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In rare move, Australia criticizes settlement expansion

FM Julie Bishop, who refuses to call Israeli West Bank construction illegal, urges both sides to avoid unilateral actions

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman meeting with Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, August 4, 2016. (Amos Ben-Gershom/GPO)
Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman meeting with Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, August 4, 2016. (Amos Ben-Gershom/GPO)

In a rare rebuke of Israel’s settlement enterprise, Australia on Wednesday expressed “concern” over an announcement of planned expansion of West Bank settlements, and called on Israel to cease unilateral steps that it said undermine the peace process.

“The Australian Government is concerned about the significant recent settlement announcement in the West Bank,” Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop told ABC News. “We continue to call on both sides to avoid unilateral action that diminish the prospects of a negotiated two-state solution.”

On Tuesday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman announced plans to build 2,500 housing units in various towns across the West Bank, mostly, but not exclusively, in the settlement blocs.

Australia’s stance on Tuesday’s announcement was notable because Canberra has long been an unconditional friend of Israel, unafraid to defy international consensus to shield the Jewish state from criticism of its settlement policy.

The Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem declined to comment on Bishop’s statement.

Earlier this month, Australia sent only a junior delegation to the Paris peace conference and expressed concerns over the joint declaration issued at the end of the event, prompting harsh criticism from Ramallah.

“We are actually quite unhappy with Australia,” which is standing on the “wrong side of the law,” Hanan Ashrawi, a senior member of the Palestine Liberation Organization, said at the time. It is “shocking that Australia of all countries would decide to stand outside the global consensus.”

In December, Australia was the only country in the world, besides Israel, to denounce Security Council Resolution 2334. Bishop declared Australia would have likely opposed the text and Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull later attacked it as “one-sided” and “deeply unsettling.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) meets with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in New York, on September 21, 2016 (Kobi Gideon / GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) meets with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in New York, on September 21, 2016 (Kobi Gideon / GPO)

Canberra first distinguished itself from the rest of the world in early 2014, when Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, in an interview with The Times of Israel, refused to call Israeli settlements illegal.

“I don’t want to prejudge the fundamental issues in the peace negotiations,” Bishop said at the time.

Asked whether she agrees or disagrees with the near-universal view that Israeli settlements anywhere beyond the 1967 lines are illegal under international law, she replied: “I would like to see which international law has declared them illegal.”

Thankful for Australia’s unwavering support over the years, Netanyahu is planning to become the first-ever sitting Israeli prime minister to go Down Under next month.

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