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Estimates: Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Legislation Committee (Foreign Affairs and Trade Portfolio)

Lee Rhiannon 4 Jun 2014

Senator RHIANNON: Why did the Australian Ambassador to Israel attend a meeting in occupied East Jerusalem with the Israeli minister for housing and construction, the same minister who is forecasting a 50 per cent increase in settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories in the next five years?

Senator Brandis: I think I should say that the rather tendentious way in which you put that question, and in particular the use of the word 'occupied', is not something that the Australian government of either political persuasion acknowledges or accepts.

Senator RHIANNON: You do not use the term 'occupied Palestinian territories' even though it is a United Nations term used widely by a number of international agencies like the European Union et cetera?

Senator Brandis: It is used by a lot of people. It is used by a lot of communists, too. Weren't you a member of the Communist Party once?

Senator DASTYARI: Come on, Senator, that is just low.

Senator RHIANNON: Answer the question. You are using your usual tactics to insult people when you are hard up for an answer.

Senator Brandis: I thought you were very proud of being a member of the Communist Party.

Senator RHIANNON: You are hard up for an answer. You have taken over an hour to avoid talking about Palestine and you have been asked a very simple direct question and you not allowing the department to speak.

Senator Brandis: I have just observed that you have asked a tendentious question which contains a lot of very, very controversial assumptions, and the Australian government of either coalition or Labor political persuasion does not adopt that description of those territories. A lot of people do, including obviously people like you.

Senator RHIANNON: Why did the Australian ambassador attend a meeting with the Israeli minister for housing in East Jerusalem?

Mr Varghese : It is the case—


Senator RHIANNON: That is right, he would be perfect there. Our Australian version of McCarthy. I apologise for interrupting you, Mr Varghese.

Senator FAULKNER: Senator Brandis, are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?

Senator DASTYARI: This is an incredible shift that not seeing them—

Senator FAULKNER: Senator Joseph McCarthy was—

Senator Brandis: Senator Rhiannon is very proud of her involvement from a very young age in the Communist movement in Australia. Why she claims to be insulted to have been reminded of it—

Senator RHIANNON: No, it is insulting when for one hour—

Senator Brandis: when it is a matter of public knowledge of which she has spoken often and proudly is beyond me.

CHAIR: Order.

Senator RHIANNON: It is insulting when for one hour you have avoided talking about Palestine.

CHAIR: Let's just stop for a minute.

Senator FAULKNER: I think, rather, if you were in the chamber, a point of order on relevance would be taken.

Senator XENOPHON: Chair, I raise a point of order on relevance. I do not really give a rats what Senator Rhiannon may or may not be a member of previously; I just want to get to the questions. The minister has just made a statement about whether the territories are occupied or not. That seems to be a massive shift in Australia's policy.

Senator Brandis: No.

Senator DASTYARI: That is a huge shift.

Senator Brandis: No, that is not at all what I said.

Senator XENOPHON: Sorry, what did you say?

Senator Brandis: What I said is that the Australian government does not describe those territories by reference to that nomenclature, by reference to the terms in which Senator Rhiannon has chosen to put her question.

Senator XENOPHON: What about the Security Council resolutions of October 2012 and January 2011 where Australia did adopt that nomenclature?

Senator Brandis: That is not the way that we describe that territory.

Senator DASTYARI: Does Mr Varghese want to answer that?

Mr Varghese : I think the question that was posed to me was in relation to—

Senator DASTYARI: We are going back to what Senator Xenophon just said about the nomenclature, about the language that was used. We have used that language before.

Mr Varghese : We have referred to the 'occupied territories' previously but I think the point—

Senator DASTYARI: Thank you.

Mr Varghese : Let me finish my answer, if you do not mind. The context in which the Attorney-General was making his comments was in response to a question which referred to the position of East Jerusalem. So we just need to be a little bit careful about what exactly we are referring to here. Senator Rhiannon asked about a meeting between our ambassador to Israel and the Israeli housing and construction minister—

Senator DASTYARI: In East Jerusalem—is that correct?

Mr Varghese : which did indeed take place in East Jerusalem. That meeting in no way alters Australia's position, which is that the status of East Jerusalem is one of the core issues that need to be resolved through direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians towards a two-state solution.

Senator RHIANNON: Were senior DFAT officials aware of the ambassador's meeting prior to it occurring?

Mr Varghese : I would have to check whether we had advance notice of it. The answer, I gather, is no.

Senator RHIANNON: Were the envoy's actions in accepting a meeting in this part of Jerusalem approved by senior officials?

Mr Varghese : If we did not have any prior knowledge, I doubt that we would have approved it.

Senator RHIANNON: One needs to ask one questions in different ways, one learns, when one is with Minister Brandis. Was the Minister for Foreign Affairs aware that the meeting was taking place?

Mr Varghese : Again, if we did not have prior knowledge of it, I doubt that the minister would have been aware.

Senator RHIANNON: The question was about the Minister for Foreign Affairs. You are saying you doubt it. Do you need to take it on notice?

Mr Varghese : I will take that on notice. I find it difficult to believe that she would have had prior knowledge if her officials did not, but I am happy to take it on notice.

Senator RHIANNON: Thank you. Has an explanation or apology been sent to the Palestinian authorities for this meeting being held?

Mr Varghese : I do not think either an explanation or an apology is required.

Senator RHIANNON: Even though it was in occupied Palestinian territory?

Mr Varghese : I have just explained what the policy context of that is.

Senator Brandis: And you are the one who keeps using this term 'occupied East Jerusalem'. I know a lot of people do.

Senator RHIANNON: Most people discussing this issue use it. You are well aware of that.

Senator Brandis: Most people you mix with, I am sure, do.

Senator DASTYARI: So your view is that they are not occupied?

Senator Brandis: We are talking about the description of an area.

Senator DASTYARI: And you are saying they are not occupied.

Senator Brandis: The point I made is that the Australian government does not refer to East Jerusalem by the descriptor 'occupied East Jerusalem'. We speak of East Jerusalem.

Senator XENOPHON: Are they occupied or not? Through you, Chair—I apologise—are the Palestinian territories occupied or not?

Senator Brandis: I am not here to express views on the rights and wrongs of the Middle Eastern situation. I am merely making the point that the tendentious description that Senator Rhiannon chose to use—

Senator DASTYARI: That is the sixth time you have used the word 'tendentious' tonight.

Senator Brandis: That is because it is the appropriate word—

Senator XENOPHON: It is a beautiful word.

Senator Brandis: to describe the way in which the question was framed. It is not the descriptor—the proper noun, if you like—that the Australian government uses.

Senator XENOPHON: Are they occupied or not, in your view—

Senator Brandis: I do not profess a view on this matter.

Senator XENOPHON: But isn't there a view implied in the Security Council resolutions that Australia voted for?

Senator Brandis: I am not professing a view on this matter. I am merely correcting the use of a term as a descriptor or a proper noun by Senator Rhiannon which, as it were, prejudges the issue about which she inquires. That is all.

Senator XENOPHON: Does Mr Varghese have a view on whether the territories are occupied or not?

CHAIR: I am not sure that that is a fair question to ask the head of the department.

Senator DASTYARI: How is it not a fair question to ask the secretary?

Senator RHIANNON: The question can be asked.

CHAIR: Because it is a political question.

Senator XENOPHON: Could the secretary take it on notice?

Mr Varghese : I will take it on notice.

Senator XENOPHON: Thank you, I appreciate that.

Senator RHIANNON: Israel's continued occupation of East Jerusalem has been recognised widely as a serious impediment to the peace negotiations that the Secretary of State, John Kerry, has been engaged in, as has former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and many other people in trying to resolve the issue. Is that an issue you have given advice on in terms of documenting how those talks are going and what the impediments are to the resolution of these peace talks?

Senator Brandis: What is the question, Senator? There are about five different propositions rolled up in what you have just said. Obviously the status of East Jerusalem, as Mr Varghese said before, is an issue and has for decades been an issue in the Middle East peace process. It is uncontroversial that it is an issue. What specifically are you asking?

Senator RHIANNON: Do you disagree that an impediment to the peace talks has been the issue of the occupation of East Jerusalem?

Senator Brandis: It all depends what you mean by impediment. Certainly the status of East Jerusalem is an issue in dispute between the parties to the peace talks. It is uncontroversial that that is so.

Senator RHIANNON: So you agree that the occupation of East Jerusalem is an impediment to these peace talks?

Senator Brandis: No, I do not agree with that characterisation at all. When two or more parties are in dispute then they are in dispute about issues. Those matters are issues because they remain at issue between the parties. You characterise that as an impediment; I think it is a more accurate description to say that the status of East Jerusalem is one of the issues, an important issue.

Senator RHIANNON: On the term that for the past hour and five minutes you have been disputing with regard to occupied Palestinian territories, has a directive been issued within the department that the term is no longer to be used, that the Palestinian territories are not to be described as 'occupied'?

Senator Brandis: I will let Mr Varghese answer your question, but before he does I make the point that the use of that term as a descriptor or, as it were, as a proper noun is not a term that the Australian government customarily uses.

Senator RHIANNON: Mr Varghese, now that Senator Brandis has said that that term is not used, could you inform us when you stopped using that term?

Mr Varghese : There is not anything like a directive along the lines that you suggested. As I indicated previously, from time to time the phrase 'occupied territory' has been used by Australian governments. I think the point that triggered this line of questioning and the point that the Attorney-General was making was the special case of Jerusalem within the context of the peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians and the fact that the final status of Jerusalem is one of the key issues that will need to be resolved before we can see an agreement to a two-state solution.

Senator RHIANNON: Could you come back to the question about the use of the term 'occupied'. We have sat in these estimates previously when that description has been used—

Senator Brandis: You need to be very careful in your use of language. What I took issue with and continue to take issue with is the use of the descriptor 'occupied East Jerusalem' as, as it were, a proper noun to describe the status of East Jerusalem. You have asked a different question now generally about the use of the word 'occupied'.

Senator RHIANNON: It is your opportunity and Mr Varghese's opportunity to clarify this. You have been avoiding the issue and muddying the waters now for an hour and 10 minutes.

Senator Brandis: Who, Mr Varghese has?

Senator RHIANNON: Again you are doing it: you avoid answering the question.

Senator Brandis: I am merely asking for a little definitional clarity in an area where words matter.

Senator RHIANNON: That is your job, how you want to use it with an O on occupied or an o on occupied, I am asking for clarity.

Senator FAULKNER: It wouldn't be a proper noun if it didn't have an upper case O, would it?

Senator Brandis: Quite right, Senator Faulkner. Senator Rhiannon, you may or may not be aware—though I would have thought a person with your long familiarity with international relations would be aware—that, in these issues, words matter a lot, and subtle shades of meaning and nuance matter a lot, which is why I am being very particular—

Senator RHIANNON: But you are not answering the question.

Senator Brandis: in insisting that you not use loaded terms—

Senator DASTYARI: It's not a loaded term!

Senator Brandis: or words, or change, from one question to the next, the use of the words that you have chosen to adopt.

Senator RHIANNON: We are in estimates, and our job in estimates is to ask questions.

Senator Brandis: No, no, no—we may be in estimates, but the topic that you are addressing is a topic in which the meaning of words matters a lot, and I am afraid I am not going to let you get away with trying to shift between various shades of meanings of words as if there was no difference between them, because there is. Just ask your question, and specify precisely what you are asking.

Senator RHIANNON: You have made it clear that you are not going to answer it, and you have barely let the department people answer it. Mr Varghese, in 1967, did Israel enter East Jerusalem and stay there, or not?

Senator Brandis: Senator Rhiannon, this is not a history lesson, all right? It is not a history lesson.

Senator RHIANNON: Oh! This is—

Senator Brandis: In 1967, we know there was a war; we know there were troop movements; we know there was a change of control of various territory—

Senator RHIANNON: You have just been stonewalling for an hour and 15 minutes on answers. Mr Varghese, does the ambassador have to go to the embassy in Tel Aviv or not for meetings, and does he have to go through military checkpoints to get there?

Mr Varghese : I do not know the answer to the second part of your question—

Senator RHIANNON: Could you take it on notice, please.

Mr Varghese : I do not know whether Mr Innes-Brown is in a position to answer it? No. We will take it on notice.

Senator RHIANNON: So you will take both parts on notice. Have the Israeli defence forces withdrawn from East Jerusalem since 1967 or haven't they?

Mr Varghese : Well, no they have not.

Senator RHIANNON: They have not withdrawn. So, if they have not withdrawn, that means that that is an occupation—is that what you conclude from that?

Mr Varghese : I think we are going around in circles.

Senator RHIANNON: No. It is a question, again, that can be answered 'yes' or 'no'.

Senator Brandis: It is not really a question that has a simple answer, because that word you keep using, 'occupation', means different things to different people, and, depending on what it means to those who have different points of view in a very, very difficult dispute, the interpretation of that word is extremely consequential. You throw this word around very loosely. You started this line of questioning by describing an area of Jerusalem as 'Occupied East Jerusalem' as if that were a geographical or political descriptor—a proper noun, as I said. Now you are talking about 'occupation', which, in international law, by the way, is itself an expression that has a variety of shades of meaning. This is the very thing I counselled you against.

Senator RHIANNON: Mr Varghese, in the last two minutes, could you answer that earlier question: has the department been advised on how to use the word 'occupied' in whatever meaning that you might use it in?

Senator Brandis: By whom?

Senator RHIANNON: You are the one—it is obviously the government. We have got a minute to go.

Senator Brandis: No, it is not obvious. Your processes of thought—

Senator RHIANNON: Your stonewalling is disgraceful.

Senator Brandis: Your processes of thought, Senator Rhiannon—

Senator RHIANNON: You should be the one who respects Senate estimates.

Senator Brandis: are by no means obvious to anyone other than you.

Senator RHIANNON: It is just avoiding the question. Mr Varghese?

Senator Brandis: Can you put the question again, because it is not clear to me what you are asking.

Senator RHIANNON: It is very clear.

Senator Brandis: It might be clear to you, but it is not clear to me.

Senator RHIANNON: You are just trying to talk the time out—

Senator Brandis: There is at least one person at the table who is asking you to ask your question with a little more particularity or a little more clarity.

Senator XENOPHON: Chair, may I just have some time? I think the question from Senator Rhiannon was whether the Israeli defence forces have withdrawn from East Jerusalem since 1967. I do not think the word 'occupied' was used—

Senator Brandis: And that question was answered by Mr Varghese. It was not objected to. And it was answered by Mr Varghese.

Senator XENOPHON: Okay; thank you, Attorney.

Senator RHIANNON: So, Mr Varghese—

CHAIR: I notice that the time is now 11 o'clock, so I think it is now appropriate to close these hearings. We will resume tomorrow morning at 9 am.

Committee adjourned at 23:00

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