By Jonathan Swan
Opposition Leader Bill Shorten’s comments on Israeli settlements were a mistake and not a policy change, according to colleagues.
Mr Shorten upset Palestinian groups on Sunday when he appeared to flag a significant shift in Labor’s Middle East policy over the contested issue of Israeli settlements in the West Bank.
Labor’s policy is that all settlements in the West Bank are illegal under international law, and this view was reinforced by the Rudd and Gillard governments’ votes at the United Nations since November 2008, and by speeches from former foreign minister Bob Carr.
But Mr Shorten, in a speech on Sunday to the Zionist Federation of Australia, suggested Labor had swung away from the Palestinians and towards Israel.
“We do acknowledge that some settlement activity in the West Bank is illegal under Israeli law and we encourage the Israeli authorities to act effectively with respect to this,” Mr Shorten told the audience on Sunday.
The suggestion that “some” and not all settlements were illegal is significant given even minor changes to wording register alarm on the issue.
But a spokesman for Labor’s shadow foreign affairs minister, Tanya Plibersek, said Mr Shorten’s comments should not be viewed as a change in Labor’s policy.
“Labor’s position remains the same,” Ms Plibersek’s spokesman said. “Clear Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade advice to Labor in government was that the settlements are not in line with international law.”
Other Labor sources described Mr Shorten’s comments as an attempt to “say what [the Zionist Federation] wanted to hear” and should be read as nothing more significant than that.
“It’s a screw up,” a caucus source said. “We think Bill has said something to an audience that he thought they would find attractive and then gone a bit further than Labor’s decision.
“We don’t think he wants to change Labor’s position. The Left would not cop that, if that’s the position.
“But nobody thinks it’s a shift in policy. [Shorten] over-egged the pudding. It will be covered internally. As far as anyone knows there’s no edict for the policy to change.”
A spokesman for Mr Shorten confirmed that the Opposition Leader had no plans to change Labor’s policy on settlements.
The president of the Australia Palestine Advocacy Network, Anglican Bishop George Browning, was so troubled by the Opposition Leader’s speech that he wrote to Mr Shorten on Monday to seek an immediate clarification on Labor’s Israel-Palestine policy.
Bishop Browning told Fairfax Media he was shocked when he saw a report of Mr Shorten’s speech.
“Bill Shorten’s statement to the Zionist Federation of Australia appears to represent a radical break with the ALP’s stated position that all Israeli settlements are illegal and an obstacle to peace,” Bishop Browning said.