Last week, the Australian government caused a stir when it issued a statement declaring that it would no longer refer to East Jerusalem as “Occupied East Jerusalem.” The announcement drew immediate protest from Palestinian representatives, but Australia has shown no signs of backing down. On the contrary, in an interview with Tablet, Australia’s Ambassador to Israel Dave Sharma not only defended the rationale behind the controversial move, but said that the same reasoning also informed his government’s outlook towards the West Bank, though it has not taken an official position on the matter. “The statement that came out that was issued in Canberra last week didn’t make reference to this,” he told me, but “I think we just call the West Bank, ‘the West Bank,’ as a geographical entity without adding any adjectives to it, whether ‘occupied’ [the Palestinian position] or ‘disputed’ [the Israeli position]. We’ll just call it what it is, which is ‘the West Bank.’”
Though some of Israel’s critics and supporters have characterized this move as adopting the Israeli position, Sharma explains that the policy is actually designed to ensure that Australia is not taking sides in the conflict at all. “Our position on this is that all the final status issues as identified by Oslo—and that includes the status of Jerusalem, borders, right of return—are all amenable only to political negotiations and a political solution,” he said. “And so a third country taking positions on the legal merits of each party’s plans, if you like, is not helpful and not constructive and ultimately not what’s needed. So we took the view that the term ‘occupied East Jerusalem’ implied a legal view of the respective claims of the parties and we didn’t think it was helpful to be doing that, and as a result, we just said that we won’t be using that term any longer.”
In other words, Australia’s policy is not intended to endorse one side over the other, but rather to maintain neutrality and avoid prejudging the outcome of negotiations. As Israel considers Jerusalem to be sovereign Israeli territory annexed in 1967, while the Palestinians consider East Jerusalem to be occupied Palestinian territory, Australia is opting to employ language that endorses neither party’s claim. Similarly, by avoiding adjectives when it comes to the West Bank, Australia sidesteps the question of whether the area is “disputed” or “occupied” territory. In fact, the country maintains a similar policy in other territorial conflicts like those over Western Sahara and East Timor.
Naturally, dropping “occupied” from the lexicon has upset Palestinian leaders, who often benefit from the traditional diplomatic language being freighted towards their position, rather than being agnostic. But Sharma, a career foreign service official who has held his post in Israel since 2013, maintained that Australia’s policy of eschewing “occupied” is not new, but rather a codification of what the country has been doing in practice for many years. “In truth, we haven’t really used that term for some time,” he said. “As a government, we’ve certainly signed up for certain [U.N.] General Assembly resolutions where that term is used, but it’s not a common term that we would use in respect to East Jerusalem.”
That said, this effort to concretize the previously implicit policy does not come in a vacuum. In last September’s national elections, Australia’s Liberal party wrested control from the Labor party, bringing Prime Minister Tony Abbott to power, and with him, a determination to reset relations with Israel. “The party that’s in power did take the view in the last election firstly that being too critical of the settlements was not helpful or constructive, and categorizing them incessantly as illegal was not an optimal thing for us to be doing,” Sharma said. “They also took the position in the last election that they wanted to reestablish a closer relationship, or a more traditional relationship with Israel, which had existed previously. So this is very much part of the government’s platform.”
Abbott’s government soon set about putting this position into practice. In January, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop came to Israel and suggested that the country’s settlements might not be illegal under international law, and stated that she didn’t want to “prejudge the fundamental issues in the peace negotiations.” Sharma noted that this was “very much of a continuum” with the subsequent move to drop “occupied” so as to maintain Australia’s neutrality. “She didn’t want to buy in to a characterization of the settlements being ‘legal’ or ‘illegal’ because to be honest, that’s going to depend on where the borders are finally drawn and some of what we call settlements now will end up being in the state of Israel, more than likely, and some might not,” he explained. “It doesn’t make much sense now to be characterizing settlements as being consistent or inconsistent with international law until those borders are known.”
It was only a matter of time before this line of thinking led to further shifts in Australian diplomacy. Last month, Sharma himself met with an Israeli official in East Jerusalem, eliciting a sharp public condemnation from Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat, who protested the envoy’s actions in “occupied East Jerusalem,” and wrote that “Australia’s actions are tantamount to complicity in ongoing Israeli violations of international laws of war.” Sharma does not apologize for the incident. “My meeting in East Jerusalem wasn’t intended to be a provocative act, and the truth is, a lot of ambassadors do meetings in East Jerusalem,” he said. “As it is now, everyone just tries to keep it quiet. It’s one of those well-kept secrets within the diplomatic community.” But rather than papering over Sharma’s conduct, the Australian government doubled down and chose to concretize the spirit underlying it as official policy. From now on, it insisted, it would not take sides on a final status issue by using loaded language to describe Jerusalem. “The description of East Jerusalem as ‘Occupied East Jerusalem’ is a term freighted with pejorative implications, which is neither appropriate nor useful,” read the June 5 statement subsequently issued by Attorney General George Brandis.
Are there more such moves on the horizon? Australian officials with close knowledge of the recent policy shifts say, in essence, yes and no. “This isn’t actually part of some grand plan where we’re going to unveil our own sort of one-state solution next month or anything,” said one. “There’s nothing like that in the works.” But some smaller shocks are likely as the “process of this government adjusting the policy setting it inherited from the previous government” continues. “There’s been a bit of clunking of the gears that’s going on, and until we adjust to the new settings–our government, our political class, the bureaucracy and everything else–there’ll probably be a few more things like this,” the official added. “A process of recalibration is taking place, but we’re not moving towards some big end goal with this.” Whether other countries opt to follow Australia’s lead on any of these matters also remains to be seen.