Attorney-General Senator George Brandis.

Attorney-General Senator George Brandis. Photo: Andrew Meares

Despite all his principles about being a freedom champion, Attorney-General George Brandis has been reminded recently that he also is a politician at the behest of his donors.

That awkward moment at the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee regarding "occupied East Jerusalem" may have brought his quandary to the fore. He fumbled to articulate the principle behind dropping the word "occupied" and resorted to reading a joint statement.

Even US Secretary of State John Kerry already had slipped, then retracted, the bolder word "apartheid" to depict the increasingly occupied territories.

A growing chorus of voices, such as South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu and former US president Jimmy Carter, have raised the spectre of Israeli apartheid and regard "occupied" as a euphemism.

So why would our Attorney-General suddenly resist what the International Court of Justice and the United Nations General Assembly already have declared: East Jerusalem has been an occupied territory since the 1967 Six-Day War?

This is not a statement "freighted with pejorative implications" or a "tendentious description" as Brandis suggests, but a statement of legal fact.

More than any politician, Australia’s chief law officer should be the first to uphold international law and be the last to erode it. His qualification that he does not "profess view on this matter" implies that he is no expert on the region. Indeed, it was not the occupation of the land but the occupation of the mind that was at the heart of the matter.

Although Brandis argued that it was "unhelpful" to bring up "historical events", a piece of recent history may be very helpful here. His proposed amendments to Section C of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975, especially the removal of the "offend, insult and humiliate" clause and the dilution of the "public discussion" clause had upset many ethnic groups, with the Jewish community taking the lead.

Since last November peak bodies such as the Australia/Israel and Jewish Affairs Council voiced concern about giving a green light to Holocaust deniers to propagate their hatred with impunity. Peter Wertheim from the Executive Council of Australian Jewry warned that the amendments would “open the door to the importation into Australia of the hatreds and violence of overseas conflicts” and that it could “impact support for the government in terms of donations”.

Such warnings and backlash would have pre"occupied" the mind of Brandis in the interim months, driving him to make amends and redeem political points.

If Brandis believes historical events are unhelpful, what does this imply about his views on Australia’s historical events? Presumably "Sorry Day" for the stolen generations also was unhelpful, and we should not refer to the "occupation" of indigenous Australia either.

On the contrary, history is very helpful. When the Coalition last was in government, then foreign minister Alexander Downer trumpeted after the Israel-Hezbollah war in July 2006: “Australia had been more supportive of the Israelis than 99 per cent of the world” and that “being called pro-Israeli (is not) a badge of shame”.

Perhaps the latest Coalition government seeks to beat this 99 per cent. While visiting Israel for Ariel Sharon’s funeral in January, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop questioned “which international law has declared [Israeli settlements] illegal?” When she was asked later to elaborate, the minister stated that it was not “helpful to prejudge the settlement issue if you’re going to get a negotiated solution”.

But if you deny both the illegality and the occupation, how can any solution be negotiated?

Australia now is so out on a limb that it is the only country other than Israel to publicly deny the illegitimate settlements. Even Israel’s arch-ally, the US, has reiterated that “we consider now and have always considered the settlements to be illegitimate”.

Regardless of the reasons for such a staunch stand to defend Israel, whether they are funding or badge-related, one overarching principle must never be overshadowed: democracy.

Our government has a mandate to speak on behalf of its own population, and to pursue our own best interests.

In November 2011 a Roy Morgan Research poll revealed that 51 per cent of Australians surveyed believed Australia should vote yes to recognise Palestine as a full member state of the UN, while only 15 per cent responded no. So where is the mandate to put Israeli interests above our own?

Just as the Attorney-General received more than 5000 submissions on the proposed amendments to the Racial Discrimination Act in April, it is time for the Foreign Minister to listen to Australians on the proposed changes to the Israel-Palestine policy.

Only then would our ministers be occupied by the will of the people they ostensibly represent.

Joseph Wakim, a founder of  the Australian Arabic Council, is a Sydney freelance writer