The question of the legality of Israeli settlements is once again stirring debate in Australia, after the head of the opposition and Labor Party chairman Bill Shorten said that “some settlement activity in the West Bank is illegal,” leading even members of his own party to protest that he should have left off the word “some.”

The Jewish community, however, welcomed Shorten’s stance, suggesting that the government in Canberra is growing increasingly aware of Palestinian efforts to “deliberately distort the realities of the settlement question for political purposes.”

Shorten’s comments came about four months after the country’s foreign minister, Julie Bishop, caused a controversy when she indicated in a Times of Israel interview that settlements might not be illegal under international law.

During a thoroughly pro-Israel speech at the Zionist Federation of Australia’s Biennial Conference last week, Shorten said his party acknowledges “that the settlements and infrastructure Israel has built in the West Bank will need to be considered in drawing a final border… We do acknowledge that some settlement activity in the West Bank is illegal under Israeli law and we encourage the Israeli authorities to act effectively with respect to this. But this issue, as difficult and emotive as it is, also has a solution: a peace treaty between Israel and Palestine.”

At a question-and-answer session that followed the address, Shorten reportedly criticized the way his party has been dealing with the issue and repeated his statement. “I want to say on the record that I believe that we didn’t communicate clearly enough our position,” he said, according to the Sydney Morning Herald. “We do note, as I said, that some settlements… have been decided or deemed to be illegal under Israeli law.”

Labor sources slammed their party leader for the tacit implication that some Israeli settlements might be legal, the paper reported. “That’s out of line with the Labor Party’s policy,” one source told the paper. “It’s a screw-up.”

Australian opposition leader and Labor party chief Bill Shorten (photo credit: CC BY-SA Peter Campbell, Wikimedia Commons)

Australian opposition leader and Labor party chief Bill Shorten (photo credit: CC BY-SA Peter Campbell, Wikimedia Commons)

Party sources also lamented that Shorten criticized the way Labor had communicated its stance on the issue in the past. “We absolutely did communicate our issue on settlements,” the Labor source said. “It’s consistent with the rest of the world, which is that they’re illegal.”

A spokesman for Labor’s shadow foreign affairs minister, Tanya Plibersek, told the paper that Shorten’s remarks do not signal a change in policy regarding the settlements’ legality. “Labor’s position remains the same,” he said.

Just recently, senior Labor officials slammed the government of Prime Minister Tony Abbott for appearing to have changed Australia’s position on the settlements. Australia’s former foreign minister Bob Carr (Labor) said earlier this year that considering Israeli settlements illegal was a “commonplace and commonsense opinion,” and that any contradictory view was ignorant.

The president of the Australia Palestine Advocacy Network, Anglican Bishop George Browning, called Shorten’s remarks last week distressing, according to the Sydney Morning Herald. “I just don’t understand why they would move away again from a principled position,” he told the paper.

The Australian Jewish community, on the other hand, hailed Shorten for his remarks.

Danny Lamm, the incoming president of the Zionist Federation of Australia, “welcomed Mr Shorten’s comments and his very positive address and approach, notably commending him for his statement that: ‘the real answer to the settlements issue is to reach a settlement,’” his office said in statement sent to The Times of Israel. “Bill Shorten is a friend of Israel and the Jewish community in Australia and his principled comments regarding Israel and the peace process are welcomed and appreciated,” Lamm said, according to the statement.

The president of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, Robert Goot, said there was “nothing controversial” about Shorten’s words on the settlements. “The opposition leader’s comments signal an increasing awareness among Australian leaders that the Palestinians and the anti-Israel lobby deliberately distort the realities of the settlement question for political purposes,” he told The Times of Israel.

During his speech, Shorten recognized the need to arrive at a two-state solution, saying that the question of settlements can only be resolved as part of a peace deal that would delineate the borders of both Israel and a Palestinian state, Goot said.

“Those borders will determine which settlements will remain in Israel and which will need to be dismantled. Of course this is a critical issue that needs to be resolved but it is merely one of a number of fundamental ‘final status’ issues that the parties need to resolve,” he said.

“For too long critics of Israel have deliberately exaggerated the settlement issue in order to cast blame on Israel for the absence of peace,” Goot added.

Four months ago, a first verbal battle over the settlements erupted in Australia, with local Jewish leaders and top Palestinian officials sparring over comments Foreign Minister Bishop had made to The Times of Israel.

In an interview published on January 15, Bishop appeared to contest the view that Israeli settlements anywhere beyond the 1967 lines are illegal under international law. “I would like to see which international law has declared them illegal,” she said, adding that she did not want to “prejudge the fundamental issues,” which should instead be discussed in the peace negotiations.

Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, left, with FM Avigdor Liberman in Jerusalem, January 13, 2014 (photo credit: Yossi Zamir)

Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, left, with FM Avigdor Liberman in Jerusalem, January 13, 2014 (photo credit: Yossi Zamir)

Bishop’s comments drew widespread condemnation from Palestinian and Australian officials. She “wants to reinvent international law and call Israeli settlements legal. Or what else was Bishop trying to accomplish by showing her support to Israeli settlements?” Palestinian chief peace negotiator Saeb Erekat wrote at the time in an op-ed published in the Sydney Morning Herald. “If Bishop wanted to show solidarity with an occupation that harms the rights of an occupied population, she did well.”

Australia is now the only country, besides Israel, that considers the settlements legal, Erekat fumed.

In an immediate response to Erekat’s article, Peter Wertheim, the executive director of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, accused him of making “false and inflammatory accusations against Israel.”

“This manner of conduct is unbecoming of the representative of an aspiring state which seeks to take its place among the family of peace-loving nations,” Wertheim told The Times of Israel at the time. “We sincerely hope that the PLO and its negotiating team will focus on the enormous and grave tasks before them instead of slandering those with whom they are negotiating and diverting themselves with clumsy forays into Australian politics.”

In March, confronted with her controversial comments during an interview with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Bishop tried to clarify that she did not mean to say that Canberra doesn’t consider settlements illegal. “No, what I said is I wasn’t aware of any binding determination on the issue of the settlements… But the point I was making is that we currently have negotiations underway for a two-state solution and the question of the boundaries and the settlements will be part of this negotiated political solution, not the result of a binding judicial determination.”