SYDNEY – The controversial decision by Australia’s government to abandon any reference to East Jerusalem as “occupied” has triggered a fierce reaction within Australian Jewry.
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While the vast majority of the international community does not recognize Israel’s authority in East Jerusalem, Australia’s staunchly pro-Israel Liberal government said last week that the term “occupied” was “freighted with pejorative implications, which is neither appropriate nor useful.”
When asked to clarify Canberra’s position on East Jerusalem, Attorney-General George Brandis told a Senate committee, “It should not and will not be the practice of the Australian government to describe areas of negotiation in such judgmental language.” The foreign policy shift – welcomed by Israel as a decision of “integrity and courage,” but panned by the Palestinian Authority “in the gravest terms” – split Australian Jews, with mainstream leaders commending the government while left-wing groups criticized it.
Tony Abbott’s government “is sympathetic to a very hard-line and separatist agenda,” the Australian Jewish Democratic Society said in a statement. “The status of East Jerusalem as occupied territory is not pejorative, but a simple fact agreed upon internationally by almost every country in the world.
“While the Australian government professes commitment to a two-state solution, it is providing tacit approval for the continued occupation of land that is expected to be the capital of a future Palestinian state,” it added.
Irving Wallach, president of the Australian branch of the New Israel Fund, told Haaretz: “The government’s choice of language to describe Jerusalem is a sideshow. Jerusalem must be the shared capital of both Israel and an independent Palestinian state.”
However, the Executive Council of Australian Jewry defended the move. “The government is simply being realistic,” executive director Peter Wertheim said in a statement. “Jerusalem has not been a divided city since 1967, and it would be both wrong and impractical to try to turn back the clock and force a redivision.
“It is hypocritical to use this language simply because Israel is in control, especially as Israel’s control results from a war of self-defense in 1967,” he said.
Zionist Federation of Australia president Dr. Danny Lamm concurred, claiming the “occupied” term “predetermines the outcomes of negotiations as defined in United Nations Resolutions 242 and 338.”
He commended the Australian government for “recognizing that the final status of Jerusalem can only be resolved by a return to the negotiating table.”
The policy shift was “entirely” predictable, according to Melbourne-based academic Philip Mendes. “George Brandis and other conservatives, particularly in the English-speaking world, see Israel as a key ally in the global war on terror,” said Mendes, author of the new book “Jews and the Left: The Rise and Fall of a Political Alliance.”
“So they unconditionally endorse the views of the current Israeli government, which also happens to be a fellow conservative-led coalition,” Mendes added. “The government’s use of ‘disputed’ rather than ‘occupied’ will no doubt please those Australian Jews who favor a Greater Israel and/or believe that Israel should only make territorial concessions minimally and slowly.
“But it will upset those Jews who favor two states, and who believe that this sort of ambiguous language is deliberately aimed at undermining progress toward creating a Palestinian state alongside Israel.”
The controversy comes six months after Foreign Minister Julie Bishop urged the international community not to brand settlements as “illegal,” and about a month after Australia’s ambassador to Israel, Dave Sharma, attended a meeting with Housing and Construction Minister Uri Ariel in East Jerusalem, prompting the Palestinians to lodge an official complaint.
Former Foreign Minister Bob Carr (Labor Party), who slammed the pro-Israel lobby in Melbourne in his recent book “Diary of a Foreign Minister,” said Washington would be appalled by the decision.
“We are encouraging the hard-liners – the most hard-line of the hard-line in Israel – to think in terms of a Greater Israel, an annexation of what has been seen by the world up until now as territory occupied as a consequence of the 1967 war,” he told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
Peter Rogers, the Australian ambassador to Israel between 1994 and 1997, also criticized the decision, but said Israel would be “crazy” not to use this opportunity to encourage Australia to relocate its embassy to Jerusalem.
“There’ll undoubtedly be an invitation in the mail, if not in the ether,” Rogers said.