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Interview

Canadian would-be PM seeks greater role in peace process, is wary of annexation

Peter MacKay, front-runner in Conservative Party’s upcoming leadership race, vows to immediately move embassy to Jerusalem, calls for ‘enormous sustained pressure’ on Iran

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Canadian Conservative Party leadership candidate Peter MacKay during a campaign event, January 2020 (courtesy)
Canadian Conservative Party leadership candidate Peter MacKay during a campaign event, January 2020 (courtesy)

Canada should play a greater role in efforts to broker peace between Israelis and Palestinians, according to Peter MacKay, the current front-runner for the leadership of the Canadian Conservative Party and likely future prime ministerial candidate.

In an interview with The Times of Israel, the former justice, foreign and defense minister said that if he became premier, Ottawa would seek to be both an “honest broker” and a staunch ally of Israel — as opposed to the current government of Justin Trudeau, which MacKay charged had abandoned the Jewish state in international forums.

MacKay also vowed to move his country’s embassy to Jerusalem immediately after taking office. At the same time, he endorsed a negotiated two-state solution and expressed doubts over Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s planned unilateral annexation of parts of the West Bank, saying such a move could complicate future peace negotiations.

“I think there are opportunities for Canada in the future to try and help with negotiated solutions for Israel. I believe we do have a role to play in this,” MacKay, 54, said during a telephone interview last week on his way to a campaign event.

“I know that it’s been very often the United States and the European Union, and that Canada has never been as forward-leaning as I believe we could [be] in trying to bring about sustained peace in the region, which is the goal we all share,” he said.

Canada’s then-defense minister Peter MacKay, left, with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, right, in the West Bank city of Ramallah, January 12, 2011 (AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed)

Asked how he envisioned Ottawa playing a greater role in the peace process, MacKay, who was born in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia, spoke of “incremental steps,” such as hosting international conferences and coexistence programs.

In that context, he took pride in his role in brokering private meetings between Palestinian and Israeli officials a few years ago at the Halifax International Security Forum. “We were able to sit down together in ways that could never have happened in the region or perhaps anywhere else, but in that place, in that time, there was communication that I found very heartening. That’s how I think it can happen.”

He also mentioned a project that saw Israeli and Palestinian girls come to Nova Scotia to compete together in a series of soccer matches against Canadian teams. “It was magical to see this happen,” MacKay recalled.

“I don’t think I am being naive in suggesting that it’s human interaction, that it’s that common love of something beyond the daily life of young people, where they are doing something together free of pressure from adults, free of the environment they grew up in,” he said. “And it made a difference. I suggest strongly that for those young people who went home, it lessened the tensions and apprehension and perhaps the hatred and misinformation they had been fed all their lives.”

Then Canadian minister of defense Peter MacKay, left, at his Parliament of Canada office, with then-IDF chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi and Canadian General Walter Natynczyk, November, 2010. (S Tremblay/Flash90)

Asked about his views on annexation, MacKay, who has traveled to Israel several times for meetings with senior officials, including Netanyahu, said he believes that a negotiated two-state solution is the best path to peace in the Middle East.

“I am not commenting on other elements of this; to call this complex is perhaps the greatest understatement in the world,” he said. “But the Canadian position has always been to support a two-state solution, to move toward a sustainable peace. This, to me, is not inconsistent with Canada trying to be an honest broker and a friend.”

He went on to hint at his misgivings about Netanyahu’s planned annexation: “I find that in the world of diplomacy it is those who you are closest to, it is your dearest friends, who can sometimes tell you when you’re wrong, or that perhaps you should wait a day before making a decision… We never really encourage unilateral action that could very well provoke certainly very negative responses.”

Pressed on his position on Israel’s goal to unilaterally apply sovereignty over the Jordan Valley and all West Bank settlements, he replied: “A negotiated settlement rather than imposed annexation is the preferred path. This is in keeping with the traditional Canadian position. We don’t want to interfere in that [annexation] decision if it’s taken by the Israeli government — if it’s taken, and that’s the operative word here, I think there is a real possibility that it could make future negotiations more difficult.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) meets Canada’s then-defense minister Peter MacKay at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, January 2011 (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

The Canadian Conservative Party will elect a new leader in late August, and according to recent polls MacKay has the best chance of succeeding outgoing chairman Andrew Scheer. But he’s not complacent, heading from one campaign event to another.

“I always run like I’m behind. It’s important for your well-being to make that extra phone call, shake that extra hand, and deliver,” he said.

Canada just had national elections in October, but Trudeau failed to win a majority and currently heads a minority government that could fall anytime, especially amid the economic crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

In this May 19, 2020, photo, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks during his daily news conference on the COVID-19 pandemic outside his residence at Rideau Cottage in Ottawa, Ontario. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press via AP)

MacKay said it was not unlikely there would be snap elections in the fall, though he would not actively campaign for that. Trudeau, who is facing criticism for not having recused himself from government decisions that financially benefited close family members, might engineer a new vote himself, his would-be successor surmised.

“As the economic situation worsens and people reflect on their difficulties, they may come to the conclusion, as they do so often, that a socialist party is not the best party to be in power during an economic crisis. And they [Trudeau’s Liberal Party] may want to get ahead of this realization,” MacKay said.

Canada is traditionally considered one of Israel’s closest allies, but under Trudeau “they have taken the traditional liberal position, which is in the mushy middle,” MacKay charged. “They have not stood with Israel in the United Nations on many occasions.”

Statement on the Canadian Embassy in IsraelCanada's Jewish community knows that the Conservative Party stands shoulder…

פורסם על ידי ‏‎Peter MacKay‎‏ ב- יום שלישי, 4 בפברואר 2020

MacKay now supports moving the Canadian embassy to Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, but on February 3 he reportedly said he had to consider the matter first.

“This is a complicated subject and I’m not in a position to do it, so I can’t be presumptuous in making these kind of commitments until I hear from people,” he told The Post Millennial, a Montreal-based online news site.

Speaking to The Times of Israel, he said claims that he had suddenly changed his view to align it with his rivals for the Tory leadership had come from the other candidates in an effort at “partisan positioning.”

“I have been a longtime supporter of Israel. My position with regards to the embassy being in Jerusalem is the party’s position, and there were attempts to try to portray me as equivocating; it’s simply not true,” he said.

Would he relocate the embassy to Jerusalem immediately upon becoming prime minister, without additional review processes? “Absolutely,” he replied. “That’s the place where the Canadian embassy will be.”

Peter MacKay (left) with Ehud Barak in Ottowa, November 2011 (photo credit: courtesy of Canada's Department of National Defence)
Peter MacKay (left) with Ehud Barak in Ottowa, November 2011 (courtesy of Canada’s Department of National Defence)

MacKay, who was a prosecutor before entering politics, has long been a staunch friend of Israel, though he has also been critical at times. In 2007, for instance, the then-foreign minister publicly expressed concern over the route of Israel’s West Bank security barrier.

In 2011, as defense minister, MacKay told then-IDF chief of staff (and now foreign minister) Gabi Ashkenazi that “a threat to Israel is a threat to Canada.” This statement caused some consternation in Canada as it was seen by some as a commitment to fight alongside Israel in a possible military conflict.

Asked how he would imbue such theoretical statements with concrete meaning, MacKay cited increased defense cooperation, “demonstrative signs” that Canada will speak up for Israel and its right to exist, and support for the Canadian Jewish community and the fight against anti-Semitism. “These steps might seem small, but taken in totality, it shows that Canada is truly a friend of Israel,” he said.

Peter MacKay with is wife Nazanin Afshin-Jam and two of their children during a campaign event, January 2020 (courtesy)

MacKay is married to Tehran-born Nazanin Afshin-Jam, who left Iran with her family in the aftermath of the Islamic Revolution in 1979 and has since been an outspoken critic of the regime. As foreign minister, he sought to have the Iranian attorney general detained for his complicity in the murder of a Canadian photojournalist. A few years later, he was deeply critical of the 2015 nuclear deal and has supported the White House’s decision to terminate it.

“We have been very strong in opposition to the regime, and recent and continuous acts of aggression,” he said. “Iran has to conform to international norms and that will require enormous sustained pressure from Western democratic countries.”

Asked if he would support a preemptive Israeli military strike against Iran’s nuclear program, the would-be prime minister replied: “Israel has the right to defend itself. Those kinds of questions are hypothetical. But I also know that the Israeli intelligence-gathering capability is pretty evident — it is probably among the best, if not the best, in the world. So I put a great deal of trust in these decisions.”

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