Miffed by Palestinian criticism, Aussies boost pro-Israel stance

Canberra’s decision to stop calling East Jerusalem ‘occupied’ territory is partially a result of the PA’s impolitic behavior

Raphael Ahren is a former diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Prime Minister of Australia Tony Abbott (left) meets with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, January 23, 2014. (Kobi Gideon/GPO/Flash 90)
Prime Minister of Australia Tony Abbott (left) meets with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, January 23, 2014. (Kobi Gideon/GPO/Flash 90)

Australia’s decision to stop referring to East Jerusalem as “occupied” territory and to adopt additional similar steps that will likely please Israel and anger the Palestinians came as a retaliatory measure against Palestinian officials who in recent months repeatedly and ferociously attacked Canberra’s Middle East policies in public, The Times of Israel has learned.

“The Australian government is irritated by how the Palestinians have chosen to pursue their disagreements with us in public,” a senior Australian source told The Times of Israel Thursday. “This is the kind of behavior you’d expect from the leaders of a student union but not from a government-in-waiting.”

On Wednesday, Australia’s Attorney General George Brandis offered an explanation of Foreign Minister Julie Bishop’s position that using the word “occupied” is judgmental and does not contribute to dialogue about the contested area.

“The description of East Jerusalem as ‘occupied’ East Jerusalem is a term freighted with pejorative implications which is neither appropriate nor useful,” Brandis said during a Senate meeting. “It should not and will not be the practice of the Australian government to describe areas of negotiation in such judgmental language.”

The step cements Australia’s position as one of the Israeli government’s closest friends in the international community. This summer, Benjamin Netanyahu is set to become the first sitting Israeli prime minister to visit Canberra. Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman on Thursday welcomed Australia’s decision regarding East Jerusalem, saying it a sign of “honesty and fairness” in the country’s approach to the conflict.

However, there is more to Australia’s new approach to the Israeli-Palestinian issue: A similar policy is in place regarding all other unresolved core issues of the conflict, meaning that Canberra does not take any position on them, unlike almost any other government in the world.

In practice, what follows is that Australia will not make any on-record statements on future borders or on the Palestinians’ demand for a “right of return.” Most noteworthy is that Canberra, uniquely, does not have any position on the legality or illegality of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, in contrast to the legal position of the United Nations, the European Union and almost any other government in the world, including those of Canada and the United States.

“I would like to see which international law has declared them illegal,” Bishop told The Times of Israel in January, drawing fierce criticism from senior Palestinian officials, who aired their frustration at her position in several harshly worded opinion pieces in the Australian press.

In May, Australia’s ambassador to Israel, Dave Sharma, met Housing Minister Uri Ariel in the latter’s East Jerusalem office. Most envoys avoid meeting Israeli officials anywhere beyond the Green Line lest it be seen as tacit approval of Israeli claims to the territory. Furious about Sharma’s move, Palestinian chief peace negotiator Saeb Erekat wrote an angry letter to Bishop, which was leaked to Haaretz on the same day it was sent.

“It should be noted that diplomatic recognition of the situation created by the attempted annexation of our capital is a flagrant violation of international law,” Erekat wrote to the Australian foreign minister. “I should also take a moment to kindly remind you that Australia is under a clear obligation to respect and ensure respect for the Fourth Geneva Convention relative to the Protection of Civilian Person in Time of War and that a State which knowingly assists another State in the commission of an internationally wrongful act bears responsibility for the violation.”

The international community overwhelmingly cites the Fourth Geneva Convention in condemning Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem as illegal. Violations of the Convention are considered war crimes.

“The Palestinians handled this very badly. Such disagreements are usually handled in private,” the senior Australian source said, adding that the Palestinians’ behavior partially led to Canberra’s announcement this week to no longer refer to East Jerusalem as “occupied.” “Erekat’s letter was quite personal and does not reflect the way senior officials would usually write to each other. Apparently, they don’t put much stock in their relationship with Australia, and don’t really have appreciation for our financial support.”

Australia is one of the top 10 donors to the Palestinians. In 2013, the government gave about $50 million in aid to the PA, much of it unbound, which means the Palestinians can spend the funds however they see fit. Despite the current diplomatic row, and amid cuts to development aid to other countries, Canberra does not currently plan to reduce its contributions to the PA.

Canberra also has not welcomed the establishment of the new Palestinian unity government, which is backed by Hamas — as the UN, the EU, and many countries have — but also has not severed ties with the PA, as Jerusalem would have liked. Aid will continue to flow to the new government, and Australian officials traveling to the region will continue to visit their counterparts in Ramallah. At the same time, Australia does not bar officials from meeting Israeli officials in East Jerusalem, as opposed to most other countries.

While Australia refuses to take any concrete positions on the core issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the government does support a “peaceful solution to the dispute between Israel and the Palestinian people, which recognizes the right of Israel to exist peacefully within secure borders and also recognizes the aspiration to statehood of the Palestinian people,” Attorney General Brandis said.

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