PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu meets with Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem last September.
(photo credit: AMOS BEN-GERSHOM/GPO)
Australia on Wednesday issued a statement expressing “concern” at the government’s announcement the day before of 2,500 new housing units beyond the Green Line, the first time Canberra has issued a statement on settlement construction since August 2014.
“The Australian government is concerned about the significant recent settlement announcement in the West bank,” a statement from the Foreign Ministry read. “We continue to call on both sides to avoid unilateral actions that diminish the prospects of a negotiated two-state solution.”
The statement comes about a month before Netanyahu’s scheduled trip to Australia and Singapore, making him the first sitting prime minister to go to either of those two countries.
In recent days, however, there have been rumors that Netanyahu might cancel, either because of an expected trip to Washington next month to meet US President Donald Trump, or because he might not want to be out of the country for some 10 days as the current police investigations against him continue.
The timing of the Australian statement has raised some speculation that it may be an attempt to send a message to Netanyahu not to take Australia’s strong support for granted, and not to cancel the visit.
Netanyahu canceled a planned visit to Australia in 2014, as did then-foreign minister Avigdor Liberman that same year. And last year President Reuven Rivlin scratched a trip as well, opting to travel instead to Russia. The cancellation of three high-profile visits in less than three year has not been lost on Canberra.
Australia’s statement on the settlements on Wednesday contrasted with the way it reacted last fall at news of settlement construction plans. While the US, EU, UN, Egypt and several European states slammed Israel for announcing plans at the time, Australia was quiet. Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, who visited Israel in September, told The Jerusalem Post at the time that “I am here and I can raise it directly.”
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.”
She said at the time that Palestinian unilateral actions toward statehood and violence – not only Israeli settlement construction – are hurdles to the peace process.
France, meanwhile, issued a much sharper condemnation of Tuesday’s settlement announcement, saying that since Sunday, Israel has already announced as many new settlement units as it did in all of 2016.
In addition to the 2,500 planned housing units announced on Tuesday, the Jerusalem Municipality on Sunday approved building permits for some 566 units in Jewish neighborhoods in the capital beyond the Green Line.
“We condemn these new developments that are opposed to international law and see them as a worrisome signal,” a French Foreign Ministry spokesman said at a daily press briefing.
He noted that UN Security Council Resolution 2334, which the US let pass in the waning days of the Obama administration, determined that the settlements lack legal validity and called for their immediate cessation.
The White House has pointedly been silent on the announcement, with White House spokesman Sean Spicer saying Tuesday that Trump will discuss the issue with Netanyahu.
Under the Obama administration, Washington routinely and reflexively condemned nearly all settlement construction announcements.
A spokesman for UN Secretary- General Antonio Guterres said in response to the announcement that “for the secretary-general there is no plan B for the two-state solution,” adding that “in this respect any unilateral decision that can be an obstacle to the two-state goal is of grave concern for the secretary-general.”