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East Jerusalem – a diplomatic crisis the government didn’t need to have

Senator George Brandis has been in the middle of one of the more unfortunate episodes in our recent foreign policy. AAP/Alan Porritt

If it weren’t for the bad vibes between Greens senator Lee Rhiannon and Attorney-General George Brandis, Australia might not have a diplomatic crisis over how it describes East Jerusalem.

The two scrapped over various matters at a Senate estimates hearing earlier this month. Late in the piece, Rhiannon started talking about “occupied East Jerusalem”. A pugnacious Brandis took her on, wanting to know how she was using the word “occupied”, and declaring there was no such place as “Occupied East Jerusalem”. The argument went on and on.

After consulting with Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, Brandis next morning read a statement to the committee: “The description of East Jerusalem as ‘Occupied East Jerusalem’ is a term freighted with pejorative implications, which is neither appropriate nor useful. It should not and will not be the practice of the Australian Government to describe areas of negotiations in such judgmental language.” (Tony Abbott later embraced the word “disputed”; Bishop prefers just “East Jerusalem” without any descriptor.)

This was the start of what must surely constitute one of the more unfortunate episodes in our recent foreign policy. It has brought a backlash from Arab countries, which the Australian government is hoping won’t have implications for trade.

The government had made a change in language which amounted to, or was seen as, a policy shift.

Its subsequent insistence that it hadn’t done anything at all was a hard line to run when both Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – who welcomed the Australian development – and the Arab nations regarded the word change as very significant.

The Organisation of Islamic Co-operation (with 57 member states) at its foreign ministers meeting this week condemned Australia for allegedly contradicting international law and asked member states to “take necessary measures to respond”.

But how did the government let all this happen?

Brandis, obviously feeling sensitive about the whole affair, has insisted he was not freelancing, stressing on Thursday that his June 6 formal statement to the estimates committee had been “authorised by the Foreign Minister”.

That just raises the question of why Bishop would not have been more cautious. One reason perhaps was that Brandis had said what he’d said the night before, and any later comment had to stay consistent.

The Australian’s foreign editor Greg Sheridan argued Brandis was right in international law, and praised him for “significant political courage on a vexed and extremely complex issue”. The Abbott government, Sheridan wrote, was reverting back to the language used before Labor foreign minister Bob Carr. (Sheridan now believes Brandis should have avoided the issue.)

Carr says “every Australian government has referred to it as the occupied territories”, and adds “your nomenclature shapes how you vote on these matters at the General Assembly”.

While he was in the US Abbott tried to defuse the issue without giving ground. “We absolutely refuse to refer to occupied East Jerusalem … but there’s been no change in policy, simply a terminological clarification”.

Presumably the government hadn’t anticipated the significance of such a “terminological clarification”. Or done a quick cost-benefit analysis of whether the potential cost of using terminology with which it was comfortable was worth the difficulties it would cause. For Bishop, from West Australia, there was a sharp reminder of the possible risks. WA Farmers Federation president Dale Park said it seemed the Government did not understand the consequences of its change in policy. “What the hell is going on?” he said. “Life is hard enough without pointing both barrels at each foot and firing.”

Bishop spent much of this week with the mop out. Meeting with ambassadors from more than 20 Arab countries on Thursday she gave them a letter she’d written to the Ambassador of Morocco saying “I emphasise that there has been no change in the Australian government’s position on the legal status of the Palestinian Territories, including East Jerusalem. … Senator Brandis' statement was about nomenclature, and was not a comment on the legal status of the Palestinian Territories”.

After the meeting, the head of the general delegation of Palestine to Australia, Izzat Abdulhadi. said Bishop had informed them only she or the Prime Minister would declare policy in future.

Abdulhadi said Bishop had also distinguished between “occupied” with a capital O and a small o.

“She said that Senator Brandis would not use the language of ‘Occupied’ with a capital ‘O’. This means as if it’s a part of the name. But the government will continue to use occupied East Jerusalem with a small ‘o’.”

“The understanding of most of the ambassadors when we finished is that it’s really confusing,” he said.

Brandis stonewalled when asked on Thursday’s ABC 7.30 whether the eastern part of Jerusalem was occupied or disputed.

“I’m not going to indulge your desire for me to play word games,” he told Sarah Ferguson.

Some of his colleagues would be rueing that he was drawn into a words war that night in Senate estimates.