SYDNEY/OCCUPIED JERUSALEM: Australia has decided to remove the term “occupied” when referring to East Jerusalem in a move blasted by an opposition party leader Friday as “inflammatory” and “at odds with the peace process.”
The issue flared in the upper house Senate this week with Attorney-General George Brandis issuing a statement to clarify Canberra’s stance on the controversial question of the legality of settler homes.
“The description of areas which are the subject of negotiations in the course of the peace process by reference to historical events is unhelpful,” he said in the statement Thursday.
“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 negotiation in such judgmental language.”
He added that Canberra supported a peaceful solution to the dispute “which recognizes the right of Israel to exist peacefully within secure borders and also recognizes the aspiration to statehood of the Palestinian people.”
Israel’s army seized the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, in the war of 1967. It later occupied the entire eastern sector, in a move that deemed illegal by the international community.
Brandis sparked a heated debate Wednesday evening in the Senate when he stated that no Australian government of either political persuasion “acknowledges or accepts” the use of the word “occupied.”
A number of senators disagreed, pointing out that Australia had voted in support of U.N. resolutions in 2011 and 2012 where such language was used to describe the East Jerusalem settlements.
Independent Senator Nick Xenophon suggested that dropping the term “occupied” would represent a “massive shift” in Australia’s foreign policy, Australian Associated Press reported.
The leader of the Australian Greens Christine Milne Friday called it “an outrageous backdown” by the Tony Abbott-led government.
“It is inflammatory behavior and at odds with the peace process,” she said in a statement.
“The use of the term ‘Occupied Palestinian Territories’ is the accepted term used by the UN.
“The Israeli settlements built after 1967 are illegal. The settlements contravene the Fourth Geneva Convention.”
Israel announced Thursday plans to build 3,000 more settlements in the West Bank, a move slammed by the German government Friday.
“The German government is very worried about this report because this step poses the threat of making efforts to continue peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestines even harder,” German government spokeswoman Christiane Wirtz said.
She called on both sides to avoid provocative steps and said the German government urged the Israeli government to refrain from inviting bids to construct homes.
In a separate attempt to promote peace, Pope Francis is hoping he can help end the “eternal negotiations” during an unprecedentedmeeting with the Israeli and Palestinian presidents at the Vatican Sunday.
Israel’s Shimon Peres and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas will pray for peace together following a surprise invitation made by Francis during his visit to the Holy Land last month.
“This is a moment to invoke God for the gift of peace. This is a pause in politics,” said Father Pierbattista Pizzaballa, a church official in charge of Catholic sites in the Holy Land and a key organizer of Sunday’s encounter.
“This is also an invitation to politicians to pause and look heavenward,” Pizzaballa told a Vatican briefing. “Everyone wants something to happen, something to change. Everyone is tried of these eternal negotiations that never end.”
The two presidents will spend about two hours in the Vatican gardens at an intricately planned service that will include prayers and meditations by Jews, Christians and Muslims in each other’s presence.
The pope, Peres and Abbas will read individual invocations for peace, shake hands and plant an olive tree in the gardens. Patriarch Bartholomew, the spiritual head of the Orthodox Church, will also attend.
Francis’ invitation is one of his boldest political gestures since his election in March 2013, but the Vatican has played down suggestions that the move is a bid by the pontiff to directly enter the Middle East peace process.
“The pope does not want to get into the political questions of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that we all know about in the smallest of details from A to Z,” Pizzaballa said.
The meeting is taking place more than a month after U.S.-led peace talks collapsed amid bitter mutual recrimination, and Pizzaballa said the pope hoped the Sunday encounter could inject the leaders with a new will for peace.
“Pope Francis will never get involved in discussions about borders or settlements but his intention is to help create the social and religious atmosphere where it [peace] can come about,” he said.
“No one thinks peace will break out Monday. The intention of this initiative is to reopen a road that has been closed for some time, to recreate a desire, a possibility, to make people dream,” he said.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the key Israeli decision-maker, will not be at the prayer meeting. Peres, who is aged 90, is due to leave office in July, taking him out of the political picture.
“There will be no political speeches but each will pray for peace as individual believers,” Pizzaballa said, adding that the structure of the prayer for each group would be identical to show that they are “children of the same God.”