SPEAKING FREELY Australia joins Israeli word games
By Nicola Nasser
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It has been referred to as Australia's blunder into the "occupied territory" word game, a diplomatic gaffe that may trigger possible trade sanctions if Australia does not reverse its position.
On June 5, Australian attorney general George Brandis said in a statement: "The description of East Jerusalem as 'Occupied East
Jerusalem' is a term freighted with pejorative implications, which is neither appropriate nor useful."
The new Australian terminology provoked Jordan, the third largest importer of Australian sheep in the Middle East, to summon, John Feakes, Australia's charge d'affaires, to convey its "concern" because, "the Australian government's decision violates international law and resolutions that consider East Jerusalem as an integral part of all Palestinian territories occupied in 1967".
Similarly, the Australian representative in Ramallah, Tom Wilson, was summoned by the Palestinian foreign ministry, which conveyed "deep concern" because Brandis's remarks "contradict all international resolutions". They requested "official clarification".
Reacting to snowballing protests from antagonized Palestinians angered by her government's decision to reverse a 47-year-old bipartisan consensus on describing East Jerusalem as "occupied", foreign minister Julie Bishop denied any "change in the Australian government's position".
Her statement was followed by that of Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, who said on June 14, while on a trip to North America, that his government had made only a "terminological clarification".
Australia still "strongly" supports the "two-state solution" and "there has been no change in policy - absolutely no change in policy", Abbot said, but at the same time confirmed that, "We absolutely refuse to refer to occupied East Jerusalem."
Abbot two days earlier had stated that the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) are in "truth ... disputed territories".
Canberra is showing no signs of backing down. Australia's Ambassador to Israel, Dave Sharma, said on June 11 that Brandis's reasoning could lead his government to similar official linguistic change on the West Bank.
"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'," he told the Tablet. "However, this is not official yet," he added.
"There has been no change in the Australian government's position on the legal status of the Palestinian Territories, including East Jerusalem," Bishop "clarified" in her statement. She was not convincing. The credibility of Bishop's and Abbot's denial of "change" could hardly be plausible.
Radical and provocative
It is a "radical change in the Australian position on Palestine", said Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki. The head of the Palestinian delegation to Canberra, Izzat Abdulhadi, said Australia's new stance is "very provocative".
On June 12, Arab and Islamic ambassadors from 18 countries, including Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Indonesia, protested to Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs in Canberra.
Jerusalem is the permanent headquarters of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). The organization was founded in response to the burning of Al-Aqsa Mosque, Islam's third holiest site, by the Australian arsonist Michael Dennis Rohan in 1969.
On June 10, The Australian reported from Jerusalem that the 57-member OIC will hold a joint emergency meeting this month with the 22-member Arab League to decide their response to Australia's "terminology" declaration.
Palestinians are on record to invoke the multi-billion dollar annual Australian agricultural exports to the member states in the discussions. Warren Truss, Australia's deputy prime minister, told reporters last week that "we will work very hard with them ... to maintain the trade", but so far his government has shown no signs to that effect.
Bishop's and Abbot's "no change" statements tried to imply that their country's policy has not changed and that if there was a change it was a linguistic one only.
The change in "terminology" serves neither Australian nor Palestinian interests. Coming ahead of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's upcoming visit to Australia this summer - he will be the first sitting Israeli premier to visit Canberra - it serves only as a free-of-charge welcoming present.
Coinciding with the 47th anniversary of the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories in East Jerusalem, West Bank and Gaza Strip in 2014 - which the United Nations proclaimed an International Year of Solidarity with the Palestinian people - the Australian "change of language" was "absolutely disgraceful and shocking", according to the member of the Executive Committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), Hanan Ashrawi.
"Such inflammatory and irresponsible statements ... are not only in blatant violation of international law and global consensus, but are also lethal in any pursuit of peace and toxic to any attempt at enacting a global rule of law," Ashrawi was quoted as saying by the Times of Israel on June 6.
In fact, describing the Palestinian territories, eastern Jerusalem inclusive, as "occupied" is not only a Palestinian position.
The Israeli annexation of East Jerusalem has not been recognized by the international community and all 193 countries of the UN, including the US, refuse to have their embassies in Jerusalem because it would imply their recognition of the city as Israel's capital.
On June 11, Ben Saul wrote in the Guardian: "Calling east Jerusalem 'occupied' simply recognizes the near-universal legal status quo, namely that it is not sovereign Israeli territory."
"Declaring that east Jerusalem will not be described as 'occupied' implies that Australia rejects the application of international humanitarian law. ... The term 'occupation' is therefore not pejorative or judgmental," Saul said, adding that "Australia's new view ... corrodes the international rule of law and violates Australia's international law obligations" in accordance with the Geneva conventions to which both Australia and Israel are signatories.
The UN security council resolution 478, adopted on August 20, 1980, censured "in the strongest terms the enactment by Israel of the 'basic law' on Jerusalem", affirmed "that the enactment of the 'basic law' by Israel constitutes a violation of international law" and determined "that all legislative and administrative measures and actions taken by Israel, the occupying power, which have altered or purport to alter the character and status of the Holy City of Jerusalem, and in particular the recent 'basic law' on Jerusalem, are null and void and must be rescinded forthwith."
Ninety UNSC resolutions, let alone 40 others, vetoed by the US, rule accordingly. Now Australia is the only other nation that joins and supports Israel in its violation of all these resolutions. Aside from Israel, it is also the only nation to change its language on the Palestinian Occupied Territories.
'Terminological clarification' in context
The Palestinian people are not known for their short memory. They view the Australian government's "terminological clarification" in the context of the country's recent pro-Israel changes of policy as well as in Australia's historical anti-Palestinian policies.
Last month, Sharma met up with Israeli Housing Minister Uri Ariel in East Jerusalem, the latter is in charge of the illegal construction of the colonial settlements in the OPT.
In January this year, while on an official visit to Israel, Bishop told the Times of Israel that she is not convinced that Israeli construction of illegal settlements in OPT is a violation of international law, and called international boycotts of these settlements "anti-Semitic" and "hypocritical beyond belief".
Last November, Australia failed to join 158 nations who supported a UN General Assembly (UNGA) resolution calling for an end to Israeli settlements, or to join 160 countries that supported another resolution calling on Israel to "comply scrupulously" with the 1949 Geneva conventions.
In November 2012, Australia abstained from supporting the UNGA recognition of Palestine as a "non-member observer state" by a vote of 138 to 9, rendering Abbot's latest "clarification" that Australia still "strongly" supports the "two-state solution" a hollow statement.
According to emeritus Professor Peter Boyce, president of the Australia Institute of International Affairs in Tasmania, a 2010 study found that 78% of Australians were opposed to Israel's settlements policy and only 22% thought Jerusalem should be recognized as Israel's capital. More recently, at the time of the 2012 general assembly vote on Palestinian non-member observer state status, 51% of Australians thought their country should vote "Yes" and only 15% "No".
"Australia has had an important role in the establishment of the Israeli state" and it "stood alone among western governments in its uncritical alignment with Israel", Professor Boyce wrote.
Certainly Boyce had history in mind. Australia, in its capacity as the chairman of the UN General Assembly's ad hoc committee on Palestine, helped to push through the UN partition plan on November 29, 1947. It was the first UN member state to vote in favor of Israeli statehood and the first to grant Israel de jure recognition when the US recognized it as de facto only. Israel was also the first Middle East country with which Australia established diplomatic relations in 1949.
Australia has, in the past, defended all Israeli wars on Palestine, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria as "self defense", especially the 1967 war in which it occupied more Palestinian territories and the lands of four Arab countries.
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing. Articles submitted for this section allow our readers to express their opinions and do not necessarily meet the same editorial standards of Asia Times Online's regular contributors.
Nicola Nasser is a veteran Arab journalist based in Birzeit, West Bank of the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories.