Australia/Israel Review

Editorial: Rhetoric and Reality

Jun 30, 2014 | Colin Rubenstein

Colin Rubenstein


The June 25 announcement by Palestinian delegation to Australia head Izzat Abdulhadi that there would be no trade sanctions imposed by Arab and Muslim countries on Australia over the Government’s position of refraining from referring to east Jerusalem as “Occupied” was both anticlimactic and to be expected.

From the beginning, this controversy had all the hallmarks of an orchestrated political initiative by pro-Palestinian federal crossbenchers – overblown and overplayed. The threat of a trade boycott by Palestinian diplomats and their allies in Arab and Muslim countries was intended to intimidate and sensationalise, and nothing more, but was sadly overhyped by elements of the Australian media.

What was the Abbott Government’s ‘crime’? Having the audacity to suggest, as Attorney-General George Brandis did, that terms of reference in the conflict should be neutral and non-pejorative; having the temerity to reject, as Foreign Minister Julie Bishop did, describing east Jerusalem by the proper noun “Occupied”; and having the chutzpah to terminologically clarify, as Prime Minister Tony Abbott did, that “the truth is they are disputed territories” subject to negotiation.

To their credit, Labor party leaders were nuanced on the substance of the issue, while strongly criticising the Government’s handling of it.

This too, isn’t surprising, given the fact that there are almost no examples on record of Australian foreign ministers – Coalition or Labor – using the term “Occupied East Jerusalem” when referring to that area. They invariably simply called it “East Jerusalem”.

In later statements, Bishop reiterated Australia’s support for UN Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338, and their language, which refers to “territories occupied by Israel” in the 1967 war (but, importantly, not “the territories” or “all the territories”.)

Bishop’s statement was interpreted by some as backtracking, but this misunderstands the meaning of “occupied” as both she and 242 used it.

The word “occupied” in the resolutions was chosen to reflect the reality of Israeli control, not to pass legal judgement on ownership. In fact, at the heart of those resolutions was the formula of land-for-peace – the idea that the claims on those territories would be negotiated in a peace agreement.

Israel controls east Jerusalem, and has officially annexed it. Palestinians want it for their state. The word for land controlled by one party but claimed by another is “disputed” not “occupied.”

International law, in the form of treaties like the Fourth Geneva Convention and 1907 Hague regulation, generally uses “occupied territory” to mean the sovereign territory of one state that is controlled by another state. That clearly isn’t applicable here. Israel controls the entire city as a consequence of its defensive actions in the 1967 war after being attacked by Jordan. Jordan’s seizure of the territory in 1948 was never recognised internationally and Amman renounced any claims in 1988. Moreover, there has never been a Palestinian state there or anywhere else.

The Palestinians and their allies like to insist everyone call the territory “Occupied” because it implies that it is all, already, rightfully theirs. They hope international pressure will force Israel out of it unconditionally, without them having to compromise or agree to a final peace with Israel to obtain it.

Of course, this applies to the entire West Bank, as the Palestinians and their allies uncompromisingly condemn every house built by Israel in these areas – ignoring the principle of land swaps for settlement blocs which have been a major feature of all peace proposals since 2000, endorsed by Palestinian negotiators discreetly and the Arab League explicitly.

Appeasing the Palestinians on this issue hinders, not helps, the cause of peace. This attitude that the territory is already legally theirs has been one of the greatest barriers to a two-state deal, and almost certainly factored into the Palestinian refusal to respond positively to three reasonable Israeli peace offers in 2000, 2001 and 2008 – including a Palestinian stake in the Arab neighbourhoods of Jerusalem.

For the average Australian, the way the controversy played itself out should be revealing in a number of ways.

Firstly, in terms of the decidedly undiplomatic and bullying manner in which Palestinian and Arab representatives attacked the Australian Government in the media – with repeated threats of sanctions.

More importantly, Australians could see from the outset the cynical way Greens Senator Lee Rhiannon and her enablers in Senate Estimates used Jerusalem as some sort of politically correct litmus test, and political football. By provoking and escalating this “crisis”, these Senators were cavalier about Australia’s image abroad and helped unleash a fear campaign – baseless as it turned out – amongst our rural exporters.

There was no benefit to the national interest to be gained by doing so – arm-twisting the Government to adopt the language of the Palestinians when describing east Jerusalem can only harm bipartisan efforts to bring the Israeli-Palestinian conflict closer to a peaceful resolution.

Like so much of the chicanery employed by anti-Israel activists, this exercise was simply a diversion which masked the reality that the Palestinian leadership remains either unwilling or unable to accept a sovereign Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza if doing so would require entering into a genuine peace agreement with Israel and making the compromises necessary to end the conflict.

It is particularly regrettable that, during a time when Syrians are being murdered by the tens of thousands and fleeing in the millions; when Sunni Islamist extremists are seizing large swathes of Iraq and Syria and perpetrating bloody massacres; when journalist Peter Greste and his colleagues are convicted on trumped up charges in Egypt and sentenced to long prison terms; it was this issue that preoccupied Australia’s attention for such an extended period.

Grandstanding crossbenchers, bullying Arab diplomats, anti-Israel activists and media cheerleaders all have much to answer for in this whole bizarre, partly damaging, yet revealing saga.



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