PLO slams Canada over FM’s East Jerusalem meeting

John Baird plays down controversy, says where he has coffee with someone is ‘irrelevant’ to Mideast peace and does not signal a foreign policy shift

Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird (left) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem (photo credit: Kobi Gideon/Flash90)
Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird (left) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem (photo credit: Kobi Gideon/Flash90)

The PLO lodged an official complaint with Canada on Friday, calling its foreign minister’s meeting with Justice Minister Tzipi Livni in East Jerusalem earlier this week “tantamount to complicity in ongoing Israeli violations of the international laws of war.”

Canada’s John Baird met with Livni, who is the minister charged with overseeing negotiations with the Palestinians, on Tuesday in her office a the ministry on Salah al-Din Street in the eastern part of the city, to discuss restarting peace talks. But the Palestinians saw it as a move aimed to legitimize Israel’s annexation of the city’s eastern neighborhoods.

“Your recent meeting with Israeli officials in East Jerusalem has the effect of attempting to legitimize the illegal situation on the ground and may be deemed as aiding, abetting, or otherwise assisting illegal Israeli policies,” chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat wrote in the message to Canada’s representative office.

“As such, Canada’s actions are tantamount to complicity in ongoing Israeli violations of the international laws of war. …These violations are being (perpetrated) not only against the State of Palestine and the Palestinian people, but against the international community as a whole,” Erekat wrote.

The complaint also noted that, under international norms, “a State which knowingly assists another State in the commission of an internationally wrongful act bears responsibility for the violation.”

“Either he’s ignorant of East Jerusalem being occupied territory, which is unforgivable in a foreign minister,” said senior PLO official Hanan Ashrawi, “or it’s a deliberate attempt to change the international consensus.”

In either case, Ashrawi said, it sets “a very dangerous precedent.”

“The visit is a slap in the face to the Palestinian people, particularly Palestinians living in East Jerusalem, who suffer from Israeli policies of colonial settlement expansion, ID revocations, home demolitions and evictions,” wrote former Palestinian foreign minister Nabil Shaath, in an opinion piece published Friday in the Globe and Mail.

“What Mr. Baird has done is an unprecedented offense that severely damages Canada’s standing vis-à-vis Palestine, the Arab world and those who are committed to a just and lasting peace based on two sovereign and democratic states, Israel and Palestine,” concluded Shaath.

Canadian foreign ministry spokesman Rick Roth told AFP on Thursday that Baird “wanted to get Livni’s view on the Middle East peace process, given her new responsibilities and important role in the new cabinet.”

“This doesn’t change our longstanding position that all final status issues must be negotiated between the two parties. As guests, we were pleased to meet our hosts where it was most convenient for them,” Roth said.

Baird himself downplayed the meeting in a press conference in London, saying that where he has coffee with someone is “irrelevant” to the larger discussion of Middle East peace and does not signal a shift in Canadian foreign policy.

“I’m just not interested in getting into the semantic argument about whether you have a meeting with one person on one side of the street [and] it’s okay, and you have a meeting on the other side of street and it’s not,” he said, according to the Canadian Press.

“We’re focused on trying to have an impact on the difficult and serious challenges, that being security for Israelis, an end to the conflict, and the legitimate aspirations for a state from those on the Palestinian side,” added Baird.

Israeli officials echoed the sentiment. “There should be nothing unusual about meeting Israel’s justice minister in East Jerusalem. What is strange is that this is the exception,” said foreign ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor.

“Israel appreciates Canada’s moral stand on a range of issues,” said Prime Minister’s Office spokesman Mark Regev. “And we appreciate Canada’s friendship.”

“My prime minister has praised Prime Minister [Stephen] Harper and Foreign Minister Baird on numerous occasions,” Regev added.

Canada under Harper’s leadership has long been a strong supporter of Israel, which it sees as a key partner in the international war on terror.

“The great struggle of our generation is the struggle against terrorism,” Baird said in an interview with Channel 10 on Monday, “and far too often, the Jewish people, Israel, has been on the front lines of that struggle. We want to work with Israel to see a lasting peace in this region.”

He said he had urged Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to return to peace talks with Israel without preconditions, but to no avail. He said both sides should avoid unilateral actions that complicate peace efforts.

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