Labor’s call on Israel’s ‘illegal’ territories draws Peter Dutton’s ire

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese stood firm on changes to the wording on Israel.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese stood firm on changes to the wording on Israel. Photo: AAP

With just two words, the government has dramatically changed Australia’s stance on one of Israel’s most contentious activities.

In a revision announced to Labor’s caucus this week, the government said it would now refer to Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza as “occupied territories” and describe them as “illegal”.

News of the change drew an outraged response from Opposition Leader Peter Dutton in question time on Wednesday.

“Does the Prime Minister think it was appropriate for him to hang one of Australia’s closest Middle East security partners out to dry as part of a backroom deal?” he asked.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese responded by saying the changes would only mean Australia would resume its previous long-standing position on the issue, and one that brought it into line with the UK government.

“My government is a strong supporter of Israel and its right to exist within the borders,” he said.

“We also support a two-state solution that includes a Palestinian state.

“We think it is in the interest of both the Israelis and Palestinians that there are no actions by either side that undermine the potential of the achievement of that.”

Expansion continues

Over the past 55 years, Israel has built and expanded its settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank.

Critics say such settlements violate international law against an occupying power from deporting a civilian population or transferring its own within the boundaries of another.

Tensions over settlements have increased since the election in December of a far right-wing government led by Benjamin Netanyahu, described by US President Joe Biden as the “most extreme” of any he had dealt with.

Israel has progressively tightened its grip on the West Bank, while some members of Mr Netanyahu’s cabinet have called for its permanent annexation.

In a break with a previous bipartisan consensus the Abbott government, nearly a decade ago, replaced “occupied” with the less contentious “disputed”.

As part of a series of changes to move closer to Israel but away from international norms, former US president Donald Trump’s administration expressly declared settlements legal in 2019.

Some of those changes were mirrored by former prime minister Scott Morrison, such as recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, a move Labor quietly rolled back last year.

On Wednesday, Rodger Shanahan, an analyst of Middle Eastern affairs, wrote that the change aligned Australia with international norms and other countries such as New Zealand and across Europe.

“Mainstream Australia, as much as it gives it any thought, would likely not look kindly on the government using language that fails to recognise the reality on the ground, particularly when it comes to the vexed issue of Israeli settlements illegally constructed on Palestinian land,” he said.

Mixed response

The Australia/Israel and Jewish Affairs Council blasted the shift as a “profound disappointment”.

The Palestinian foreign ministry and the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas reportedly reacted positively to Australia’s decision to reinstate the reference.

Next week, a motion to recognise Palestinian statehood is on Labor’s national conference agenda.

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