Senator Anne Urquhart – statement regarding the refusal of the Australian Attorney-General, Senator George Brandis, to use the legally correct phrase “occupied East Jerusalem”

photo of Senator Anne Urquhart
June 16, 2014

These concerns are that, under the Abbott Liberal government, Australia has forgone its independent perspective on the Middle East peace process and on the question of Palestine and that, under the Abbott Liberal government, while Australia claims to support the aspirations to statehood of the Palestinian people, it will in fact seek to undermine the process at any opportunity.

Full speech

Senator URQUHART (TasmaniaDeputy Opposition Whip in the Senate) (21:59): Australia has a relatively small to moderate population and a large landmass. We punch well above our weight in international trade and commerce. In international relations, Australia has clear standing as a strong middle power country. While we will not necessarily determine the outcome of a conversation, we can and do make very meaningful contributions. People the world over listen to Australia’s official position on matters of international significance. It is why we must have clarity from our government on Australia’s official position on matters such as the question of Palestine and the Middle East peace process.

It is why it was so disappointing to see the appalling display from the Attorney-General at Senate estimates when under quite straightforward questioning from senators around the question of Palestine. The Attorney had obviously had a long day in the chair when Senator Rhiannon raised the legitimate question of why Australia’s Ambassador to Israel met with the Israeli Minister for Housing and Construction in occupied East Jerusalem, a place where the Israeli government plans double-digit growth in settlements. These settlements are in clear breach of paragraph 6 of article 49 of the fourth Geneva Convention. This states:

The Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies.

The Attorney attacked Senator Rhiannon’s political history and proceeded to unilaterally declare that Australia does not now refer to East Jerusalem as occupied. He said:

I think I should say that the rather tendentious way in which you put that question, and in particular the use of the word ‘occupied’, is not something that the Australian government of either political persuasion acknowledges or accepts.

‘Tendentious’, for the benefit of those without the vocabulary of the Attorney, means to express a controversial and arguable point of view. The Attorney was claiming that Senator Rhiannon’s question was prejudiced, one-sided and partisan. This is an interesting descriptor for a phrase that has, in fact, been used by both sides of Australian politics for decades to describe Israel’s occupation of East Jerusalem.

The next day, Senator Brandis made a prepared statement—and we know what the Prime Minister says of prepared statements: they are the only ones we can trust—to the Senate estimates committee, where he further outlined the government’s position; this time, though, with the foreign minister’s authority. This was both read into and incorporated in Hansard, no doubt to ensure that the message was heard and read loud and clear. I quote the key sentence:

The description of East Jerusalem as ‘occupied’ East Jerusalem is a term freighted with pejorative implications, which is neither appropriate nor useful.

Rather than clarifying the comments from the heated exchange the night before, the prepared statement from Attorney-General Brandis and Foreign Minister Bishop further fuelled the concerns of so many. These concerns are that, under the Abbott Liberal government, Australia has forgone its independent perspective on the Middle East peace process and on the question of Palestine and that, under the Abbott Liberal government, while Australia claims to support the aspirations to statehood of the Palestinian people, it will in fact seek to undermine the process at any opportunity.

I remind the Senate that this debate began when the Attorney-General refused to answer the questions about the meeting of Ambassador Sharma and Housing Minister Ariel in occupied East Jerusalem. In the prepared statement, analysis of the phrase ‘occupied East Jerusalem’ was changed from ‘tendentious’ to ‘pejorative’, a term that also implies a prejudicial, one-sided and partisan observation. Why the change was necessary is a matter for the Attorney and the foreign minister, but it is worth noting that Hansard recorded the Attorney using ‘tendentious’ four times in two minutes during the evening exchange—certainly a record.

The simple fact is that the phrase ‘occupied East Jerusalem’ is neither tendentious nor pejorative but merely a statement of very well established fact. Ben Saul, Professor of International Law at the University of Sydney, last week provided strong analysis:

Australia’s new view is starkly at odds with the true status of east Jerusalem under international law. …

The situation is governed firstly by international humanitarian law, namely the Geneva conventions of 1949 and the customary Hague regulations of 1907. Territory is considered “occupied” when, as a result of military conflict, a country exercises effective administrative control over foreign territory. Legally, this is a question of fact: does Israel control east Jerusalem or not? Undoubtedly, it has since the 1967 war.

The term “occupation” is therefore not pejorative or judgmental. It is an objective legal description of Israel’s physical control of a place beyond Israel’s borders at independence in 1948. … The legal term does not imply anything further about whether Israel’s occupation is “legal” or “illegal”, or good or bad. It simply refers to the fact of control.

The fallout from this fiasco has been that many across the world have actually interpreted the language and arrogance of the Attorney and foreign minister as pejorative.

It is the opinion of many that it is the Abbott Liberal government that is seeking to use prejudiced, one-sided and partisan language and actions to undermine the Middle East peace process. Last week 18 ambassadors and diplomats registered their protest with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and raised the prospect of trade sanctions. The following day, Agriculture Minister Joyce was asked about the implications of such trade sanctions on Australian farmers. His answer was that there needs to be a two-state solution but that he would ‘leave foreign affairs to those who are on a vastly better pay scale and smarter than I am’. Minister Joyce would no doubt be aware that, while the loadings for cabinet ministers are the same, as the member for New England he is entitled to a larger electorate allowance than the members for Curtin and Goldstein and a senator for Queensland. Therefore Minister Joyce’s pay scale is, of course, better than the foreign minister’s, trade minister’s and the Attorney-General’s. But the real question for Ministers Joyce, Bishop and Robb is: what impact will Senator Brandis’s declaration and the subsequent fiasco have on Australia’s agricultural industry—indeed, on all of our exporters?

Leading the delegation is Indonesia, the world’s largest Islamic state and one of Australian agriculture’s biggest trading partners. Some Middle Eastern states are considering an Arab League ban of Australian wheat and meat imports. The Arab League meets in Cairo later in June, and more than $3½ billion in agricultural exports could be at risk. As a middle power, Australia’s voice matters, and there are big implications for our exporters if foreign policy decisions are rushed and cause concern amongst our trading partners. Minister Joyce, foreign affairs is definitely not above your pay grade, and it is definitely a serious matter for the Minister for Agriculture, so please pay attention to your cabinet ministers and urge them to reverse their decision.

Many of us in this place receive regular correspondence from the former Palestinian Ambassador to Australia, Mr Ali Kazak. Mr Kazak is respected as a diplomat and businessman across the world. I offer his analysis of Attorney-General Brandis’s and Minister Bishop’s decision:

The Coalition government’s refusal to acknowledge the fact that Jerusalem is an occupied city by Israel is an irresponsible and dangerous policy.

Is it acceptable to drag up past history, even thousands of years ago, only when it suits them?

It seems that the Australian government’s bias blind policy towards Israel has no boundaries.

West Jerusalem was occupied by the Jewish terrorist groups following the Deir Yasin massacre by the Irgun group on 9 April 1948 and East Jerusalem was occupied on 5 June 1967.

There are many United Nations resolutions acknowledging this fact and calling on Israel to withdraw from the City.

The lack of responsibility and the decadence in Australia’s policy in support of Israel, with all that it represents in terms of occupation, aggression, racism and gross violations of international law and UN resolutions, will obviously not change the reality that Jerusalem is under Israel’s occupation, but all it does is appease the extremist Israeli lobby, inflict big damage to Australia’s national interests, and distort its image in the minds of hundreds of millions of Arabs and peoples around the world.

The Australian government’s departure from the international community, international law’s decisions and United Nations resolutions could not be described other than an act reckless to the extreme.

What is Australia’s interest in supporting and encouraging Israel’s occupation and violations?

Yours sincerely,

Ali Kazak, Former Palestinian Ambassador.

Thank you, Mr Kazak for your frank assessment of this decision. As US Secretary of State, John Kerry, has described, Israel risks becoming ‘an apartheid state’ if there is no two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As I urged earlier this year, it is in Australia’s interests to take a balanced approach on the question of Palestine. It is in Israel’s long-term interests to resolve the conflict.

As a responsible middle power, Australia must hold a clear position on the Middle East peace process that highlights the wrongs of both sides and does not seek to brush any inconveniences under the table for the short-term appeasement of interest groups. For the sake of the peace process, for Palestinians and Israelis, I ask the government to abandon the hastily announced decision last week and issue an apology to the Palestinian people and their supporters.

Link to parliamentary Hansard