Jason Kenney, a former parliamentary secretary to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, is one of the senior members of the large delegation accompanying the Canadian leader on his visit to Israel, the West Bank and Jordan this week.
Today Canada’s minister of employment and social development, Kenney sat down for a brief interview on Tuesday evening during which The Times of Israel sought primarily to understand the striking contrast between Canada’s stirringly pro-Israel public position — as underlined by Harper’s “Through fire and water, Canada will stand with you” speech in the Knesset on Monday — and what might be summed up as the “Through fire and water, we’ll condemn you” stance of so much of the rest of the international community.
Kenney, 45, has been a member of the Canadian parliament since 1997. Though exhausted after what he said was about three hours’ sleep in the past two days, he was friendly and spoke freely. Only on the specifics of the Israeli-Palestinian diplomatic process did he choose not to say much, noting only that the US under Secretary of State John Kerry was leading the interaction, and that Canada’s Foreign Minister John Baird was in regular contact with Kerry. Excerpts:
The Times of Israel: In light of Harper’s very supportive speech, many Israelis think he was spot on, broadly speaking, and that the rest of the world doesn’t get it. Why is there a gulf between Canada and very few other countries on the one side, and the rest of the world on the other, where Israel is concerned?
Jason Kenney: Partly because as our prime minister said, “it’s always easier to go along to get along” — that is to say, [to follow] the path of least resistance. That certainly characterized Canada’s status quo-ante policy.
It’s no secret that the foreign ministries of most Western countries have an institutional bias against Israel that is probably informed by the fact that there is one Jewish state and dozens of other Islamic and Arabic states. That frankly informs the professional public service in most Western foreign ministries.
You mean there are 20 times as many diplomats who have served in Arab countries?
And 40 times more in Muslim countries. That’s right. The prime minister more or less intimated that in his speech. That means you’ve got dozens more diplomats and foreign policy wonks who absorb a particular perspective which is frankly and obviously hostile to Israel.
So that becomes the default position. It takes a profound act, it takes great intentionality on the part of political actors, to overcome that kind of institutional bias to begin with.
Secondly, the political incentives are not in favor of this. In the United State of course, with a large constituency of Christian Zionists, and the not insignificant influence of the Jewish community, there’s always been a strong political constituency generally to support Israel, but that doesn’t exist in Western Europe and it doesn’t exist in Canada.
The Jewish community constitutes 1% of our population at most, and there’s no Christian Zionist constituency to speak of. For most people, if they’re not familiar with the complicated politics and history of the region, they don’t understand why a government would want to take clear positions on this.
So you’ve got an institutional bias built into most Western foreign ministries, you’ve got a lack of political incentives to take these positions. I think that helps to explain it.
Those are the only two factors, or would you bring other factors into the mix? Is anti-Semitism in there somewhere, if not the dominant feature? Demographics — the fact that, for instance, there are 10 times as many Muslims as Jews in France? That hardly encourages a French MP, say, to take a fair-minded position on Israel and the region.
The positions that we have taken have been demonstrably against our electoral advantage. Some of the superannuated foreign policy establishment in Canada have grasped for an explanation as to why our government has taken these arguably contentious positions. And the simplest explanation they can come up with, which is really the dumbest, is that the Conservative Party has taken this position to advance our electoral interests. Nothing could be further from the truth. The truth is this: With the Jewish community representing less than 1% of our population, it tends to be concentrated in urban core electoral districts which have typically been inaccessible to the Conservative Party.
During the Lebanon conflict in 2006, our prime minister was flying to his first G8 summit, in Saint Petersburg, the day after the IDF began its operation in Lebanon, and he was asked by our media to respond. He was advised by officials to take a pass: Get to Saint Petersburg, hear what the consensus is, and follow it. That’s the Canadian modus operandi. He said no, I think under the circumstances we need to assert Israel’s right to defend itself. So he went to the back of his plane and said in a press scrum, he said, Under the circumstances I think that Israel’s reaction is restrained. Well, this quote was considered verboten by many, and it was played along with images of the devastation in Lebanon for the next several weeks and our party lost over the course of the six weeks of that conflict I think about eight percent in the public opinion polls.
So right from the very beginning we’ve been willing to spend political capital to do what’s right on this issue.
On anti-Semitism, one thing that’s not recognized here perhaps is that in addition to the positions we’ve taken on Israel and the politics of the Middle East, we’ve also become a global leader in combating anti-Semitism and promoting Holocaust commemoration, education and research. This year Canada’s chairing the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance. We hosted the last meeting of the inter-parliamentary coalition for combating anti-Semitism. That led to the Ottawa protocol, that essentially said that not all criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic, but those who tend to single out Israel for opprobrium or condemnation or question the legitimacy of the Jewish state are arguably giving expression to hateful views.
Are you impacting other nations’ attitudes to Israel?
Yes, very much so. For example, in February-March 2007, I announced in my capacity as minister for multiculturalism that Canada would not participate in the Durban II conference. We were by far the first country in the world to make that announcement, well before Israel. We did that because of our assessment that Durban II would be a rerun of Durban I. Iran was the vice chair of the organizing committee. They were organizing preparatory meetings on Jewish high holidays, presumably to minimize the participation of Jewish NGOs. All of the hallmarks were there. This was going to be a reiteration of Durban I.
So we announced our withdrawal, and suddenly put other Western governments a bit on the defensive. The easier thing for them would have been to participate in the preparatory work and make a decision closer to the date. But because we made that decision very early in the process, over a year before Durban II, and again on Durban III, we set a benchmark. This is Canada after all. We maintain this brand on the global stage as the great champions of pluralism and a kind of liberal conception of human rights.
I’ll never forget being at a conference on anti-Semitism in London in January 2008 and meeting a British minister — he was in the [Gordon] Brown government — responsible for multilateral institutions in the Foreign and Commonwealth office. He came up to me and said, I understand you’ve withdrawn from the Durban process. Why is that? I said I could spend an hour explaining it but let’s dumb it down to one point: Iran is the vice chair! This is supposed to be a conference dealing with hatred and xenophobia.
So it’s really that opportunity to change the frame of reference a little. We’ve done that on a number of issues. We were the first country in the world to stop funding the Palestinian Authority following the election of Hamas in March 2006. When Canada does something like that first, suddenly it at least changes the frame of reference. And I think there’s a number of issues where that’s happened.
You’re funding the PA again now?
When Fatah restored its control and Hamas was pushed out of the West Bank government, we restored our funding.
Now that we’ve been in office for eight years, I think the message has been accepted by our permanent public service that this change of policy is not a flash in the pan. This is the new Canadian policy.
Is the $66 million in funding for the PA announced by Harper earmarked specifically? How do you ensure it doesn’t go to the wrong purposes?
Through close oversight. We have a robust office in Ramallah that administers these contribution agreements with the Palestinian Authority. Institution building is the primary focus. But also economic development, some humanitarian relief, including food aid. We have had a particular impact on police training there, which by all accounts has been quite successful. The Israeli government concedes that there’s been tremendous cooperation on the security front with the authorities in the PA and a reduction in the levels of violence.
We’re not naive. We understand that we’ll always have to be mindful that the dollars are properly spent. But we want to play a constructive role here. And that’s evidence that our position is not unbalanced. We strongly support a Palestinian leadership that’s interested in pursuing peace. And we want to do so practically. So that’s additional money, on top of what we’ve spent already.
We also play an important role in the Palestinian refugee issue. Should there be traction in the peace process, we would be taking the lead on the resolution of the refugee issues. We stand ready, always, to provide our expertise on these issues.
Can you elaborate? In the Clinton era, there was talk of Canada absorbing lots of refugees.
There was an apocryphal report last week that we were offering to take tens of thousands of Palestinian refugees, resettling them in Canada. That’s not true. We’ve not made such a commitment.
The last time a Canadian foreign minister even intimated that, 10 years ago, he was burned in effigy in the West Bank, because they don’t want to create the suggestion that people are going to be resettled out of the region. So we’re very sensitive about that. We’re just offering our good offices to facilitate the process should there be an agreement. We understand the complexity of the issues. We come to that whole issue with clean hands. We happen to be the largest per capita contributor to the UNHCR and recipient of resettled refugees. We have a lot of credibility on refugees should it be required.
There’s a concern in Israel that the UN definition of Palestinian refugees, uniquely, includes third and fourth generation descendants — which elevates the numbers to the millions, and makes the problem that much harder to solve. If the same criteria were used as elsewhere, it might be easier to resolve.
I think that objectively speaking that observation is fair. I note with particular interest that if the same definition were applied de facto to the Jewish refugees of the Middle East then most of the Sephardim in Israel would be considered refugees.
He was prepared for it, because he saw what was happening before with Prime Minister Netanyahu’s speech. Listen, he’s well experienced: Our House of Commons is as boisterous as the Knesset. Everyone here thinks that you’ve got the wildest show in town. Just turn on YouTube or something to watch, and you’ll see how rancorous Question Time can be. So he’s used to speaking over heckling.
A lot of us were a bit taken aback that members of a national parliament would heckle a visiting foreign leader.
That wouldn’t happen in Canada?
It only happened once, in the 1980s, when a socialist heckled Ronald Reagan. That was really an exception. Most of us were a bit surprised by that, but not entirely shocked. It did prove a point which is — as Prime Minister Netanyahu said — that this is the only parliament in the Middle East where that could possibly happen. I think that’s fair to say.
By the way, I attended our meetings with President Abbas earlier in the day. He was extremely gracious, offered nothing but warm words of welcome and partnership, expressed gratitude for Canada’s constructive role that we’re playing here. When asked by Canadian media to criticize us, refrained from doing so, respected us as a sovereign country. I mean if the president of the Palestinian Authority could do that, I would hope that a member of the Israeli Knesset could.
Does Canada have a take on the Iran interim deal? Netanyahu thinks it’s a mistake and it’s not going to stop them. Your prime minister did not rule out that the diplomacy might go somewhere.
We certainly hope it does. And we support the efforts to achieve that objective. But we’re not naive. We’re openly skeptical of this Iranian regime.
Our skepticism isn’t informed only by their nuclear ambitions, but also by their atrocious human rights record. Canada has led in each of the last seven years the UNGA resolution condemning Iran’s human rights practices, which has never been a slam dunk, by the way. A lot of the nonaligned countries line up with Iran in opposing that. We’ve had to spend a lot of diplomatic capital in order to maintain a majority in the UNGA on the Iran human rights resolution.
We want to see progress from this new leadership not just on the nuclear program but more broadly on political reform and respect for rights. We’re watching with a very skeptical eye. Should they prove their good faith through verifiable action, we’ll relax our sanctions regime.
When we take a position like that — not to say that we’re major players on the Iranian question — but for similar midsize Western democratic countries it creates a kind of benchmark that they have to be mindful of, as we’ve done on a number of issues.
And yet at the GA on Palestinian statehood, none of those Western European countries (except the Czech Republic) lined up with Canada and Israel and the US. And on the Iran deal, a very different issue of course, the P5+1 have entered a deal which will apparently leave Iran with an enrichment capacity. That doesn’t suggest that people with the mindset the Canadian government is following are holding any kind of sway here.
We don’t win them all, but we win some of them.
That 2006 trip to the G8 in Saint Petersburg during that Lebanon conflict: There was an initial resolution drafted, I think by the Russians, that used the typical language of condemnation of Israel and Prime Minister Harper simply refused [to accept it]. These things operate on a consensus basis. He ended up largely drafting a revised G8 statement which was ultimately published, placing all of the responsibility for the Lebanon conflict on Hezbollah as the aggressor. Same thing at the Francophonie summit: We managed to stop an Egyptian-sponsored motion condemning Israel. We stopped that. These bodies that operate on a consensus basis, we can have an impact.
That doesn’t change the world. But it at least lights a candle in the darkness.