Senator Janet Rice – Estimates question about Israel’s annexation plans and settlement expansion

photo of Senator Janet Rice
October 28, 2020

Questioned representations made by Australia to Israel about plans to annex areas of the West Bank, about ongoing settlement expansion, and whether Australia provides training to Israeli military or police.

I note that on 1 July the Australian government put a statement out urging all parties to refrain from actions that diminish the prospect of a negotiated two-state solution, including land appropriations, demolitions and settlement activities. This statement indicated that Australia has raised concerns with Israel about annexations of territory in the West Bank, and that the foreign minister had raised it directly with her Israeli counterpart. In what form, Minister, did you raise your concerns?

Whole interaction with Senator Marise Payne (Minister for Foreign Affairs), Dr Angela Macdonald (First Assistant Secretary, Global Counter-Terrorism, Middle East and Africa Division, DFAT) and Mr Simon Newnham (First Assistant Secretary and Chief Legal Officer, Legal Division, DFAT) during Senate Estimates (Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Legislation Committee, Foreign Affairs and Trade Portfolio).

Senator RICE: I want to cover all sorts of places around the world. We’ll see how I go but I’d appreciate short answers, if possible. I’ll start with Israel and Palestine. I note that on 1 July the Australian government put a statement out urging all parties to refrain from actions that diminish the prospect of a negotiated two-state solution, including land appropriations, demolitions and settlement activities. This statement indicated that Australia has raised concerns with Israel about annexations of territory in the West Bank, and that the foreign minister had raised it directly with her Israeli counterpart. In what form, Minister, did you raise your concerns? Was it in a phone conversation or a letter, for example?

 

Senator Payne: My recollection is that it was in a telephone conversation.

 

Senator RICE: When did you raise those concerns?

 

Senator Payne: I don’t remember the date. Minister Ashkenazi was appointed after a very protracted process of the formation of government in Israel—three elections at least, if I’m not mistaken. Dr Macdonald might be able to help me with the timing.

 

Dr Macdonald : I do have the dates. That minister spoke with her counterpart on 9 June and in fact also wrote a letter on 6 June.

 

Senator Payne: So both, Senator.

 

Senator RICE: Given that, why would it take until 1 July, which was Netanyahu’s self-appointed date for annexing the territory, for us to make that statement?

 

Senator Payne: Because that was the date. The statement was made in relation to, as you said, the prospective date of the possible annexations. I chose to do that to be a bit clearer about Australia’s intent.

 

Senator RICE: Okay. Were there other officials making representations on the issue as well as you, Minister, and when were they made?

 

Senator Payne: I’ll ask Dr Macdonald to respond on that.

 

Dr Macdonald : Yes, we made representations in Tel Aviv and in Canberra on 17 June, 23 June and 2 July, and more recently as well.

 

Senator RICE: Okay, I wanted to ask about that. What representations have you made subsequent to the 1 July deadline and our statement?

 

Dr Macdonald : After that statement, we continued to make representations in order to make Australia’s position clear.

 

Senator RICE: Can you tell me when they were?

 

Dr Macdonald : Certainly. They were 2 July, 6 August and 1 October.

 

Senator RICE: For the record: the Australian government doesn’t view the unilateral annexation of territory in the West Bank as illegal under international law?

 

Dr Macdonald : Australia’s concerns about annexations and our call for a return to negotiations are consistent with international law and UN Security Council resolutions.

 

Senator RICE: So we do view it as illegal under international law?

 

Dr Macdonald : I can’t speak to that. Perhaps the chief legal officer may be able to.

 

Mr Newnham : I would say exactly what Dr Macdonald has said.

 

Senator RICE: Why can’t we say that it is illegal under international law? Why the hesitation in saying that?

 

Mr Newnham : Obviously, there is a long history to these sorts of issues. What we can say is that our concerns about annexations and our call for a return to negotiations are consistent with international law and consistent with the UN Security Council resolutions. Of course, there are points—that you would be well aware of—in terms of encouraging both Israel and Palestine to take steps to return to peaceful negotiations and questions of settlements or a final status measure et cetera.

 

Senator RICE: I can’t understand, though, if you’re willing to say that, why you aren’t willing to say that unilateral annexation is illegal under international law. It’s a pretty clear statement which I would hope the Australian government is able to make.

 

Mr Newnham : Senator, I can’t go any further or say anything more than what I’ve already said in answer to your question at this point.

 

Senator RICE: Okay—that’s disappointing. Is the government monitoring the Israeli government’s settlement building in the occupied West Bank?

 

Dr Macdonald : Yes, obviously, through our post we do monitor and keep track of lots of developments through Israel and the Palestinian territories.

 

Senator RICE: And you’re undoubtedly aware of the recent commentary by Prime Minister Netanyahu regarding the need to approve thousands of settlement units and that 2020 will be the highest year for settlement building since at least 2012?

 

Dr Macdonald : Yes.

 

Senator RICE: What’s the government’s view of this latest surge in settlement approvals?

 

Dr Macdonald : We have raised with Israeli authorities our concerns about the announcement to advance the several thousand new housing units, both in Tel Aviv and in Canberra.

 

Senator RICE: And what view have you expressed about it?

 

Dr Macdonald : As the Prime Minister said in December 2018, the settlements undermine peace and contribute to the stalemate we now see.

 

Senator RICE: Okay. Can you also confirm then that it’s the Australian government’s view that the Israeli government’s settlement building is in breach of international law?

 

Mr Newnham : In relation to settlements, the question of course is a ‘final status’ matter to be considered through direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. The government would not prejudge the outcomes of those negotiations, and it wouldn’t be appropriate to provide a legal view to the committee on that issue.

 

Senator RICE: Okay. I’ll leave that as it stands. I think that’s also very disappointing. Two weeks ago, France, Germany, Britain, Italy and Spain issued a joint public statement, noting their deep concerns about Israel’s settlement plans. They were willing to say:

The expansion of settlements violates international law and further imperils the viability of a two-state solution to bring about a just and lasting peace to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Does the Australian government concur with this sentiment?

 

Senator Payne: The Australian government have expressed our views in our own language. We will continue to do that. Indeed, my statement on 1 July referred to ‘land appropriations, demolitions, and settlement activity’ and the focus that is required for a return to real negotiations for ‘a durable and resilient peace agreement, as soon as possible’. We express these things and take our own actions in our own language and in our own way.

 

Senator RICE: I haven’t got your statement in front of me; I’m sorry. Did that statement express deep concerns about settlement building?

 

Senator Payne: It said:

We urge all parties to refrain from actions that diminish the prospects for a negotiated two-state solution, including:

  • Acts of violence and terrorism including rocket attacks on civilians, and
  • Land appropriations, demolitions, and settlement activity.

In this context, we are following with concern possible moves towards the unilateral annexation or change in status of territory on the West Bank.

The focus needs to be on a return to direct and genuine negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians for a durable and resilient peace arrangement, as soon as possible.

Australia has raised our concerns with Israel in relation to indications of annexations, and I have done so directly with my Israeli counterpart.

That goes to your earlier question, of course.

 

Senator RICE: Thank you. I’m interested now in your concerns about settlements and how they have been raised by yourself or officials—the details of those representations and at what level they have been made.

 

Senator Payne: Do you want us to take that on notice?

 

Senator RICE: Yes, if you could. I am interested, however, if you could answer now, as to whether the incoming ambassador—Paul Griffiths, I believe, has been in the post for about a month—raised the issue of settlement building as yet.

 

Senator Payne: I don’t have the details of the matters that Mr Griffiths may have raised to this point, but we can take that on notice.

 

Senator RICE: We heard when DFAT last expressed concerns. When did you personally express your concerns to the Israeli government?

 

Dr Macdonald : On 19 October.

 

Senator RICE: I was asking the minister.

 

Senator Payne: With the Israeli foreign minister, in the conversation I referred to in response to your earlier question.

 

Senator RICE: Does the Australian government have any training agreements or memoranda of understanding with any Israeli military or police bodies?

 

Dr Macdonald : I’m not aware. I would have to take that on notice. It’s not necessarily the case that DFAT would be the custodians of those memoranda.

 

Senator RICE: Okay, if you could take that on notice.

 

Dr Macdonald : Yes.

Link to full Hansard transcript.

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