By Andrew Tillett
The Albanese government will describe Israeli settlements as “illegal” under international law and recognise the West Bank and Gaza as “Occupied Palestinian territories” in a move to head off a damaging Labor conference fight over Middle East policy.
While Labor MPs described the move, revealed by Foreign Minister Penny Wong at Tuesday’s caucus meeting, as an olive branch for the party’s pro-Palestinian supporters, Jewish groups are furious over the shift.
Senator Wong told MPs the change would “strengthen” Australia’s opposition to Israeli settlements in the West Bank and in a shot at the Morrison government’s pro-Israel tilt, emphasise a principles-based approach for the shared goal of peace.
“We are deeply concerned by the Israeli government’s settlement activity,” Senator Wong later told the Senate.
“The Australian government is strengthening its opposition to settlements by affirming they are illegal under international law and a significant obstacle to peace.”
“This is consistent with a position of past governments, reflects legal advice and United Nations Security Council resolutions which determined that the settlements have no legal validity and constitute a violation of international law.“
Senator Wong she would be returning Australia to the position of past governments of referring to “Occupied Palestinian territories”, matching the United Nations Security Council resolutions and the United Kingdom, New Zealand and European Union.
“In adopting the term we are clarifying that the West Bank, including East Jerusalem and Gaza, were occupied by Israel following the 1967 war and that the occupation continues,” she said.
“[It] reaffirms our commitment to negotiate a two-state solution in which Israel and a future Palestinian state coexist.”
The Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council (AIJAC) blasted the shift as a “profound disappointment”.
“It is incredibly counter-productive to label these areas as occupied Palestinian territories, with the government purporting to know what the boundaries of any future two-state resolution will look like,” AIJAC executive director Colin Rubenstein said.
“The Palestinian Authority has long refused to genuinely engage in the peace process, instead encouraging terrorism and vilifying Israel in all available international fora and at every opportunity. For a respected democracy such as Australia to take such a one-sided position only rewards and encourages the continuation of these destructive Palestinian tactics.”
Mr Rubenstein added that asserting that Judaism’s holiest sites, such as the Western Wall and Temple Mount, are Palestinian territory is “highly unacceptable”.
Australia Palestine Advocacy Network president Nasser Mashni said the government had made “a sensible modest move”.
“Israeli settlements are in clear violation of international law, and there is no doubt that Israel is occupying Palestinian lands,” he said. “We look forward to the government taking the next step, and honouring its commitment to recognise Palestine.”
Senator Wong’s move comes after the government last year reversed the Morrison government’s recognition of West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, saying it should be a final status issue resolved through negotiations.
An Israeli peace group last month found that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s far-right coalition had approved a record 13,000 settler homes in the West Bank in its first six months in power.
The Albanese government has also raised concerns over Mr Netanyahu’s reforms to the Israel judiciary, which has sparked mass protests in Israel with accusations it will weaken democracy.
Palestine, along with the government’s support for the AUKUS nuclear-powered submarine pact, loom as the major flashpoints for next week’s Labor national conference in Brisbane.
While the Left faction has gained control of the numbers on the conference floor for the first time in decades, factional bosses are working overtime to ensure Prime Minister Albanese and Senator Wong, who both hail from the Left, are not embarrassed.
While the Left has traditionally been staunchly pro-Palestine, elements of the NSW Right including frontbencher Tony Burke and former premier Bob Carr have also advocated that way.
Labor’s national platform currently calls for the “next Labor Government to recognise Palestine as a state” and at conference delegates will push for it to happen this term.
One MP said the change was an “olive branch” for conference delegates not to change the wording of the platform.
“She [Senator Wong] is trying very hard to satisfy the Left,” they said.
“There will be elements of the Left that will want to ignore that and go harder but I think broadly speaking we will find agreement. The Right can wear it.”
But Opposition foreign affairs spokesman Simon Birmingham said backroom factional talks had forced the about-face.
“It’s clear the Albanese government is undertaking more consultation with factional bosses than with those impacted by these changes, including the Israeli government,” he said.
Senator Birmingham said the announcement prompted many questions, such as the precise boundaries to be recognised and whether it would change Australia’s position on key UN motions.