Until early this week there was substantial support in the Australian community for the view that Anthony Albanese and his Foreign Minister Senator Penny Wong had performed very well in the area of foreign affairs.

Australia has not made any concessions with respect to China and the leaders of the Chinese Communist Party, while trying to improve relations between Beijing and Canberra. And Australia has continued as the most significant non-NATO supporter of Volodymyr Zelensky’s democratically elected government in Ukraine. Moreover, Wong has approached Australia’s relationship with the nations of the southwest Pacific with energy and appropriate tact.

And then there is Israel. Last Monday afternoon, David Hirst in the left-wing Guardian Australia reported that “Australia has quietly dropped its recognition of West Jerusalem as the capital of Israel”. He did so after drawing attention to the fact that the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade had deleted two sentences from its website which were placed there some years ago.

It’s not clear whether this was the result of journalistic discovery or whether the paper received a tip-off from DFAT and/or someone close to the government. In any event, the resulting mess was unfortunate for the Albanese government and the Australia-Israel relationship.

On Wednesday, Albanese was interviewed by Richard Glover on the ABC Radio Sydney Drive program. Asked whether the policy change could have been done better, the Prime Minister replied: “Of course, some things can always be done better but the truth is that we have been very clear about what our position was.”

He went on to accuse the Morrison government of being “duplicitous” in saying in 2018 that the embassy would be moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem but “didn’t”. It’s a bit more complicated than that.

On October 16, 2018, then PM Scott Morrison told a media conference that Australia was “open-minded” about moving the Australian embassy. This followed the decision by then US president Donald Trump, announced in late December the previous year, to relocate the US embassy from Tel Aviv to West Jerusalem.

This had been promised by successive US presidents, Republican and Democrat alike, but never implemented. Trump’s initiative has not been revoked by President Joe Biden.

Malcolm Turnbull resigned as the member for Wentworth soon after he was replaced by Morrison as prime minister in August 2018. The by-election was held four days after Morrison’s media conference. Dave Sharma, Australia’s ambassador to Israel from 2013 to 2017, was the Liberal Party candidate for Wentworth. Contrary to a common misconception in some quarters, Sharma is not Jewish.

In his media conference, Morrison mentioned an article by Sharma published in the Lowy Institute’s Interpreter on May 15, 2018. On May 18, Sharma wrote a piece in The Sydney Morning Herald broadly sympathetic to Trump’s decision to relocate the US embassy to West Jerusalem and suggested that Australia might do the same.

Sharma pointed out that Trump’s action did not preclude the future of a Palestinian state being located in East Jerusalem.

As it turned out, Sharma was defeated at the Wentworth by-election on October 20, 2018, by independent Kerryn Phelps. Morrison clarified Australia’s position in a speech delivered to the Sydney Institute in December 2018. He said that Australia regarded West Jerusalem, “being the seat of the Knesset (Israeli parliament) and many of the institutions of government”, as the “capital of Israel”.

He added that Australia looked forward to moving the embassy to West Jerusalem “when practical, in support of, and after the final ­determination” of the division of land between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

And there the matter rested until early this week. When the DFAT website alteration became public knowledge on Monday, Wong’s office was reported as saying that there had been no change to Australia’s existing position vis-a-vis Israel. However, on Tuesday the Foreign Minister announced that cabinet has just junked the Morrison government’s decision.

The official position of the Albanese government was set out in a statement released by Wong after the cabinet meeting. It began as follows: “Today the government has reaffirmed Australia’s previous and longstanding position that Jerusalem is a final status issue that should be resolved as part of any peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian people. This reverses the Morrison government’s recognition of West Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.”

The essential problem is that the decision was not communicated to Israel in advance. And, perchance, it was announced at the time of the Jewish Simchat Torah holiday. It was no way to treat Australia’s closest ally in the Middle East. Israel is a significant trading partner of Australia.

Also, as Sharma pointed out in The Australian on Wednesday, Israeli intelligence has been essential in foiling at least one Islamist terrorist attack in Australia.

Australia’s current position, as stated by the Foreign Minister, is ambiguous. Sometime in the future there will be a resolution of the status of Israel and the Palestinian Authority focusing on the land attained by Israel after the 1967 war – including East Jerusalem, where the Old City is located.

However, West Jerusalem has been part of Israel since 1948 when it was created and is within what is called the green line – namely, the land controlled by Israel at the end of 1948. No Israeli government is going to surrender this land. As Sharma pointed out in his 2018 article, “just as the Palestinians are not going anywhere, neither are the Israelis”.

The Albanese government’s decision has had the unintended consequence of giving some heart to Israel’s enemies – including the terrorist groups Hamas (based in Gaza) and Hezbollah (southern Lebanon) – while upsetting Israel. This was never the intention.

As the Prime Minister has acknowledged, the situation could have been handled better.

This can best be done by a considered statement by the Prime Minister that Australia recognises the permanency of Israel’s 1948 borders, including West Jerusalem, while continuing to seek a two-state solution to end the ­dispute between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.