Today much of Israel’s capital Jerusalem is regarded by the international community as “illegally occupied territory.” In fact ever since the Jewish state’s establishment some sixty-six years ago no country has fully recognized Israel’s claim to Jerusalem; not one has an embassy in the city. Yet the consensus against the Israeli presence in north, south, and east Jerusalem has become more robust in recent decades. Prior to the onset of the Oslo peace process, not only was the position of the United States far from clear on this matter, but even far-left Israeli groups such as Peace Now were adamantly insisting that Jerusalem would remain the rightfully undivided capital of the Jewish state. After some two decades of negotiations it might be said that Israel’s legitimacy in general, and its claim to its capital in particular, have both been greatly weakened.
Yet now it would appear that there has been a radical and bold break with the international consensus: Australia has announced that it will no longer refer to East Jerusalem as “occupied territory.” Tony Abbott’s government has put out an uncompromising statement of intent, informing the world that, “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.” This announcement is made all the more significant on account of the fact that back in January Australia’s Foreign Minister Julie Bishop publicly disputed the notion that Israel’s settlements should be considered illegal either.
The move by the Australians couldn’t have come at a more sensitive time. Just as Canberra is breaking ranks with the international consensus that opposes the Israeli presence in eastern Jerusalem, that consensus is itself hardening. In recent days both the United States and the European Union have mounted vocal protest against Israeli plans to build new homes in existing Jewish neighborhoods of eastern Jerusalem. This is an astounding response that exposes the full extent of the hostility toward the Jewish state that emanates from both the EU and the Obama administration. For while the newly formed Hamas-backed Palestinian government has received endorsement from both the White House and the Europeans, building homes for Jews in the ancient Jewish holy city of Jerusalem has provoked a degree of condemnation out of all proportion with reality.
The State Department has said that it is “deeply disappointed” by these moves and the U.S. ambassador to Israel has also expressed words of protest, but typically the Europeans have gone much further still. A statement from the EU demanded that Israel reverse this decision and even alluded to the threat of sanctions in retaliation for this “settlement activity.” In response the Israeli government claimed to be “mystified” that “there are those in the international community who claim that construction in Jerusalem, the capital of Israel, and in other places that the Palestinians know will remain under Israeli sovereignty in any future arrangement is a step that we must reverse.”
The double standards displayed by diplomats who can at once welcome a move that brings an internationally recognized terrorist organization into coalition with the Palestinian Authority, while at the same time condemning the building of homes for Jews in Jerusalem, may be disgraceful, but sadly it is anything but mystifying. For years now–ever since the Camp David talks of 2000–Israel has been expressing a willingness to give up large parts of its capital, including some of Judaism’s most historic and holy sites, despite the fact that Israeli law fully considers all of Jerusalem sovereign Israeli territory.
If Israelis have not been willing to vocally and uncompromisingly assert their rights to their own undivided capital before the court of world opinion, then it is hardly surprising if those who don’t have much love for the Jewish state have taken this as a cue to further delegitimize Jewish rights in Jerusalem. Both the Europeans and the Obama administration insist that they are friends of Israel, but if Israelis want to know what real friends look like then they can look to Stephen Harper’s government in Canada and now to Tony Abbott’s in Australia. The decision to no longer refer to East Jerusalem as “occupied territory” is a bold and brave move that displays a degree of moral clarity that one could barely imagine coming from Obama’s State Department and certainly not from London’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
Ideally, the move by the Australians will be repeated by other governments, but if nothing else it calls into question the attitude in Europe that holds the illegality of the Israeli presence in north, south, and east Jerusalem to be an open and shut case.