On November 28, 2012, one day before the United Nations General Assembly voted to upgrade Palestine to a nonmember state, a few Palestinian protesters gathered in front of the Canadian representative offices in Ramallah. They were holding posters saying “Shame on You, Canada,” and other slogans accusing the country of being a “subcontractor of apartheid.” Many demonstrators also held up banners showing a photo of Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, superimposed with a face of a dog, next to the slogan “This dog doesn’t hunt.”
Of course that didn’t change Ottawa’s determination: Canada voted against the Palestinian statehood bid, one of only nine countries to do so (138 nations voted in favor and 41 abstained.)
Canada has always been a friend of the Jewish state, but in recent years — especially since the Harper government came to power in 2006 — Ottawa has redefined what it means to be staunchly pro-Israel. Indeed, in the Middle East conflict, no other nation, not even the United States, has been so unstintingly supportive of the policies of Israel’s government as the Great White North.
The UN vote was just one of many examples when Canada stood up for Israel, and against much of the world consensus. Just this Thursday, Harper rebuked the world for its stance on what he called the “one stable, democratic” country in the Middle East. “There’s nothing more shortsighted in Western capitals in our time than the softening of support we’ve seen for Israel around the globe,” he said during a visit in New York.
Which begs the question: why? What is in it for Canada?
It has been argued, not unconvincingly, that the world’s second-largest country’s determined support for the world’s 153rd-largest country has cost Ottawa dearly in terms of influence on the international stage. Yet the support doesn’t falter. Could it be that Canada’s vast oil and gas reserves make it less dependent on resources from the Arab world, allowing the government to do what it pleases, as opposed to, say, oil-devoid European countries?
Or, perhaps even more important, would this uncompromising support for Israel disappear were Harper’s Conservative Party to lose power, as polls indicate it could in 2015?
‘When the victim is portrayed as the perpetrator and the perpetrator as the victim, this is not something we want to be associated with’
Canadian officials like to explain their government’s diehard friendship to Israel by pointing out that the two countries share many common values.
“I would characterize the position as one of moral clarity,” Canadian Minister of Natural Resources Joe Oliver told The Times of Israel earlier this month in Jerusalem. “If there’s a conflict between a democratic ally and terrorist groups that want to destroy it, we don’t see grays. The moral relativism that is sometimes a big factor is not what guides us. We think it’s important for countries to walk the walk as well as talking the talk.”
But other Western countries also don’t love terrorism but still criticize Israel, for example over settlement expansions. “We have said that unilateral action on either side isn’t particularly helpful,” the minister responded, emphasizing that Canada doesn’t support the settlements. “I don’t know what else to say in this regard. There’s willingness on our part to demonstrate moral leadership.”
Oliver then quickly added that he doesn’t mean to say Canada is more moral than other countries. But, he said, “when you confront a situation like one sees at the United Nations constantly, where Israel is singled out for special criticism to the exclusion of massive abuses in all parts of the world… it’s very obvious you’re dealing with double standards. And when the victim is portrayed as the perpetrator and the perpetrator as the victim, this is not something we want to be associated with.”
Canada’s support for Israel — and opposition to Israel’s enemies — doesn’t only play out at the General Assembly. In 2008, Canada was the first country to boycott the Durban Review Conference against racism because it anticipated, correctly, that the conference would turn into an anti-Israel hate fest.
In September 2012, Canada severed diplomatic relations with Iran. Foreign Minister John Baird explained the move, by saying the regime in Tehran, among other things, “routinely threatens the existence of Israel.”
When Jerusalem punished the Palestinians for the statehood bid by announcing to build homes in the controversial E1 corridor east of Jerusalem, the whole world forcefully condemned the plans. Except the Canadians: the government merely noted that such steps aren’t “helpful.”
Last month, however, marked a high point in Canada’s pro-Israel (and ostensibly anti-Palestinian) moves, when Foreign Minister John Baird visited Israel’s justice minister, Tzipi Livni, in her East Jerusalem office. Since the international community doesn’t accept Israel’s annexation of the eastern part of the city, foreign diplomats usually refuse to meet Israeli officials there lest it be interpreted as a tacit recognition of Israeli sovereignty.
“Either he’s ignorant of east Jerusalem being occupied territory, which is unforgivable in a foreign minister, or it’s a deliberate attempt to change the international consensus,” fumed Hanan Ashrawi, a spokesperson for the Palestine Liberation Organization.
Baird tried to play down the issue, saying that where he “had coffee with Tzipi Livni is, I think, irrelevant [and] doesn’t signal a change in Canadian foreign policy.”
Until relatively recently, Ottawa’s unequivocal support for Israel did not seem to have damaged it ties to the Arab world. But this is changing.
In 2010, Canada lost its bid to gain one of the non-permanent seats on the UN Security Council for the first time since 1945. Many observers, including Harper himself, linked the defeat in part to Ottawa’s support for Israel.
Earlier this month, some Arab nations tried to push for the relocation of the UN-affiliated International Civil Aviation Organization, from Montreal, where it has been headquartered since 1947, to Qatar. This move should be seen as the “combined efforts to strike back at Canada for its stand on Palestinian issues,” the country’s Globe and Mail newspaper wrote.
And Baird’s East Jerusalem meeting broke the camel’s back, claimed Michael Bell, a former Canadian ambassador to Israel and the Palestinian territories.
While last month it still appeared that “the Canadian government might be able to pull off a dual Middle East strategy, combining co-operation with the conservative Gulf Arab states on security matters and sweeping support for current Israeli policies, the Livni meeting destroyed that hope,” Bell asserted in the Globe and Mail. That encounter “crossed a critical red line in the competing narratives of Arabs and Israelis. While Qatar and others were prepared to overlook their concerns about Canada more generally, Mr. Baird’s Jerusalem gesture went too far.”
‘Is the recommendation that we should have been anti-Israeli in order to get on the Security Council so we could be pro-Israeli?’
Still, Canadian politicians from both sides of the aisle continue to refute the notion that support for Israel is costing the country dearly on the international stage.
“The argument is made that we could have more influence in the Middle East if we got on the Security Council. Is the recommendation that we should have been anti-Israeli in order to get on the Security Council so we could be pro-Israeli?” Oliver, the natural resources minister, said laughingly. “We’re willing to make the sacrifices necessary to stand up for what we believe. Sometimes there’s a price to pay. Does it reduce our influence in the world or does it increase it? That’s something one can debate.”
Personally, Oliver actually believes that Canada’s global influence “has been enhanced” by the government’s principled stance. So far, he said, no Arab country has refused to do business with his government because of Israel. “They’re selling their oil to people who want to buy it,” he said.
Canada’s vast reserves of natural resources, some analysts believe, allow the government to irritate the Arabs because it doesn’t depend on their oil. “Canada has its own oil and so it doesn’t really need oil from Arabia,” said Israeli-Canadian journalist David Sheen. “Even without Canada on the Security Council, Canadian mining companies aren’t having any problems getting what they want. So Canada hasn’t really had to pay any price for its Israel policy.”
Indeed, few analysts argue that Israel alone was the main factor that caused Canada the coveted seat in New York.
“Canada lost its Security Council bid primarily because the European Union wanted two seats and threw its support behind Portugal,” said Shimon Fogel, the CEO of the Toronto-based Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs. A “perceived shift in aid priorities away from Africa” also played a key role, he said. “Perhaps Arab and Muslim States cast their votes with Canada’s Middle East policy as a factor,” he allowed, “but none of them declared that to be the case. You’d think that if they were trying to flex their muscles on the Israel issue they would have been explicit about it.”
Irwin Cotler, a Canadian MP from the Liberal Party and former justice minister, tends to agree. Ottawa didn’t lose the Security Council seat because of Israel, he said, but because of Africa and because it generally did not appear interested in multilateralism. In 2009, he recalled, Harper attended the opening of a donut store in New York rather than the UN General Assembly, which was taking place at the same time in the city.
In Cotler’s view, it is not so much support for Israel — which has been a “cornerstone” of Canadian foreign policy for 35 years, he said — that’s damaging the country, but the bluntness with which it is presented to the world. The Harper government believes in the rightness of its cause and therefore doesn’t care about what the world thinks, Cotler suggested, and that’s not a bad thing. “But I think that you can do the right thing but not necessarily have to turn people off in the way you do it. My critique of the Conservative government is not the principles that they espouse but the manner in which they give expression to those principles.”
Support for Israel is bipartisan. The Conservative Party has been “more sustained in its declaratory approach and more unequivocal in its rhetorical expression,” yet the actual policy positions of the Conservatives and the Liberals aren’t far apart, Cotler said.
On Iran, for example, the current opposition party had and still has “a stronger policy” than the Harper government, in that it calls for tougher sanctions, he said. And on the peace process, the status of Jerusalem, and the settlements, the two parties actually agree.
Indeed, Harper’s unequivocal pro-Israeli rhetoric does not always match his official positions.
For instance, the Canadian government does not list Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and, its Foreign Ministry makes plain, “does not recognize permanent Israeli control over territories occupied in 1967 (the Golan Heights, the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip).” According to the Foreign Ministry’s website, “Israeli settlements in the occupied territories are a violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention” — and thus illegal under international law — and constitute “a serious obstacle” to peace.
“Baird doesn’t say that,” Cotler said. Rather, the Harper government makes a point of reaffirming that it is Israel’s best friend ever, without telling the world that Canadian foreign policy is not merely focused on Israel. Ottawa supports the Palestinian Authority with $300 million over the last five years, he noted. “But they don’t speak about it, so it’s not well-known.” If support for Israel were treated as one among several pillars of Canadian foreign policy, it would attract less media scrutiny and less Arab hostility, he argued.
Harper’s touting of his pro-Israel stance is also the reason why the current government is perceived as so much friendlier toward Jerusalem than its predecessor, according to Cotler. “If a liberal government got into power, it might adopt the same positions and policies, but it would be among a whole set of positions with regards to foreign policy as a whole, whereas for the Conservative government this is a centerpiece of their overall foreign policy.”
The next elections in Canada will take place in 2015, and the latest polls currently predict a loss for the ruling Conservatives. Will a different, more left-oriented government match that level of support for Jerusalem?
Most Canadians don’t think too much about their government’s policy vis-à-vis the Middle East, and so Israel is unlikely to become a wedge-issue in the elections, several observers agreed.
“No government can move substantially beyond where its constituency is for very long. Therefore, we have to conclude that a majority of Canadians are indeed comfortable with the positions articulated by this government, and by-and-large supported by the opposition parties,” said Fogel, of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs. “While nobody can predict the future, there is a general consensus of support towards Israel in all the parties, and among Canadians in general.”