turnbull, who was ousted in August by in-fighting among Liberal politicians.

To boost his party's appeal in a constituency where 13 per cent of voters are Jewish, Mr Morrison proposed that Australia could follow US President Donald Trump's controversial decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel's capital and move its embassy there.

Arab diplomats complained to Australia’s government this week and neighbouring Indonesia, the country with the world’s biggest Muslim population, warned that Canberra was risking its trade and business relationships with the entire Islamic world.

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Dave Sharma, the Liberal candidate in Wentworth, is a former Australian ambassador to Israel who is thought to have first made the proposal to relocate the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

The status of Jerusalem is one of the thorniest 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.

The Jerusalem proposal was the most controversial part of a heated campaign. Mr Turnbull's son called on voters to shun the Liberal Party, while Mr Sharma was scolded for using an unauthorised endorsement from a prominent rabbi.

Mr Sharma's strongest rival is Kerryn Phelps, an independent candidate who said that defence, trade and security implications need to be considered before any decision about Australia's embassy.

Should the government fail to win Wentworth, it will need support from independent legislators to survive.

Two independents already ruled out supporting the government and others warned Mr Morrison that he would pay a hefty price to receive their backing.

Although the gambit on Jerusalem was welcomed by some members of Wentworth's Jewish community, the proposal hardened the views of others.

"I’m not thinking of voting Liberal anyway, but doing things like this makes me more inclined to vote Greens," said Jo Sharp, 47.

Less than 0.5 per cent of Australia's population is Jewish. More than 2 per cent is Muslim.