Unilateral actions toward statehood and violence by Palestinians – not only Israeli settlement construction – are hurdles to the peace process, Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop told The Jerusalem Post on Sunday.
“We call for the peace negotiations to recommence, and likewise we publicly and privately say that any unilateral action that is seen as damaging or impeding the peace process should be called what it is,” Bishop said in an interview, shortly after meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
“And that includes the unilateral actions on the part of the Palestinians to achieve statehood,” she said. “It includes the violence and the attacks, and it also includes the settlements. So on both sides there are issues that are likely to be seen as hurdles to recommencing the peace process.”
While in recent days the US, EU, UN, Egypt and several European states have slammed Israel for announcing various settlement construction plans, Canberra has not added its voice to the chorus. When asked why, Bishop replied, “I am here and I can raise it directly,” adding that she had already done so.
Bishop began a two-day visit to Israel and the Palestinian Authority on Sunday, after a 36-hour flight from Canberra. This is her first full working visit here as foreign minister, though she visited briefly in January 2014 to attend the funeral of Ariel Sharon.
Australian FM Julie Bishop in Israel
Bishop refrained from calling Israeli settlements “illegal” during that visit – a position held by the European Union, the UN and the Arab world – saying that doing so would prejudice the outcome of negotiations.
“I have said publicly that the issue of settlements should be part of the final-status negotiations,” Bishop told the Post
. “The point I’m making is that there are acts on both sides that are seen to be damaging or impeding the peace process.”
Under its current Liberal Party leader Malcolm Turnbull, and his predecessor Tony Abbott, Australia has been widely considered one of Israel’s strongest and most reliable friends. The current government has a slim one-seat majority in Parliament. When asked if her government’s support of Israel has cost it politically back home, Bishop replied: Israel “is an issue that we believe in strongly.”
Declaring the Australian government a “firm and committed friend to Israel,” Bishop added, “We stand by our friends. We have an open and frank discussion on matters where we disagree, but we support the right of the State of Israel to exist, and work very closely with the people of Israel.”
In addition to meeting with Netanyahu on Sunday, Bishop met with President Reuven Rivlin and Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman. At the same time she slammed the Boycott, Divestment and Sanction movement in Australia.
“We see it as anti-Semitic, and we certainly condemn those who support it. We will always support a nation that believes in freedom, democracy and the rule of law.”
Australia, she said, views Israel as “a beacon of democracy in a very troubled region of the world.”
Bishop told the Post that government funds for World Vision Evangelical programs in the Palestinian territories remain suspended. That suspension followed Israel’s arrest last month of Muhammad El Halabi, the group’s manager of operations in the Gaza Strip, for allegedly diverting millions of dollars a year to Hamas.
She said Canberra was also conducting its own investigation into the matter. Australia has provided the charity with A$5.7 million ($4.35m.) over the last three years for projects in the Palestinian territories.
“As soon as the allegations were made, we took them seriously, as we would with any allegations of this nature that might relate to the Australian aid budget,” she said. “We suspended funding and are carrying out our own investigation. Obviously there are legal processes under way in Israel – and we respect the Israeli legal system – but clearly we will want to get to the bottom of this situation.”
Regarding the Iranian nuclear deal, Bishop said Canberra was cautious, but supported it because the agreement “promised to change the Iranian trajectory” toward nuclear capability. “And I believe that is what it has done,” she said, adding that the final outcome “remains to be seen. That is why we have lifted some sanctions, but not others.”
As to whether she felt the deal has in any way moderated Iran’s behavior in the Middle East, she said the situation in the region was complex, dynamic and evolving.
“There are many moving parts, and many nations are taking part in activities that are new,” she said. “It has to be seen within that context. In Syria we now have the Russians taking an active role, so the role of Iran has changed as a result of the Russian intervention.”
She said while it is “difficult to say” the agreement has positively impacted Iranian actions in the region, “as long as the trajectory toward a nuclear Iran has been deflected, then that is a positive outcome.”
During her meeting with Netanyahu, Bishop extended an invitation to visit Australia, which he accepted. If he does make the trip, it will be the first by a sitting prime minister – and the first by any foreign minister since Yigal Allon’s visit in 1975.
Moshe Katsav visited the country when he was president in 2005, and current President Rivlin visited as Knesset speaker in 2011. Rivlin canceled a visit earlier this yea
r, going instead to Moscow to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin, but during his meeting with Bishop he expressed his desire to reschedule the trip in the near future.
Bishop suggested to Netanyahu that he should visit in the beginning of 2017, saying such a trip would be important “to underscore the strength of the bilateral relationship.” Israeli officials have noted that such a visit would show Australians that Israel does not take their friendship for granted.