Canada’s Middle East policy divides
Noah S. Wernikowski
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spent the first week in March in Washington. Although Canada is a relatively minor player in international politics, he spent a day in Canada beforehand, a demonstration of the deepening ties between the two countries.
“Under Stephen Harper, Canada’s become very, very pro-Israel,” said Steve Hibbard, a retired foreign-affairs employee who headed Canada’s representative office in Ramallah from 2001 to 2004. “It’s kind of like the Australian position 10 years ago – Israel can do no wrong.”
Historically, Canada has always supported Israel. It was one of the 33 countries that voted in favour of the 1947 United Nations resolution that later led to Israel becoming a state.
The 1980s, however, saw Canada’s position shifting.
“The Middle East can be very contentious, so governments in the past tended to take a broader perspective on it,” Hibbard said.
In 1979, Conservative Prime Minister Joe Clark eventually decided not to move the Canadian embassy in Israel to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv, because he did not want to appear to support Israeli settling in disputed land. In 1983, Liberal Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau officially recognized the Palestinians’ right to a homeland.
Since then, the stance once again has begun to shift.
In the beginning of February, Foreign Minister John Baird gave a speech in Israel at the Herzilya Conference, saying, “The state of Israel embodies principles that Canada values and respects … Israel has no greater friend than Canada.”
According to the government’s website, its official position on UN resolutions is,“Canada assesses each resolution on its merits and consistency with our principles. We support resolutions that are consistent with Canadian policy on the Middle East, are rooted in international law, and reflect current dynamics.”
The rhetoric is accompanied by action.
In practice, a foreign policy based on “principles” has meant siding with Israel.
After Hamas won the 2006 Palestinian elections, Canada was the first country to boycott the new Hamas government. Canada and most western countries consider Hamas a terrorist organization.
Stephen Harper also explicitly expressed his support for Israel during the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war, which saw around 1,400 Lebanese, mostly civilians, killed. He, in a view inconsistent with most of the world, called Israel’s response “measured.”
But, while Canada sat on the UN Human Rights Council, it stood out by consistently voting against resolutions that condemned Israel. It also rejected Palestine’s September 2011 bid to be recognized as a State.
The closer the Canada and Israel become, the greater the divide among Canadians.
Israeli Apartheid Week is one example. It’s an international week of demonstrations held to criticize Israeli foreign policy and raise awareness of the Palestinian cause – it began in Toronto in 2005 and has since spread across Canada and the world.
“It’s troublesome that when we see Israel increasingly isolated on the world stage …we’re seeing Canada really alone now in terms of its unconditional support for Israel,” said Valerie Zink, a member of the Regina Solidarity group that organized Regina’s Israel Apartheid Week.
“I would like to see Canada take a position in support of international law against war crimes and in support of equality and human rights.”
It has also affected Canada’s international reputation – playing a role in Canada amd losing its bid for a seat on the UN Security Council.
“Their stance in the Middle East sort of cost Canada with the Arab world and the developing world,” Hibbard said.
He added that Canada’s Middle East policy is likely governed to a considerable extent by domestic political considerations on domestic politics, such as a prevalent sympathy for Israel by fundamentalist Christians.
“The thing is that there are a lot more people who are pro-Israel in Canada than are pro-Palestinian. Plus, in many ways, the Jewish community is more important politically than the Palestinian community – it’s pretty prosperous, pretty vocal, and pretty well informed,” Hibbard said.
However, Ian MacAusland-Berg, past-president of the Beth Jacob Synagogue and currently the co-ordinator of harassment and discrimination prevention at the University of Regina, is one of many impressed by Canada’s foreign policy.
“I think that everyone has their sensitive issues. For me, this is one of those things that cause me to look at the Conservatives more favourably,” he said. “Though I support them in Israel, I can’t say that I necessarily support their government.
“The fact that Canada supports Israel and speaks out against people who want to destroy Israel means a lot to me. I really see it as a moral position. "