The issue first emerged during a Senate committee session in Canberra on Wednesday night, when Australian Attorney-General George Brandis clashed with a left-wing senator over the issue.
Australian Greens Sen. Lee Rhiannon wanted to know why Australia’s ambassador to Israel had attended a meeting “in occupied East Jerusalem” with Israel’s housing minister.
“The rather tendentious way in which you’ve 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,” Brandis replied.
“So you don’t use the term ‘occupied Palestinian territories’, even though it’s a United Nations term used widely by a number of international agencies …” Rhiannon said.
“It’s used by a lot of people,” Brandis responded. “It’s used by a lot of communists too. Weren’t you a member of the Communist Party once?”
After Rhiannon – whose pro-Soviet communist background is well known in Australia – accused him of using insults rather than answering, Brandis said, “You have asked a tendentious question which contains a lot of very very very controversial assumptions.”
“The Australian government of either coalition or Labor political persuasions does not adopt that description of those territories. A lot of people do including, obviously, people like you.”
Several lawmakers subsequently pointed out that the previous center-left Labor government had in recent years supported U.N. resolutions that use the “occupied territory” language in relation to Jerusalem.
On Thursday Brandis issued a statement, on behalf of Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, reiterating the current conservative government’s stance.
“The description of East Jerusalem as ‘occupied’ East Jerusalem is a term freighted with pejorative implications, which is neither appropriate nor useful,” he said during a Senate meeting. “It should not and will not be the practice of the Australian government to describe areas of negotiation in such judgmental language.”
Israel’s foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman applauded a stance which he said “does not attempt to appeal to and flatter radical Islamic forces.” He expressed the hope other countries would follow Australia’s example.
PLO spokeswoman Hanan Ashrawi in a statement Thursday called Brandis’ position “absolutely disgraceful and shocking”
“Such pronouncements are not only in blatant violation of international law and global consensus, but are also lethal in any pursuit of peace and toxic to any attempt at enacting a global rule of law,” she said.
“Attorney-General Brandis, whether out of ignorance or whether out of blind bias, is trying to render Australia complicit in the Israeli occupation, and is forcing it to become an advocate of international criminal behavior.”
While the U.N. and much of the international community have long used the term “occupied” to describe the West Bank and other areas captured by Israel during the 1967 Six Day War, many Israelis see that as taking the Palestinians’ side in the dispute, rather than viewing the territory as subject of conflicting historical claims that need to be settled by compromise on both sides.
The U.N. does not use the term “occupied” in several other contexts.
Moroccan forces have controlled Western Sahara, a region in north-west Africa significantly bigger than Israel and the disputed territories, since the 1970s. The U.N. describes it variously as “territory which has been in dispute since [former colonial ruler] Spain withdrew in 1975” and “disputed non-self-governing territory under de-facto Moroccan administration.”