It started as just another tetchy, tedious argument over semantics in one of the eight committees of the Senate.
The mood was not improved by the fact that it was about 10.45 pm. It was June 4, nearly three weeks ago.
Greens senator Lee Rhiannon put a question to the secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Peter Varghese: "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?"
He was never given a chance to answer fully. But in the weeks that followed, the most senior members of the federal government were caught up in an angry and damaging subset of the long-running dispute between Israel and the Palestinians.
In the process, Australia was hailed by Israel’s government, scolded by a group of 57 Muslim-majority countries, and had multibillion-dollar export trades put under threat.
Varghese didn’t answer the question because he was blocked by Attorney-General George Brandis, who was there to run interference for the government. He refused to countenance the word "occupied".
Rhiannon: "You do not use the term 'occupied' even though it is a United Nations term used widely by a number of international agencies like the European Union etc?"
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?"
She was, but it was more provocative than it was relevant. And that was the point.
Labor’s senator John Faulkner enjoyed himself by interjecting in the ensuing hubbub: "Senator Brandis, are you now, or have you ever been, a member of the Communist Party?"
The independent senator, Nick Xenophon, said he thought he detected a "massive shift" in Australia’s position.
"The point I made," Brandis rejoined, "is that the Australian government does not refer to East Jerusalem by the descriptor 'occupied East Jerusalem'. We speak of East Jerusalem."
Brandis, in his capacity representing the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Julie Bishop, successfully blustered until the clock hit 11pm and the committee adjourned.
But as he left the committee room, Brandis was uneasy. The government position on such a sensitive issue shouldn’t be left to a late-night argument, he thought. He phoned Bishop to tell her what had just happened.
She had been watching on the in-house parliamentary TV. Brandis told her that he thought the waters might have been muddied. They agreed to meet the next morning.
Bishop and Varghese drafted a statement. Bishop wanted to protect the ambassador, David Sharma, a highly regarded diplomat.
She didn’t want to imply any criticism of him for meeting an Israeli minister in East Jerusalem. Varghese made the point that there were bigger issues afoot in the Middle East. It was not the time to play games over Australian policy with Israel and the Palestinians.
None of them wanted to give the impression that Australia was changing policy on the biggest issue – the need for a two-state solution. They believed there was no need to trouble the Prime Minister, who was overseas. After all, they weren't proposing to change policy.
So when the committee resumed the next morning, Brandis read out the statement. It restated existing policy in favour of a two-state solution. It added that the description of East Jerusalem as "occupied" was "freighted with pejorative implications", and that Australia would refrain from using such "judgmental language".
That matter then seemed to go dormant for a week. It flared, however, when journalists travelling in the US with Abbott reported that he hadn’t been consulted and that Brandis had been "freelancing".
This threw the spotlight onto Abbott. He tried to kill it off by saying there was no policy change, just a "terminological clarification". But in the process he introduced the word "disputed". Abbott told a press conference: "The truth is they’re disputed territories".
Arab anger flared at the apparent change in policy. When some Arab officials threatened trade sanctions on the live sheep and cattle trade, worth over $2 billion, National party MPs became agitated.
The government hated the attention and regarded it as an unhelpful distraction from its priorities.
Some suspected the government was responding to lobbying by the Jewish community. But the Jewish community, too, found the episode frustrating. One community leader said: "It invited a lot of animus towards Australia and towards Israel. And it was the status quo. It was absurd.”
Julie Bishop agreed to meet the ambassadors from 18 Muslim-majority nations to reassure them that Australia’s support for a two-state solution Israel was intact.
But the 18 weren’t all available to meet until last Thursday, further protracting the affair. Finally, the meeting was held, the Muslim-majority ambassadors mollified. The Palestinian representative said Australia would continue to be “closely monitored."
Brandis told colleagues that the whole thing was much ado about nothing, "journalist-led confusion of an innocuous statement". But they couldn’t have done it without George.
It ended as it started, another tetchy, tedious affair about semantics. But it has been a painful learning experience for the government.
Peter Hartcher is the international editor.