(Haaretz) — Julie Bishop, the foreign minister of Australia, in Israel last week for Ariel Sharon’s funeral, reiterated her call for the international community to refrain from branding the occupation “illegal” in order not to “prejudge” the outcome of final-status negotiations.
It was a dramatic statement of intent by Canberra to side with Israel — even as other allies such as Canada continue to point to the settlements as illegal obstacles to peace.
“I would like to see which international law has declared them illegal,” Bishop said in an interview with the Times of Israel last week when asked whether she agreed with the “near-universal view” that Israeli settlements beyond the Green Line are illegal under international law.
“And by deeming the activity as a war crime, it’s unlikely to engender a negotiated solution,” she added.
Israel and Australia are signatories to the Fourth Article of the Geneva Convention, which states that an occupying power shall not “deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies.” Violations of the UN convention are considered war crimes, but Israel claims the Geneva Convention doesn’t apply to the territories it captured in 1967.
Bishop’s strident stance – at odds with the United States, Canada and most other nations – was lauded by the Yesha Council of settlements’ Danny Dayan, who hailed her “intellectual integrity.”
But she was slammed by senior PLO official Hanan Ashrawi, who called on Canberra to clarify its position. “I would like to remind the Australian government that in accordance with international human rights law and international humanitarian law, all settlements are illegal,” Ashrawi said in a statement on Sunday.
“Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention and Article 43 of the Hague Regulations, among other international conventions, explicitly state that Israel is in direct violation of international law with its illegal settlement activities,” she added.
Her claim, however, was roundly dismissed by Peter Wertheim, executive director of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, who noted that the Fourth Convention does not make any “explicit reference” to Israel. “The PLO statement is a disingenuous way of making a contentious claim about the legality of the settlements appear to be an incontrovertible truth,” Wertheim said in a statement. The “international consensus” on the issue was untrue, he added.
“Ashrawi’s attempt to bully Australia with the specter of a nonexistent ‘international consensus’ can and should be treated with the contempt it deserves,” Wertheim said.
Asked whether he agreed with Bishop’s position on the settlements issue, Wertheim told Haaretz: “It is inappropriate to express conclusions of law in a dogmatic fashion as if they were incontrovertible facts. Accordingly, the ECAJ does not have a position on the legality of the settlements.”
Not everyone in the Jewish community agreed. Larry Stillman and Jordy Silverstein, of the left-wing Australian Jewish Democratic Society, blasted Bishop for her “blatant support of rejectionist politics.”
“For Australia to refrain from any criticism in the UN, or to cast doubt on the agreement in the international community that the occupation is illegal and cruel, is a highly irresponsible and damaging act by this country,” they wrote in a scathing January 17 letter to the foreign minister.
Marty Harris, a research associate at the Lowy Institute in Sydney, accused Bishop of hypocrisy for claiming she doesn’t want to “prejudge” the outcome of negotiations. “Doesn’t the implication that the settlements might be legal ‘prejudge’ the issue too,” Harris wrote in a January 17 article titled “West Bank settlements illegal? Julie Bishop not so sure.”
But Wertheim told Haaretz: “She was not making a positive statement that the settlements are legal under international law.”
Australia’s new voting posture at the United Nations was “a welcome development,” he added.
In November, Bishop ordered her UN representative in New York to defy 158 countries that supported a resolution demanding Israel cease “all Israeli settlement activities in all of the occupied territories.”
Prior to the Liberal Party’s landslide victory last September, Labor had often been abstaining or voting for anti-Israel resolutions, straining relations with Jewish leaders. Then foreign minister Bob Carr branded all Israeli settlements “illegal” on several occasions last year. This week he accused Bishop of displaying “an ignorance of international law.”
“Julie Bishop should speak to [UK Foreign Secretary] William Hague or to the foreign minister of any conservative government in Europe, who will simply repeat what is a commonplace and commonsense opinion,” he was quoted as saying in the Sydney Morning Herald on Monday.
Bishop is currently in the U.S. prior to flying home to Australia.