SYDNEY – The Organization of Islamic Cooperation has strongly condemned Australia for refusing to refer to East Jerusalem as “occupied,” and urged its 57 member states to take “necessary measures” against Canberra’s “illegal position,” leaving open the possibility of a trade boycott.
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The OIC’s Council of Foreign Ministers, which met late last week in Saudi Arabia, blasted “the orientation of the Australian government not to describe the city as occupied.”
Calling on the Australian government to “respect its commitments under international law,” the OIC urged member states “to condemn such illegal positions and take necessary measures to respond to them” – leaving open the possibility of a boycott on Australia’s multi-billion-dollar trade to the Middle East.
But Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, who met 18 Arab ambassadors in Canberra around the same time last Thursday, hosed down the furor, stressing that Australia’s position on East Jerusalem has not changed.
The controversy erupted earlier this month when Senator George Brandis clarified in the Australian Senate the terminology the government preferred when referring to East Jerusalem. He said Tony Abbott’s Liberal government would use the term “disputed” rather than “occupied” in relation to East Jerusalem.
“The description of East Jerusalem as ‘occupied East Jerusalem’ is a term freighted with pejorative implications, which is neither appropriate nor useful,” Brandis said at the time. “It should not and will not be the practice of the Australian government to describe areas of negotiation in such judgmental language.”
The opposition Labor Party, as well as Palestinian and Arab supporters, claimed it was evidence of a radical change in Australia’s position.
“The territory is occupied, and that’s why Labor describes it like that,” a spokesman for Labor Party leader Bill Shorten said.
But in a letter to Arab ambassadors last Thursday, published by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Bishop wrote: “Senator Brandis’s statement was about nomenclature, and was not a comment on the legal status of the Palestinian Territories.”
She added: “Our position is consistent with relevant United Nations resolutions on the issue, adopted over many years, starting with UN Security Council resolutions 242 and 338.”
Australia had provided almost $200 million in Palestinian aid since 2010, and in 2014-2015 the government had committed $56.5 million in Palestinian aid, which Bishop said was a three-percent increase on 2013-14.
Izzat Abdulhadi, the head of the General Delegation of Palestine to Australia, told Haaretz that Bishop confirmed to Arab ambassadors last week that Australia’s policy on East Jerusalem has not changed.
“She emphasized that he [Brandis] meant that the government will not use the term ‘Occupied East Jerusalem’ with capital ‘O’ as a proper noun but will continue to use small ‘o’ in describing the legal status of East Jerusalem as ‘occupied.’”
Abdulhadi said Bishop pledged that Australia’s ambassador in Tel Aviv would not conduct any more meetings in East Jerusalem, following the furor that erupted after Dave Sharma met Uri Ariel, Israel’s housing and construction minister, in his East Jerusalem office last month.
“She also mentioned that the prime minister and herself are the only persons responsible for any statement in regard to the Israel-Palestine conflict,” Abdulhadi said.
Gerard Henderson, a conservative columnist, wrote on Saturday that the imbroglio would not result in a trade boycott of Australia’s wheat and meat.
“The Arab world, plus Iran, appears to be involved in a religious civil war of disturbing ferocity,” Henderson wrote in The Australian newspaper. “In such a reality, Australia’s position concerning the appropriate terminology on East Jerusalem is of scant importance.”
Greg Sheridan, the foreign editor of The Australian, argued that Brandis’s comments were ill-advised. “Brandis spoke as a fine lawyer, but not necessarily as a sharp politician,” Sheridan wrote. “The Abbott government would have been better advised to take a private decision never to utter the words ‘occupied territories,’ but not announce a doctrine on the terminology. Now, Canberra cannot possibly back down but must simply hope that the issue itself dies down.”
This latest spat comes less than six months after Bishop created international headlines by urging the international community not to refer to Israeli settlements as “illegal.”