Middle East

Trade warning to Australia over East Jerusalem description

Arab and Islamic countries are warning Australian exports could be adversely affected by a decision to stop calling East Jerusalem "occupied" territory.

(Transcript from SBS World News Radio)

Arab and Islamic countries are warning Australian exports could be adversely affected by a decision to stop calling East Jerusalem "occupied" territory.

Diplomats from 19 Arab and Islamic countries have lodged a formal protest against the change, and say they've secured a meeting with the Foreign Minister next week.

In the meantime Prime Minister Tony Abbott is flagging another possible shift in language on the Palestinian territories, describing them during his US visit as "disputed".

Thea Cowie reports.

(Click on the audio tab above to hear the full report)

Among the countries protesting the change are Indonesia, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey and Saudi Arabia.

Combined they import more than $10 billion worth of Australian goods annually.

Head of the General Delegation of Palestine to Australia, Ambassador Izzat Abdulhadi says trade sanctions are possible if Australia doesn't reconsider its position.

"This is not for the benefit of the agriculture sector here or for the benefit of the Australian farmers and I hope that the farmers' associations and farmers themselves will lobby their own government and talk to their government to convice Australia to revise and reverse this position."

Ambassador Abdulhadi led the delegation of diplomats who met officials of Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in Canberra to lodge a protest.

He says the meeting was a good one, but the group is not convinced the shift in language isn't also a shift in Australian policy on Israel and Palestine.

SBS contacted a number of the embassies of the protesting countries, and none confirmed that trade sanctions are being considered.

Jordanian Ambassador to Australia Rima Ahmad Alaadeen says there are mounting signs people in her homeland may boycott Australian imports, worth more than $180 million a year.

But she says trade sanctions are another matter.

"Trade sanctions I think is a big word. There might be a popular movement to boycott Australian goods. This is what I expect. Trade sanctions, I don't think my government will go as far as doing that. But when you have a very active grassroots movement in Jordan and when it comes to the question of occupied East Jerusalem it's a very raw nerve that we're touching upon here. As I see it, it might snowball so this is what we want to avoid."

Federal Attorney General George Brandis announced the change in language last week, saying the term "occupied" to describe East Jerusalem is judgemental and unhelpful.

The Israeli Embassy in Canberra has declined an SBS request to comment on the protest by the diplomats.

Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce is not getting involved in the dispute either, saying foreign policy issues are better left to what he calls smarter, better paid people.

Nationals Party leader Warren Truss has however weighed in, saying Australian policy has not changed as a result of Senator Brandis' comments.

But he admits says it's a delicate issue.

"We appreciate very very much the contribution that that trade is making to agriculture in Australia, particularly the live animal trade. But of course we sell motor vehicles and a whole range of other products to that region. So it's important to us to maintain that trading relation and we are working very closely with countries in that region to assure them we want to maintain the trade."

Meanwhile there are signs Australia may be making another shift in official language in relation to the Palestinian territories captured by Israel in the 1967 war.

The United Nations describes the territories as "occupied", but speaking in the United States, Prime Minister Tony Abbott has referred to them as "disputed".

"It's important, as far as you can, not to use loaded terms, not to use pejorative terms, not to use terms which suggest that matters have been prejudged. And that is a freighted term. The truth is they're disputed territories and let's try to ensure that disputes are resolved fairly to all in an imperfect world."

Tzvi Fleischer from the Australia/Israel and Jewish Affairs Council says "disputed" is a more appropriate term than "occupied" to describe the territories.

"The idea is not for Australia to necessarily adopt the Israeli position on this. The idea is not to adopt a position on either side and to use the term 'occupied' is to adopt the Palestinian position. The most important thing is to encourage both sides to settle this dispute and the way to do that is not to use language on either side and I think disputed is a word that can do that."

Mr Fleischer says an Australian decision to drop the term "occupied" would not signify a shift in policy.

And he's not concerned by the protests by Arab and Islamic diplomats.

"A little dramatic theatre is par for the course unfortunately in Middle East diplomacy. This is dramatic theatre. A little bullying and yelling and screaming and carrying on is part of the game. So it's not that surprising and as an Australian or an Australian businessman or Australian farmer I wouldn't be that worried about it. I don't think it's going to have any real consequences."


In a statement to SBS, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade says the meeting with ambassadors resolved to maintain an open dialogue on all matters.


The General Delegation of Palestine to Australia says the group has secured a meeting with Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop next week.





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