Attorney General George Brandis’ and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop’s recent terminological clarification – that the Abbott Government would not refer to east Jerusalem with any pejorative descriptor, and explicitly not “Occupied East Jerusalem” – was welcomed in the Israeli press but drew limited attention elsewhere, including, tellingly, in most Arab and Muslim countries.
Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu offered warm appreciation for the Australian clarification in his weekly cabinet meeting on June 8.
Over the weekend we also heard an interesting declaration from the Australian government of a kind that we do not always hear. It simply said that eastern Jerusalem is not occupied territory; the minimum is that is an area in dispute. To say this sharply and with such clarity and, I would say, courage, is refreshing given the chorus of hypocrisy and ignorance, ignorance not only of ancient history, but of recent and current history. What has really happened here? Who invaded who? Who occupied what? What is subject to negotiation? What is the area in dispute? These are new things. I certainly appreciate this stand by the Australian government and I am certain that all those who want to see an agreement here based on peace, justice and truth – and it is impossible to build peace based on historic lies – would agree.
The Abbott Government’s was further lauded both officially and informally in Jerusalem, according to the Jerusalem Post.
Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman praised the Australian move, saying it showed a “serious” approach to the issue, and indicated Canberra was not willing to “try to please and pander to radical Islamist factors,” which “are scaring anyone who dares to tell the truth regarding the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.”
Liberman said he hoped other countries would have the integrity and show the courage to follow Australia’s lead.
Another Israeli diplomatic official applauded the move, saying “the sound of wisdom comes from Australia.”
“Let’s hope this sturdy common sense view propagates itself to other continents, though given the situation of international relations I wouldn’t hold my breath,” he said.
In an editorial on June 10 titled “Aussie clarity”, the Post called Brandis’ and Bishop’s defence of the Abbott Government’s position “a remarkable moment of moral clarity“.
Bishop and Brandis were articulating a position long held by Israel and by numerous legal experts who recognize that the West Bank cannot be considered “occupied” for the simple reason that said territory did not belong to any sovereign power at the time that Israel took control of it.
The 1947 UN partition resolution set aside the West Bank and other areas of Israel for the creation of a Palestinian state. But the Palestinian political leadership rejected the partition plan and launched a war against Israel, which they lost.
Transjordan annexed the area in 1949 and renamed it Jordan after murdering or expelling all the Jews who lived there. Only Britain and Pakistan recognized Jordan’s “occupation” of the West Bank. In any event, the newly created Jordanian state – essentially a British construction – had no historical ties to Judea and Samaria, while for Jews it is the cradle of Jewish civilization and statehood from the biblical era.
Israel cannot, therefore, be considered in the strictest sense an “occupier” of another people’s land.
Tom Wilson on Commentary Magazine‘s website was also complimentary.
The decision to no longer refer to East Jerusalem as “occupied territory” is a bold and brave move that displays a degree of moral clarity that one could barely imagine coming from Obama’s State Department and certainly not from London’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
To be sure, the Abbott Government stressed that the decision was not intended to take the Israeli side of the dispute over the Palestinian side, but rather not to use any descriptor that would appear to favour either party.
This was made clear the following day, when Australian Ambassador to Israel Dave Sharma told the US-based e-zine Tablet Magazine, that the same principle of not adding descriptors to locations in Israel and the Palestinian Authority applied to the West Bank as well as Jerusalem.
“The statement that came out that was issued in Canberra last week didn’t make reference to this,” he told me, but “I think we just call the West Bank, ‘the West Bank,’ as a geographical entity without adding any adjectives to it, whether ‘occupied’ [the Palestinian position] or ‘disputed’ [the Israeli position]. We’ll just call it what it is, which is ‘the West Bank.'”
The Abbott Government’s position was assailed in the Australian edition of the Guardian by international law academic Ben Saul, though his attack was well-parried through a rebuttal by US-based international law expert Eugene Kontorovich, in a blog assembled by Adam Levick for the website CiF Watch.
The rebuttal concluded:
The mere fact that Saul and others might claim that calling Jerusalem “occupied” represents the “near-universal legal status quo” does not make it so. First, the term itself is generally “used in international law to denote the presence of one country in sovereign territory that belongs to another”.
Additionally, Israel is the only recognized nation with a legitimate claim to the West Bank (including Jerusalem) – territory which was, for hundreds of years, until the end of World War I, the equivalent of a province in the Ottoman Empire. The territory never had any unique national standing other than as the future Jewish national homeland as stipulated by the League of Nations.
Elsewhere, BBC’s Sydney (and former Gaza) Correspondent Jon Donnison filed an online story on June 9 titled “Israel and Australia: New best mates?“, a somewhat cynical piece centred around the Jerusalem issue that termed Australian overall support for Israel “contentious” and compared Arab and Jewish populations of the country, implying Australia’s support for Israel should somehow be based on a popularity contest and electoral concerns rather than based on national interest.
At the other end of the spectrum, commentator Melanie Phillips, writing in the Jewish Chronicle, called for other Western countries to take Australia’s lead.
Now [that] the Australians have raised the banner of truth, what’s needed is for other friendly leaders to follow suit by stating loud and clear that Israel stands for law, justice and historical reality.
Indeed, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott has apparently already received words of support over the controversy as reported regarding his meeting last week in Washington with top US Democratic party officials, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.
Meanwhile, the reported threats by Australian-based Arab and Muslim ambassadors to boycott or impose trade sanctions on Australia that have been much hyped by certain sections of our media – particularly Fairfax and the ABC – appear to be overblown and unwarranted, judging by the way the story has been covered in the Arab media.
Jordan, which once claimed east Jerusalem as its own sovereign territory, renounced that claim in 1988 but still has a say in some matters dealing with the Muslim holy sites in the Old City, did summon Australia’s Chargé d’affaires John Feakes over the controversy, and the government-owned Jordan Times ran a scathing editorial on the subject.
However, other Arab and Muslim countries have not made a public display of their displeasure and have simply left the matter to their Australian embassies.
Among all the English-language newspapers from Arab League countries that are available on the popular PressDisplay website, only the UAE’s Gulf News and The National, the Kuwait Times and Arab Times of Kuwait, The Saudi Gazette and the Malaysia Star have covered the story, mostly buried deep inside the papers. Tellingly, all of the coverage in those papers have been through wire copy running the same stories that appeared in Australia – local officials in those countries have not made any comments on the stories at all.
On the contrary, no references to Australian trade in the papers have indicated any threat to relations. A story in Gulf News on June 16 reporting the expansion of Australia’s Noodle Box to the Persian Gulf countries made no mention of the ‘controversy’.
On the previous day, the Gulf News, along with The National, reported the acquisition of an Australian courier firm Mail Call Carriers by Dubai-based firm Aramex as part of Aramex’s “aggressive expansion strategy” into Australia. Neither story raised the Jerusalem flap.
Perhaps most significantly, in a story that did not gain much traction in Australian media, on June 18 Arab Bank Australia managing director Joseph Rizkis told the ABC that “It’s quite obvious that the Middle East is not going to boycott Australia, well that’s my view,” although that authoritative assessment didn’t make it into the lead of the story, which instead focused on a much more vague aspect of Rizkis’ comments speculating that “over time it will affect trade.”